Philippa Boyens: film powerplayer

EXTRA DEPTH: The Hobbit co-writer Philippa Boyens says the first story, An Unexpected Journey, is "surprisingly emotional, even if it is a rollicking adventure".
EXTRA DEPTH: The Hobbit co-writer Philippa Boyens says the first story, An Unexpected Journey, is "surprisingly emotional, even if it is a rollicking adventure".

Wellington's Philippa Boyens is one of the most successful screenwriters in the world. She's won an Oscar, a Bafta and has been a nominee for many more, including a Writers Guild of America Award.

Boyens owes much of this to her screenwriting debut with Sir Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings. She went on to co-write King Kong and The Lovely Bones with Jackson and Fran Walsh, as well as co-produce both films.

So with the fruits of her most recent labour, the US$500 million trilogy The Hobbit, soon to be revealed to the world with the release in December of An Unexpected Journey, we'd be forgiven for assuming Boyens was keen from the very beginning to return to Middle-earth.

When asked, there's a long pause before she answers. "I loved the world. I loved [JRR] Tolkien's writing. [But] I think there was a quality about myself where I felt like 'I'd done it'," she says while in Wellington.

"But that feeling didn't last very long because The Hobbit is a whole other fantasy really, a whole other work. Once we got into it and started writing it I felt really good about it and then I started loving it more and more. It was a natural process of falling back in love."

Boyens, who before The Lord of the Rings was a playwright, teacher, producer and editor, began writing The Hobbit script with Jackson, Walsh and Mexican film-maker Guillermo del Toro, who at the time was also going to direct. "[Then] we were writing a film that would have been a different Hobbit to what this is. I would have loved to have seen that film because I think he [del Toro] is an incredible film-maker. But once Guillermo made the decision that he couldn't do it and Pete made the decision that he would step up and do it, we had to start again. You need to write for the director, or in this instance, a vision that the director has."

Del Toro has still contributed to the script and Boyens says he had a direct impact on her writing.

"It was great working with him ... looking at it with fresh eyes. He certainly helped me personally become excited again because he was so excited to go there. That was really positive.

"Having said that, once we were back to the three of us writing we got back to what we knew. So it's a film that Pete was going to shoot." Another difference from The Lord of the Rings for Boyens is that she came to The Hobbit with more screenwriting experience under her belt from King Kong and The Lovely Bones.

As to the challenges of adapting The Hobbit to the big screen, Boyens says there were obvious challenges even before they began writing.

These included having 13 dwarfs and that Bilbo, the hero of the story, doesn't kill the chief villain Smaug the Dragon. (In the book the dragon is killed by minor character Bard the Bowman. In the trilogy he's played by British actor Luke Evans.)

Then Smaug, in the book, dies a good way before the story ends. "What's that all about? You don't want to be restarting the story. The death of the dragon has to be part of a bigger whole," Boyens says. "And the story shifts and changes. It starts as a rollicking kids' book. Then if you look at the last few chapters of that story, it gets darker. It does move towards the world of Lord of the Rings. That was always going to be a challenge – that shift in tone."

Boyens says neither she nor Jackson or Walsh considered trimming the number of dwarfs, having Bilbo kill Smaug and shifting the dragon's death. "There are certain things that are sacrosanct and those dwarfs are one of them. And in the end it was a relatively easy solve. It's in the storytelling. I sort of had this eureka moment one day when I realised that it's not about it being too many dwarfs but about there being too few. Once you shape the story and you understand that there's only 13 of them and they are going to try to take back a mountain from a dragon you're off."

When the team had written the script it was for a two-part film, but after a large amount of shooting had been done it was announced The Hobbit would be in three parts. Boyens says she adapted quickly. "Dare I say it, it was 'an organic process'."

The story will be expanded with elements gleaned from the appendices in The Lord of the Rings, as well as some ideas of their own. Boyens says she was confident it could become three films on what they had already filmed, including how the characters had been brought to life. Even the first film, An Unexpected Journey, is "surprisingly emotional, even if it is a rollicking adventure", she says.

Boyens was also conscious of the fact the book has no female characters other than as background players. Galadriel – played again by Cate Blanchett – makes an appearance, but is a character from Tolkien's writings. But the fighting elf Tauriel, played by Canadian actor Evangeline Lilly, is from the imagination of Boyens, Jackson and Walsh. "This is a decision where you move away from being a Tolkien fan and you have to be a fan of film.

"It was a fairly easy decision as well because it just gets a little much – the weight of this masculine energy. It is pretty unrelenting. It's in a good way and it's wonderful, the dwarfs remind me of a really good rugby team. They are very staunch, hard dwarfs.

"We could have introduced a female human character. But we decided on an elf. There was a little story thread in Lord of the Rings that we wanted to pick up on and develop and it involved a very feminine energy, so we decided to use it and the character of Tauriel came into being."

And for Boyens the story doesn't stop once An Unexpected Journey opens. Filming resumes on further scenes for the trilogy in Wellington next year and she's likely to return to the script. "You know us, we never stop."

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has its world premiere in Wellington on November 28 and opens on December 12.

The Dominion Post