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Consumed With Hate: Peter Jackson's Hobbit Trilogy

💍 Bravest Little Hobbit of Them All...

The Crime: The Hobbitses
The Guilty Party: Peter Jackson, et al
Overview: Prequels always suck

Why I Hate It...

Yes, I was going to do Ridley Scott's Robin Hood, but I've had a last-minute change of heart, so here we are.

Peter Jackson's film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings is one of the great cinematic accomplishments of the modern age. A nobody director who made splatter flicks went after a set of books long held to be unfilmable and put out three visual marvels, grand sweeping epics that were monster commercial successes, awards bait, critical darlings, and cultural touchstones to boot. The impact on the film industry also cannot be overstated--suddenly extended cut DVDs and three-hour theatrical runtimes were normal. It is a small wonder that four years later it was announced that The Hobbit, the book that The Lord of the Rings is a sequel to, would be released as two films, with much of the same cast reprising their roles. And in 2011...

Look, there's a lot that went wrong with these movies. There's the gold river ride at the end of the second film. There's the hideous design of characters like the troll king or the Lake-Town master. There's the crime against literature that is the depiction of Radagast the Brown. There's the bizarro choice to shoot in 3D at 48fps and 5K resolution, which was very expensive and doesn't actually look good if you can even find a theater capable of showing the movie at that level of fidelity. It's expensive, not just because of the equipment, but also because you're quadrupling the number of frames that need to be rendered when you put in a CG element, and also these elements need to be rendered at a much higher resolution to blend in with the live photographed elements. And if you're not familiar with these movies... there are CG elements in almost every frame. According the legend, the expense of this shooting choice was so heavy that it's what actually drove the last-minute decision to split the book into three movies instead of two, because that would mean roughly 50% more revenue as long as sales didn't drop off too badly from movie to movie.

Splitting the movie into three introduces some real structural problems that the re-edit was never able to fix. I was actually fine with splitting it into two. The book is weirdly structured anyway and has two final battles--the defeat of Smaug at Lake-Town and the Battle of the Five Armies. There's an argument to be made there, and if you're going to be backfilling information about what Gandalf and Galadriel are doing about the Necromancer in Mirkwood, that Tolkein himself retconned into Sauron, there's enough story to justify 4-6 hours worth of movie. But three just makes an already clunky narrative structure even worse. Also, there are too many characters who are basically indistinguishable, all except Kili who is inexplicably hot because the only way to add in a female character is to make her a love interest. Look, it's all bad, and maybe any of these on their own would have been enough to sink it, but in my opinion there is one key decision that rises above the rest in making these movies not just disappointing but really, really bad.

The big problem with The Hobbit movies is that instead of actually adapting the book, they made a prequel to The Lord of the Rings. And prequels always suck. (At least in non-interactive media; video game story-telling is a completely different animal and prequels can--and have--worked well there.)

I want to take a moment to drive home just how disconnected the books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are. The Hobbit is a children's tale that you can read in less than six hours that starts as a travelogue, ends with a disconnected character killing a dragon followed by a massive battle that happens off-screen because the main character passes out right as it's starting, and the whole thing is guided by Gandalf the Grey, a goofy old wizard who disappears for whole stretches of narrative for no discernable reason. The Lord of the Rings starts as a Gandalf-led travelogue, but then becomes a sprawling war story that has a much darker tone. Narratively, it's not even a sequel to The Hobbit. It's a sequel to Chapter 5 of The Hobbit in which Bilbo finds a magic ring. Actually, it's not even that. It's a sequel to a new version of Chapter 5 of The Hobbit that Tolkein re-wrote in order to better fit the sequel he was writing!

These are very disconnected stories, and yet the filmmakers chose to reframe The Hobbit as foundational material for The Lord of the Rings. Why is this bad? Because in books and especially movies, prequels create a mismatch between narrative constraints and audience expectations that is almost impossible to overcome. And since The Hobbit is a convenient object lesson in how that plays out, we're going to go into some of the inherent challenges of writing a prequel and how The Hobbit movies fail to address them.

Problem the first: this story has been told before and we know how it ends. This may seem like a small thing, because in most movies you can intuit what the ending is going to be. James Bond will beat the bad guys, the romantic interests will get together, the Avengers will save the world (except when they don't). The surprise, the story, is not what happens but rather how it happens, and then there's also the outside chance that the story is going to have a tragic ending instead (see earlier aside about the Avengers). But in a prequel, there is no ambiguity. It's hard to muster any narrative tension about Gandalf being imprisoned at Dol Goldur because we know that he's going to show up at Bag End in sixty years. Moreover, prequels are usually explaining some bit of backstory. Well, since it's backstory, the broad strokes have already been told in a way that is narratively satisfying.

Consider the treachery of Saruman. This is handled in one scene in The Fellowship of the Ring. We learn that Saruman has capitulated to Sauron in secret after spending centuries pretending to lead the White Council (even though it's never named) against him. And you know what? That's enough. That is a complete and satisfying explanation for why he's fighting Gandalf even though Gandalf trusted him, and it comes out in about three lines of dialog. So seeing this revisited in the movies is just not that interesting. We already know it. And that bit of backstory is probably less cool than you think it is anyway, since it was written to be something that could be related in a couple of lines of dialog. Backstory--especially in a compressed format like film--generally doesn't need an explanation. That's why it's backstory. This was one of my complaints about The Book of Boba Fett. The arc of that story is about him escaping the Sarlaac pit and filling in the power vacuum in the Tatooine underworld following the death of Jabba the Hutt. This is not a story that particularly needs to be explained. Bad guy becomes more powerful bad guy? Cool, got it.

Moving on, another problem with prequels is that audiences actually want a sequel, and this is where the expectations mismatch comes into the play. Think about what people want from a sequel: more time with characters you already love and everything is bigger and more exciting. This is great in a sequel, because characters and story elements tend to escalate. Your heroes are stronger, but the perils are more severe. Great, everybody's happy. And audiences bring those exact same expectations to a prequel. But! Prequels are narratively regressive. Your heroes and your world are at an earlier state. They're less capable. The threats are less imminent. How do you wrangle that? Do you nerf everyone back to zero at the end? Do you just pretend like this is normal and ignore the fact that they make the original movies seem like less is going on?

The best illustration of this is Legolas, who has no reason to be in these movies at all. He was a fan favorite in The Lord of the Rings because he does acrobatic stuff and because Orlando Bloom makes the teen girls' hearts got pit-a-pat. And there's a clear escalation of what he does in those movies. In Fellowship he walks on snow and runs up a chain to fight a cave troll. In Two Towers, he does a sideways flip-thingy to get onto a horse and shoots arrows while shield-surfing. By Return he's doing this nonsense to a mumakil. If that's the pattern, then you would expect that 60 years prior, he'd be doing some pretty tame stunts, not whatever the hell this is. Back in those days, apparently, he was some kind of god-warrior would then have to get his mojo back during the War of the Ring. Seriously, what happened over the course of those 60 years to make him such a pansy in the mines of Moria?

Oh, you know what else audience like in their sequels? Call-backs! But you can't do a call-back in a prequel, because that's not how time works. So instead you have to do call-forwards, which are dumb and I hate them. That's how you end up with Legolas showing up at all in The Hobbit, or bringing back a visibly-aged Elijah Wood so Frodo can have a cameo in the frame story. This is, coincidentally, how you end up with all of the stuff that sucked in Rogue One, which I actually like quite a bit because for a prequel, it's not very prequely. It's mostly telling it's own story, but then you have these explicit references to Episode IV, like Ponda Baba and Cornelius Evazan being on Jehda. Or the last ten minutes with Commando Vader and Uncanny-Valley Leia. Gah! It's dumb and I hate it.

Alternately, instead of call-forwards, sometimes you just spin off plot threads that will be unresolved until a later movie. In The Hobbit, it's that whole business with the White Council. This is a less obvious problem because in the moment you don't notice, but it contributes to a big problem with these kinds of movies. You end up with something that only ever makes sense in the context of something else. The Hobbit films don't work as films because they only make sense if you've already seen The Lord of the Rings. But if you were to go and watch all six of those movies in film timeline order, you essentially get an overlong disjointed prologue that sets up things that didn't need to be set up because the original trilogy always worked on its own.

In other words, prequels are by definition unnecessary, and yet they insist on tying themselves to other stories in such a way that they cannot stand on their own. Because if they could stand on their own, they wouldn't be prequels! 

Next week, we're going to look at some of the things that weren't quite bad enough for an entire post...

In CONSUMED WITH HATE, Kurt is revisiting media that he absolutely did not like one bit. See more posts.