“Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” Mark Twain wrote after the New York Journal erroneously covered news of his demise. “Mistaken publications of obituaries aren’t as rare as you might expect,” observes The Phrase Finder. We might say the same for the frequency with which greenlit film projects never see the light of a projector lamp, or the number of times “dead” film projects are resurrected.

The scuttlebutt now, of course, as we all know, is that New Line Cinema has greenlit The Hobbit, but that both Peter Jackson and New Line head Robert Shaye declare that Jackson will not be at the helm of the project. At the heart of the issue, at least publicly, is the lawsuit Jackson and company have filed against New Line over profits from the ancillary rights to The Fellowship of the Ring. Jackson has said he “won’t discuss making the [Hobbit] movies until the lawsuit is resolved,” and Shaye has gone so far as to declare that he doesn’t “want to make a movie with somebody who is suing me… It will never happen during my watch.” Complicating perception of the truth is Saul Zaentz’ assertion that The Hobbit “will definitely be shot by Peter Jackson.”

What’s really being waged is not a fractious legal dispute. The real battle is a tussle over public opinion. No matter how badly all the parties might want The Hobbit to happen, and for Peter Jackson to be at the helm, they all also know that, until a film actually starts shooting, all bets are off. Even at that point, studios have been known to replace directors. So in the meantime, everyone’s jockeying for influence, control, and as big a share of the pie as possible.

And what all the parties involved want to do is avoid pissing off the fans, upon whom all future largesse depends.

In this case, what that means is preparing us all for the worst possible scenario, whether it plays out or not. And my guess is that both Jackson and Shaye are pretty chafed that Zaentz has been the most forthcoming about the truth of the situation. “Next year The Hobbit rights will fall back to my company,” he told the German website Elbenwald in November. “I suppose that Peter will wait because he knows that he will make the best deal with us. And he is fed up with the studios: to get his profit share on the Rings trilogy he had to sue New Line. With us, in contrast, he knows that he will be paid fairly and artistically supported without reservation.”

The anxiety over the fate of Jackon’s association with The Hobbit began, for me, the night that The Return of the King won 11 Oscars. This is not, contrary to what some may think, the kind of event that brings glee to men like Robert Shaye. Yes, they are thrilled that their films win such accolades; but when the director’s fee for a follow-up project is guaranteed to skyrocket in the wake of such success, studio heads start to seethe. So immediately after the 2004 Oscars ceremony, the tough money was on the boxoffice results of King Kong: if that film mimicked The Lord of the Rings’ wild financial success, Shaye and New Line were over a barrel; if it tanked, Jackson would have huge contract concessions to make. Sure, Jackson didn’t get the call from New Line’s honchos about The Hobbit that he hoped for during that period; but he wasn’t exactly knocking at their door, either.

So when it became clear to Jackson that New Line wasn’t only stalling, but that they were also stiffing him to the tune of tens of millions of dollars due to the corporate practice of “self-dealing”—granting no-bid merchandising rights to members of its own broad corporate umbrella—he decided to up the ante, filing a lawsuit against New Line on February 28, 2005, according to The New York Times.

When, in actuality, King Kong proved neither a blockbuster nor a dog during the winter of 2005, the waters just got muddied. The fact that conversations had been stalled so long waiting on the outcome of Kong didn’t help, nor did the fact that both sides knew what the mutual silence was all about. All in all, there was nothing left but discontent on all sides.

The business being what it is, this is a story that is far from being over; and given that there are not just one but two studios involved, the political jockeying is far more complex than in most cases. My guess is that Zaentz is a lot closer to right than either Jackson or Shaye would like to admit—and that Shaye may regret the vitriol of his rhetoric. “There’s a certain piggishness involved here,” an unidentified New Line lawyer told The New York Times back in 1995. “New Line already gave [Jackson] enough money to rebuild Baghdad, but it’s still not enough for him.” When Shaye recently said, “[Jackson] thinks that we owe him something after we’ve paid him over a quarter of a billion dollars,” you know who Shaye has been talking to.

The smart money is on Jackson making both The Hobbit and the other planned film, and making them with New Line. Will that take place “on Shaye’s watch”? Maybe not. But since New Line has got corporate masters who may be even more demanding than Shaye, that may just mean bad news for Shaye—and good news for Tolkien film fans.

As to the wisdom of making two movies out of The Hobbit rather than just one, that’s quite a different matter. Without yet getting into the structure that such films might assume, it’s fair to say that Tolkien wouldn’t have written the same story that he did had he written it subsequent to The Lord of the Rings.

First, we know that, when Tolkien began writing The Hobbit, he had no intention of it becoming a part of the history of Middle-earth. Second, we know that Tolkien had to later revise The Hobbit to make it consistent with his masterwork, retooling Bilbo’s riddle game with Gollum. Third, we know that Tolkien had to temporarily suspend work on Rings in order to work out exactly how characters like Elrond, Gandalf, Aragorn, and the Hobbits themselves fit into his broader mythology. Fourth, we know that Tolkien gave up writing a Rings sequel because the material simply became “too dark.”

Complicating matters is the general perception amongst many fans—a sentimental, romanticized, and unexamined perception—that The Hobbit is a light, whimsical fantasy. It is not. It is, in fact, an allegorical bildungsroman, a coming-of-age tale, a story of loss of innocence. It’s about children no longer covering their eyes in terror and imagining giants and bogies, but rather coming to see the world with eyes wide open and finding out that the most dangerous monsters may be some of their fellow adventurers. The conventions of fantasy may dispose of Smaug quite neatly; dealing with Thorin—or Bilbo’s own complicity in a Great Wrong—is another matter entirely, but one which is at the heart of The Hobbit.

Given that The Lord of the Rings has already come to the screen, though (and stupendously so), we have already seen how blithe young Hobbits such as Pippin must learn to become grave warriors; we have already witnessed the darkness of battles like that at the Pelennor; through Théoden, we have already witnessed sleepers waking to the harsh reality of betrayal and self-deception; we have, in short, already lost the innocence of Middle-earth. Trying to recapture it—on a scale that would duplicate the boxoffice success of Rings—would be a bit like returning to fifth-grade summer camp after a stint in college.

So two choices present themselves: first, scale back the design of The Hobbit as Lord of the Rings Lite for the younger set, and hope that Peter Jackson’s fans have all spawned their own sets of Hobbit-sized kindergarteners who will be thrilled with a Curious George version of Middle-earth; or second, embrace the tone of the last third of The Hobbit and integrate the tale seamlessly with Peter Jackson’s other films. Boxoffice potential almost dictates the wisdom of the latter choice, regardless of the “violence” it does to Tolkien’s original tale.

If the first approach is taken, however, it would allow—perhaps even necessitate—all of the major roles to be recast. In order to see Gandalf in an entirely different light, for instance, a new Gandalf might be required. When pursuing this line of thinking, the financial wheels start turning, and we can pretty easily envision a project of this flavor if New Line somehow manages to go ahead without Peter Jackson (and the wallets of Jackson’s dedicated and thoroughly adult fanbase), especially considering that Jackson would never make such a film.

The second approach, though, begs for McKellan to return as Gandalf, Serkis as Gollum, and Holm as Bilbo—who, we must remember, convincingly played the younger Bilbo in Jackon’s “flashback” scenes as well as the opening sequences of Fellowship.

It also opens up intriguing possibilities for the proposed second Hobbit film—which, by the way, I think is a brilliant concept. Fans of The Lord of the Rings, the book, know that there’s a wealth of historical detail that’s left entirely out of Peter Jackson’ films. In particular, the length of time between Bilbo’s departure from Hobbiton and Frodo’s is collapsed to mere weeks rather than years. This presents a fantastic opportunity to create a narrative—once again temporally collapsed, as with Jackson’s trilogy—that tells both the tale of Sauron’s abandonment of Dol Guldur and the long search for Gollum.

The added bonus? Added roles for Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, Liv Tyler as Arwen, Hugo Weaving as Elrond, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, and Orlando Bloom as Legolas—maybe even John Rhys-Davies as Gimli. All of these characters were alive during the period of The Hobbit, and were certainly active during the period between the two tales. Heck, we might even get a major role for Craig Parker again as Haldir, which would make his subsequent death in The Two Towers all that more poignant.

And these are two films that Jackson should be the one to make, and ones that I would look forward to seeing.

Yet it behooves the fan base, I think, not to become too territorial with the intellectual rights to The Hobbit. The film production business is as wild and wooly as the American West (or the Far East of Middle-earth) once was. When on the frontier, wizards and artists will do what artists and wizards must; the best that we, the fans, can hope for is to voice our concerns—and then, for lightning to strike twice.

Greg Wright is the author of Tolkien in Perspective: Sifting the Gold from the Glitter, and is Writer in Residence at Puget Sound Christian College in Everett, Washington. Formerly Contributing Editor at Hollywood Jesus, Greg’s collected essays on Tolkien and Jackson have just been republished in a new archive at the site. Greg is now Managing Editor of Gospelcom’s movie review site Past the Popcorn.