Storytelling Failures – The Hobbit Trilogy: The Overly Long Introduction

or, “Damn it, Peter Jackson and Co., what the hell happened?”

It occurred to me that trying to break down how 8+ hours of movie failed to craft a good story was going to turn into a rant of potentially epic proportions.  I could combine everything into one entry, but by the end of it I’m afraid all you lovely readers would be as fed up with me as I am with Peter Jackson and Co. right now.  So, in an effort to save you readers that kind of pain, I’m going to break this up into a few entries.  The overall critique will follow the general format of my storytelling failures but with some specifics tailored to the visual media and the fact these are prequels.

This makes me so mad too because turning The Hobbit into a movie shouldn’t have been a failure.  There was good source material to work from, and Peter Jackson and Co. had already proven how good they were with bringing Tolkien’s epic to life.  But development hell and executive meddling and unabashed greed led to this sad follow-up to a truly epic and well-done set of movies.

I cannot view this movies outside of the book.  I’m going to just admit that up front, although I will try to discuss how this failed as a set of movies in its own right and how this failed as a proper adaptation.

A brief discussion of adaptation –
I have friends who did not dislike these set of movies as much as I did (although the third was better than I thought it would be) and I’ve seen reviews that were not altogether unfavorable.  There are certainly a few flaws in the book. The main one is that there are thirteen dwarves but it’s very clear that only Thorin matters.  Another flaw is that Bard the dragon-slayer only shows up in the last 60 or so pages of the book and his entire character is “grim.”  So, I could see the potential of making maybe two movies instead of one to allow for character development for the rest of the dwarves and Bard.  I can also see from a cinematic perspective that actually seeing Gandalf and the rest of the White Council kicking the necromancer out of Mirkwood might be pretty cool.  I really do see how giving the story a bit of room to breathe might not be a bad thing.  But 8+ freaking hours?

A brief discussion of prequel/sequel syndrome –
Obviously this set of movies had a lot to live up to.  Both prequels and sequels are expected to make references to the original set of movies; in the case of prequels this is to set the stage for the original, and for the sequel this is to tie back to the original.  These references should feel natural to the story, not contrived.  Such references should never pull the viewer out of the movie.  And the filmmakers can’t necessarily assume the audience of the prequel/sequel has seen the original set, so there’s usually some exposition necessary to bring new audiences up to speed that shouldn’t bog down the story for the audiences who already know what’s going on.  Is it fair to compare the pre/sequel to the original(s)?  Yes, and no.  When the differences are due to technical advances in the craft of movie-making, I would say no.  If the creative team is radically different, I’d say a comparison may be in order but with the caveat that different teams will take material in a different direction and that different isn’t necessarily bad.  But in this case we have pretty much the same creative team, so it is absolutely fair to compare them.  And if you think I’m perhaps viewing the original set through nostalgia-tinted glasses, I can assure you a large chunk of my holiday this year was spent re-watching the extended version of the whole thing.

The criteria – I have four criteria: characters, plot, setting, and narrative structure.

a) Characters – I’ll focus on characters first.  I’m also going to break up the characters into “new” and “old.”  “New” being the ones we’re introduced to here and “old” being the ones in the original set.  Also for the character discussion, I’m going to look at whether or not this character really served any purpose to the story.  This may kind of fall under plot, but not every character necessarily contributes to the plot.  Sometimes characters contribute to other characters’ development.  For the “old,” I’ll look at how well this “younger” version of the character meshes with the “older” versions we see in the original set of movies.

b) Plot – First, I’ll try to parse out what story was actually supposed to be told here as clearly it was not just about the hobbit.  I’ll go over some of the deviations from the book, but not focus on those.  A lot of subplots were added so mostly I’ll be discussing how well those fit into the story and were they even necessary.

c) Setting – I was going to skip setting because movies are a visual medium and that should make setting easy.  However, just because in theory movies can bring almost any world to life doesn’t mean that’s done well, hence the discussion.  I will also touch on how the same visual effects were done in the “LotR” trilogy compared to this trilogy.  Yes, I know there is ten years’ difference, but as we all learned from the “Star Warsprequels, just because a creative team has advanced special effects technology doesn’t mean they know how to use it properly.

d) Narrative Structure – this actually gets complicated because while the whole trilogy should follow the three-act structure (build-up, climax, denouement), each movie has to follow that as well but not diminish the overall arc.  This one may get rolled in with plot as well, since many of the subplots seemed to be added to fit the three-act structure.

Boy, this is a lot of words to spend to essentially say, “This was disappointing.”  I should mention that while I’m going to deconstruct the set and highlight the flaws, I don’t actually hate these movies the way I’ve hated some others that failed so hard at storytelling.  I might even watch these again, if they happen to be on and I happen to be bored, which is more than I can say for some movies.  I also admit I came into this set of movies with some pretty high standards but I don’t think those were impossible to live up to.  By the way, if you actually liked the movies, then that’s great for you.  I’m happy you enjoyed something even if I was disappointed.  But if you also feel the ache of disappointment as a good director turned into a bad one (“Lucas-ification,” if you will) and nearly ruined a favorite set of movies, then get a snack, sit back, and I will endeavor to be entertaining as I pick apart why this failed so very much.


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S. J. Drew is an aspiring writer who finally entered the blogosphere to shamelessly promote that writing (as evidenced by the title of the blog). Whether or not this works remains to be seen, but S. J. hopes you are at least entertained. And if you're actually reading this, that's probably a good sign.

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