What the Cinematic Landscape Could Learn from Lord of the Rings
We live in an age where franchises and sequels are commonplace. And yet, even with hours upon hours of material dedicated to fleshing out these respective universes, many of them feel rushed and underdeveloped. Directors and screenwriters often have too long a story to tell, resulting in a poorly paced and choppy product, or have a decently sized narrative which, due to studio demands, is stretched into a paper-thin series of films. Examining franchises from all sorts of different genres, from young adult to fantasy, reveals the same crucial flaws. And yet, a trilogy of films released over ten years ago offered the solutions to problems that now plague Hollywood. Taking a look back at one of the greatest trilogies ever made, The Lord of the Rings, could benefit directors and studio execs alike.
A major flaw that tent-pole films suffer from is the lack of a strong narrative structure. Observing films like The Amazing Spider-Man 2 show that big blockbusters have their attention split in multiple directions. Firstly, they must set up multiple sequels. After that, they must sell other merchandise, and gross a considerable amount. And finally, a blockbuster should, ideally, be a quality film. While these goals are nothing new, one in particular has recently outshined the other two: the need to establish a franchise, and this can have a detrimental effect on the film’s story.
For one, it forces the film to split its narrative apart in ways that the story at hand doesn’t always lend itself to. Examining at The Amazing Spider-Man 2 shows that there was a story to be told somewhere, but the constant references to the Sinister Six, Oscorp, and the introduction of the Green Goblin squandered whatever potential the film had in an attempt to establish a universe. In fact, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was the final nail in the coffin for Sony’s solo Spider-Man films.Because of its reception the company agreed to share the character with Marvel Studios.
Another problem that has resulted from franchises and sequels plagues films based on a source material, such as a book or a graphic novel. Essentially, any film based on a popular pre-existing story must be able to produce a few sequels, and the source material doesn’t always fit the required length. Looking at the final Hunger Games films showcases this issue very nicely. The final book was split into two films, which didn’t translate very well to the silver screen. Each one was stretched too thin, and while the films have their fans, they were the worst received of the series. Part one pulled in a 65% critics rating and a 72% percent audience rating, and part two pulled in a 70% critics rating and a 66% audience rating, compared to Catching Fire, which garnered an 89% from critics and audiences.
Films which are part of a larger cinematic universe can suffer the opposite of this problem. In fact, films with lengthy stories to tell seem to be hesitant to push their own running time, regardless of whether or not they are part of a franchise. Looking at the DCEU, most of their films incorporate many complex subplots and characters, which feel choppy and clustered. Warner Bros. then release a “we’re sorry” edition containing nearly three hours of footage. Other projects like Kingdom of Heaven suffered due to their short running time.
Some might argue that these compromises in the story telling result in a more successful films, but I would disagree. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 killed off whatever chance Sony had at establishing their own franchise, and the last Hunger Games franchise derailed after Catching Fire.
While two less than ideal films might out-gross one box office smash, in the long run a studio will be better off producing films that have an appropriate running time rather than attempting to nickel and dime their consumers.
With so many problems facing blockbusters, it is hard to imagine that one trilogy already answered almost all of them. The Lord of the Rings trilogy managed to win the hearts of fans and critics, establish a fictional universe, sweep the academy, and gross nearly 3 billion dollars.
So how did it do it?
Before I explain, it is important to note that The Lord of the Rings trilogy could have suffered from all of the problems I have discussed. It could have been too long, too short, too clustered, or too stretched. And yet, it was none of these things. The answer is pacing, structure, and above all, a clear vision from a director and a team of writers.
The Lord of the Rings contains more settings, characters, plotlines, and backstory then any film previously mentioned, but Peter Jackson was able to tell Tolkien’s masterful story without having the films drag or skip too many important elements. Plotlines were omitted, but never at the expense of the story. Jackson was willing to produce three Lord of the Rings films, totaling over nine hours of footage, because he believed that was the best way to tell the story. While extended cuts were released, those editions were specifically meant for those who wanted even more detail from the story. In contrast, some of the DCEU films have released extended cuts because their films felt too clustered and choppy, resulting in fans needing more detail to appreciate the story.
Does this mean that every film needs to be three hours long? Absolutely not, what this means is that every film should be as long as required to tell its story, no shorter and no longer. If a film is good, people will generally go see it. Return of the King was nearly three and half hours long, and yet it grossed 1.1 billion dollars.
Jackson managed to establish everything in Fellowship of the Ring, so that the next two films were not clustered, while also managing to present a compelling story that made the audience anxious to see more. Jackson had sequels to set up, but he and his production crew knew that in order to ensure that their audience would see their next films, they had to enthrall them with their first.
How can these lessons be applied to massive franchises, like the MCU? Even though those cinematic universes have many more films in the pipeline, the fundamental principles still apply.
As a film maker, you have one story to tell, and you must remain focused on delivering a great story before worrying about future ones. If a film needs to be longer, that is okay. If a film needs to be shorter, that is okay. The references and set-ups for future installments must feel integrated with the story being told. If these events cannot be established without feeling abrupt, they have no place in the film.
For example, Gollum’s character is introduced in Fellowship of the Ring, but we do not meet him until Two Towers. Instead, Gollum is shown to us through a series of flashbacks. Had this been poorly done Gollum’s character would have been a forced presence in Fellowship, but his character is relevant to the story because he shows what the ring is capable of, and how Bilbo found it in the first place. Gollum is necessary for the first film to work, and is critical to the next film’s success. If Gollum was unnecessary to properly tell the story of Fellowship, his introduction would have been little more than an add on, or as many others might put it: a trailer for the next film.
Compare this to how The Amazing Spider-Man 2 introduced the Green Goblin (Spoilers Follow). Harry Osborn is introduced early in the film, quickly becomes sick, uses Spider-Man’s blood as an antidote, and then becomes the Green Goblin. After gaining his powers, he attacks Parker and kills Gwen Stacy. The problem with his introduction is that his character felt separate from the climax that preceded him, which involved Peter and Gwen joining forces to defeat Electro. And, especially with the knowledge that the Green Goblin would appear in the later films, which have been canceled, Harry’s presence feels largely unnecessary to tell the story. Instead of a great character, Harry is a trailer for the sequel that never came.
And, studios should be less eager to stretch or compress their films. The Lord of the Rings was originally going to be two movies, and imagine how clustered and choppy a two-part edition of Tolkien’s masterpiece would have been. Warner Bros. could have easily kept the series to two films, or stretched it to four. Thankfully, this wasn’t the case.
Hollywood is first and foremost a business, so I understand why studios are so eager to milk novels dry and build massive franchises. But Hollywood should remember that audiences go to the theater to see quality entertainment, and if that is not being provided, then they have no reason to go.