Way back in 1937, war-devastated British author J.R.R. Tolkien penned a children's novel with a simple opening line: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."
The intended audience was Tolkien's children, who loved the simple book about a diminutive little dude who turns out to be a hero.
The Hobbit marked the start of a profound publishing career for Tolkien, who became the planet's pre-eminent fantasy author, as well as one of the most influential writers of any stripe. This was remarkable, given the stolid, clunky nature of his prose as well as his tendency to see the world in black and white.
Tolkien never would have imagined Hobbit meals on the menu at Denny's, a hobbit tourism craze in New Zealand or geeks wearing fake foot fur on the way into movie screenings of a $250-million version of the first third of the simple story.
When The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens today, it may very well be the biggest box-office success since The Avengers made a different sort of geek happy last summer.
The only limiting factors are a handful of questions about the production, which has been nine years in the making for producer Peter Jackson:
1. Can a tiny children's novel sustain three full-length fantasy movies?
At 310 pages, The Hobbit is a piddly book by Tolkien standards. The Lord of the Rings, which inspired a trio of three-hour movies (for a total of 12 hours of film, if you watched the extended editions), clocked in at a mammoth 1,216 pages. The grand mythology of LOTR, which is one long metaphor for the triumph of good and decency over darkness, translated well on the big screen.
The Hobbit, published 17 years earlier, is much more playful and child-friendly -- not to mention a great deal simpler, as Tolkien had yet to finalize the massive Middle-earth back-story contained in the dense and barely readable Silmarillion.
According to various reports over the years, Jackson initially thought about making two Hobbit movies. In one incarnation, the narrative from the book would be told in two parts. In another Jackson would attempt to fill in the blanks between the events of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, the first segment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Notes from the back of The Return of the King would help provide the detail, but essentially Jackson would be interpreting J.R.R. Tolkien's intentions almost four decades after the British novelist died.
After the departure of original director Guillermo del Toro, two movies became three. The first chunk, An Unexpected Journey, chronicles how the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, returning from the LOTR movies) tricks the naive hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, as a younger version of the same character played by Ian Holm in LOTR) into joining 13 dwarves on a mission to reclaim a treasure from a dragon, Smaug. This hits theatres today.
The second film, The Desolation of Smaug, will deal with most of the rest of the book when it comes to theatres next December. Film No. 3, There And Back Again, will attempt to pull off the tricky feat in 2014 of joining the two Tolkien works, most likely with ideas extrapolated from Tolkien's notes concerning the wandering of Gollum (Andy Serkis again, doing the CGI-capture thing) into Mordor and the rise of the ultimate baddie, Sauron.
On paper, this may sound horrifically dull to anyone but a Tolkien geek -- and even then, they may not be happy.
2. Will Tolkien purists accept Jackson's liberties with the text?
Generally speaking, geeks will accept anything the big Kiwi does on screen, as Jackson proved himself with LOTR a decade ago. But there is some concern about characters that don't exist in any print edition of The Hobbit, yet manage to show up on screen.
For starters, Elijah Wood will return as Frodo Baggins, who wasn't alive during the events of The Hobbit. Presumably, Frodo will learn about the story from an Ian Holm version of Bilbo, his uncle, in the most-dreaded of all Hollywood movie devices, the flashback.
Cate Blanchett's elf queen Galadriel will be back, as will Orlando Bloom as wood-elf archer Legolas. Neither appear in the book, so you can bet your neighbourhood version of The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy will be grumbling for the next 2 1/2 years about this.
3. Will non-geeks pony up big bucks to watch what is essentially a children's story?
That's a better question. While the LOTR film series made $2.9 billion, it's been nine years since The Return of the King opened in theatres. There's no guarantee all the geeks and non-geeks will be back for another journey through Middle-earth.
As well, the lighter tone of The Hobbit could turn off some adult movie-goers -- or at least scare some away from the multiplex. Sitting in a dark theatre for three hours to watch orcs get butchered with swords is one thing. Sitting on your posterior for the same amount of time to watch dwarves engage in physical humour is another.
4. About those dwarves -- can a short guy with a long beard be an effective heroic lead?
While Movember may have redefined sexy for North American men, there's no question straight women and gay men may not take to Richard Armitage's dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield the way they lusted over willowy Viggo Mortensen as ranger-turned-king Aragorn.
While Armitage is an attractive man in real life, he spends the entire Hobbit series buried beneath a mass of follicles and is also diminished by a metre through the magic of camera angles and CGI.
Don't call me superficial: As a real-life short guy with a beard, I accept Oakenshield's appearance as a potential limiting factor when it comes to a mainstream ad campaign.
5. Does anyone really want to watch Bombur eating bread in 3D?
Aside from Thorin Oakenshield, the Hobbit flicks have 12 other primary dwarf characters, all shot in eye-popping 3D in the unusually vivid format of 48 frames per second, versus the regular 24.
A key scene early on involves a meal at Bilbo Baggins' hobbit hole, where the dwarves toss food and eat heartily. As the token fat and clumsy dwarf, Bombur (Stephen Hunter) will likely engage in a lot of this consuming.
This may not be what James Cameron had in mind when he developed 3D technology for Avatar.
6. Can The Hobbit break the curse of the dragon movie?
In 1996, even Sean Connery could not elevate Dragonheart from the level of mediocre crud. In 2000, Jeremy Irons stunk up movie theatres around the planet in Dungeons & Dragons, which featured quite a few flying beasts. Christian Bale and Matt McConaughey could barely do better with Reign of Fire two years later, while 2006's poorly written Eragon landed with a disappointing "meh."
The most critically successful dragon movie of all time may be How To Train Your Dragon, the 2010 animated kids' movie. But putting a dragon on screen with human and other CGI-generated actors has proven trickier to pull off.
The good news is Smaug in the Hobbit flicks will be played via motion-capture by Benedict Cumberbatch, who will also play Sauron in these movies and the bad guy in the upcoming Star Trek: Into Darkness.
Clearly any actor with an ultra-British name was born to be a baddie. This bodes well in terms of tone.
7. Is there any reason to doubt Peter Jackson in the first place?
The Lord of the Rings won Oscars, made almost $3 billion and transformed New Zealand into even more of a tourist destination. Tolkien fans were mostly happy, with even uber-geeks forgiving the insertion of at least one actor from The Goonies.
Then again, Jackson's King Kong was sort of dull and way too reverent to the source material. So the man is not infallible.
Whether the Hobbit series will prove as precious in the long term as the previous trilogy is a saga that will take 2 1/2 years to play out. And that's just tonight's opening screening.