Hey, if Hollywood does it, I can too. So there. Last time I explained in some detail why a prequel was a harder movie to pull off than a sequel and why prequels so often fail. I used the “Star Wars” prequels to illustrate my point. I came up with four ways prequels fail. I’m modifying and generalizing them slightly for this new rant:
1) The prequel(s) did not answer the right question(s).
2) The prequel(s) answered the wrong question(s).
3) The prequel(s) put in so many references to the main trilogy they became distracting.
4) The events of the prequel(s) actually diminish one or more aspects of the original movie(s).
So what prompted this rant? Another “Hobbit” trailer which this time seemed to exclusively focus on the Battle of Five Armies. It also uses the song “Mist and Shadow” from the “LotR” set in what I feel is a completely inappropriate way. So, here, briefly, is what’s wrong with the first two movies and I suspect will not be fixed with the last one.
1) This is a curious case, actually. The prequel does answer the question of where Bilbo got the One Ring, but that was already explained in the LotR. In fact, Return of the King even explained how Gollum had gotten his hand on it, and between Galadriel and Gandalf’s exposition, audiences got all the relevant information on the history of the One Ring. In this case, I guess the better question is, “Why was Bilbo on an adventure that allowed him to find the ring?” Technically, the prequels did answer that question. However…
(You knew that was coming)
…how the question is answered does have some bearing on the success or failure of the prequel. Adaptation issues aside (and there are so very, very many), this fails on a basic character level. There are twelve dwarves, Gandalf, and Bilbo as the primary characters. How is it after sitting through over six hours of movie I still don’t know who all the dwarves are? They were given names but most haven’t gotten enough screen time for me to associate those names with them (as is evident in my parody summaries). Thorin is clearly the only one who matters, although the movies are insisting Balin and Kili matter too, but that’s nine who really don’t. Hell, Gloin did not even get properly named! So, why do I care about this journey if I don’t know the names of half the characters? The last time I encountered a movie like that, well, it did indeed destroy all my expectations.
2) These movies are answering so many questions I never asked. Granted, I never asked “What was Gimli’s back story?” but the story is answering that because Gloin is in it (but barely) because that’s the source material. But there are plenty of others:
a) “What was Legolas like when he was younger?”
b) “What was Legolas’s family life like?”
c) “Did Galadriel and Gandalf have a fling?”
d) “Was Saruman always a jerk?”
e) “What were the other wizards like?”
f) “Why were Legolas and Gimli immediately suspicious of each other at the Council of Elrond?”
g) “Did Legolas ever have a girlfriend?”
Only question “f” may actually be relevant and the original trilogy did a good job of explaining that to begin with. So, yeah, I don’t even begin to care, and the Galadriel/Gandalf thing is really annoying because Galadriel is married!
3) The references to the main trilogy are so blatant as to be fully recycled subplots. That may end up a whole ranty entry on its own. Ugh.
4) This one took me awhile to figure out, but my hamster brain wouldn’t let it go. In these prequels, it is not a particular character that is diminished in the original movies, but the very war for Middle-Earth itself. The prequels are trying to convince the audience that the stakes are super-duper high, and they just aren’t. But trying to make this story seem as important and epic as LotR just makes LotR look smaller.
I’ll elaborate (as I’m sure you guessed I would, because I do go on and on and on…). The fate of Middle-earth was at stake in the original trilogy. One of the most dramatic juxtapositions of the story was that all these great and brave deeds were being done by Aragorn and Co., but everything hinged on the two smallest people with the least interesting task. It’s not that what Aragorn and Co. did was irrelevant. Aragorn and Co. provided the distraction necessary to allow Team Frodo to get to Mount Doom. However, if Team Frodo failed, then all of the blood, sweat, and tears shed by Aragorn and Co. would have been only the first round of a terrible conflict doomed to end in defeat.
The story of The Hobbit is fundamentally nothing more than a treasure hunt (or D&D adventure). While granted dragons are dangerous and it’s never a bad thing to slay them, that wasn’t the point of the exercise. The most important event of the entire book happens by accident in Gollum’s cave (bind on pick-up). The movie is desperately trying to convince the audience there is a lot more at stake than a simple treasure hunt. So far:
a) Thorin is targeted for assassination by parties unknown because he wants to reclaim his kingdom.
b) Gandalf hints Smaug could be a powerful ally for evil forces.
c) Bard finds a prophecy about the return of Thorin.
d) Dark things are happening in Mirkwood.
e) The dark things happening in Mirkwood are discussed in veiled references at the Council.
f) The king of Mirkwood makes veiled references to dark things in Mirkwood.
g) Finally the movies get so desperate to raise the stakes, they come right out and name the necromancer as Sauron.
So why does this fail so hard?
a) We know whatever the outcome of the necromancer subplot, neither Sauron nor Gandalf are killed. There is zero drama.
b) The last time Sauron was in power (as we see in the exposition of “Fellowship”) it took an alliance of everyone to defeat him. So why would the wizards and powerful elves assume they could actually defeat him on their own?
c) If the wizards and powerful elves weren’t sure Sauron was dead, why didn’t they spend the intervening years looking for him, especially when rumors surfaced about activity in his old stomping grounds in Mordor? And why were they surprised to find out he was actually not dead?
If Sauron is defeated once by a much smaller force then why does it take so much to defeat him in LotR? In the books, this is easily explained that the wizards didn’t know the necromancer was Sauron because if they had they would have started the whole War of the Rings right then and there instead of facing him in Mirkwood. As to why Sauron left Mirkwood when he did? Well, that was about the time Bilbo found the ring and the appendices imply Sauron had gotten what he needed anyway and wasn’t ready to be found out so he left.
In short, The Hobbit is not an epic tale. Trying to make it epic doesn’t really work as an adaptation and I don’t think it works as a movie. All the stuff about the history of the dwarves and Erebor and Thorin and Azog just seems to make the movies drag to me. And trying to make the Battle of Five Armies as epic as the Battle for Gondor just doesn’t work. Visually the spectacle may be the same, but the stakes are not even close.