Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, May 13, 2014 15 comments
The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug has such a mockable title, it's not much of a surprise Tolkien fans and film critics largely panned it. I'd honestly had no intention of seeing it, but when there was a free screening on the campus where my hubby teaches, curiosity got the better of me. Sure, this was the most non-canonical Tolkien film in Jackson's oeuvre so far, but did that aspect lead to the negative reviews?

Actually, no. I'd argue that poor storytelling is what killed the film--at least for me and many critics. (There's no accounting for the ticket-buying public, which seems to love nonsensical, overwrought action flicks--witness the box office power of the Transformers films.)

The beauty of being a writer is that scriptwriting failures are educational gold. Below are a few storytelling lessons I gleaned from DoS. (Sorry to resort to a goofy abbreviation, but it's taking all my self control to not make three dozen bad puns on the terrible title).

1. Whose story is it anyway?


I honestly could never quite sort out who the film's protagonist is supposed to be.

It might be Thorin Oakenshield, whose backstory opens the film. He's kingly, tormented, and kind of hot in a hipster-meets-80s-hair-band way. We learn in this backstory that Thorin has not only a quest--to regain the lost assets of his kingdom--but a new enemy, the Necromancer, who's keen to stop him, though we have no clue why. With both a quest and an enemy, Thorin seems like he ought to be the story's hero. However, the climax of the film focuses on Bilbo Baggins, who goes into the dragon's lair to face this fierce enemy, while Thorin and his entourage hang back in safety.

Yet if Bilbo is the hero, what exactly is his quest? What does he set out to achieve? We're never given much information about what motivates him, other than that Gandalf told him to go along with this weird assortment of dwarves. He might be hungry to prove himself valiant, or greedy for gain, or simply sick to death of his boring life in Hobbiton and itching for thrills. We just don't know, because we rarely get very close to him, just like we don't get close to Thorin.

Takeaway: Have a clear protagonist with a goal and motivations to meet that goal, both surface drives and deeper inner drives. Take the time to show why the protagonist is motivated. Make sure the protagonist is intimately involved in the climax moment.

2. Why are you chasing me?


Apparently the scriptwriters thought it wasn't going to be an exciting enough quest for a party of thirteen somewhat silly and unskilled little dudes to make it through the treacherous depths of Mirkwood, past Shelob's redneck cousins, in order to face a fire-breathing enemy that wiped out an entire city single-handed. No, they clearly needed to be chased the entire time by bloodthirsty, gholish orcs who are pursuing for no obvious reason.

The orc chase not only adds nothing, it actually takes away from the story because it feels to darned random. There's no solid reason that the Necromancer opposes Thorin. He supposedly doesn't want the dwarves to become strong again, but WHY? Does he want to get to the gold first so that he can be rich beyond dreams and powerful beyond dreams? The film would make a heck of a lot more sense if he did. But we're never given that much information about the Necromancer's nefarious plot. As the film drags on, it seems he doesn't really have one. And nothing is more of a waste of time than an enemy with no real goals.

Takeaway: Adding random enemies subtracts from the story's core tension, so don't dilute your main plotline with characters who have too little reason to be there. Invest in showing your hero/es unequal to the task being attempted (injuries or hardships work nicely here) or raise the stakes of what they'll lose if they fail.

Antagonists must have a goal. Vague malevolence is about as scary as flatulence--it stinks at first, but dissipates quickly with no lasting effects. 

What are your thoughts about creating a clear protagonist and a goal-driven antagonist? Can you think of other examples of films that fail to create solid characters for these two key roles?

15 comments:

  1. Aren't both these elements present in the book? Which did quite well.

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    1. In the book, Bilbo is clearly the protagonist and the primary antagonist is Smaug, whose goal is to keep his loot. The film version has so many add-ons we completely lose the core of the story.

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  2. I enjoyed the movie...more just because of my childhood associations with the book than any particular merit on its part.

    I'm curious, did you think the HP movies did Rowling's books justice?

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    1. I think Jackson was attempting to seed the story with prequel elements to give it more continuity with LotR than the book ever had. That could have worked if it had been thought through more and those add-on elements treated as minor subplots rather than muddying up the main plotline. So, my main gripes aren't really about purism. I would have gladly watched a film with Thorin as the hero, had he been stronger in the climax and had we been give opportunities to know him more deeply and care. I would have not minded the Necromancer as antagonist if his goals and motivations were clear.

      Most of the HP movies keep Rowling's core plot clear. They help us connect to Harry, and they represent the smaller story arc (typically a mystery to be solved) while also carrying forward the larger, whole-series arc (bringing down Voldemort). Only the Goblet of Fire film seemed to entirely miss what the inner mystery was (that Harry easily wins all the Triwizard events, and there's something suspicious about it). Like in this Hobbit film, when the core was lost, filmmakers added extraneous "excitement" that only muddies the water (i.e the Hungarian Horntail chase scene).

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  3. I didn't see the movie, but I sure find some of your points intriguing. Strange that they didn't write a definitive protag. Hmm.... I wonder what the thinking was behind that.

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    1. I think a similar problem could happen in a multiple-POV novel. I'm not sure the writers pulled back far enough to see their protagonist issue--that with two vying for the same place, you end up with no real protagonist.

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  4. I am laughing so much at "Shelob's redneck cousins" that I'm having a hard time typing!
    My husband and I rented the film last week...and I fell asleep somewhere around the redneck spiders. :) It didn't have the personal drama/conflict I needed to keep me interested. Sometime I'll have to finish it; because at the very least the "spectacle," as Aristotle would call it, was beautifully done. It's a shame the storytelling didn't live up to the scenery and costumes.

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    1. Glad to have brought you a smile with my weird sense of humor.

      I'm sure that folks who've never read the books and ingest a steady diet of overblown Hollywood blockbusters won't find point 2 nearly so perplexing as I did. "Bad guys are there to be bad, who cares why," they might say.

      I agree that it's the characterization that's shortchanged in a huge way by putting so much emphasis on the orc pursuit. Without characters to care about, I also get bored with a story pretty quickly.

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  5. Hilarious and spot on thoughts and questions about plotting from DoS. I had a tough time with the orcs in that movie - it took away from Beorn and many other aspects of the plot. Antagonists without a reason are definitely dangerously boring. Although I love the Hobbit book, and I'm ok with Bilbo going on an adventure because he desperately needs/wants one but doesn't want to admit it, this movie just never captured the essence of the greatness of the book.

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    1. The orc chase could have worked if there had been some explanation for it. But because it wasn't, the audience expends mental energy trying to puzzle it out, giving the random enemies even more prominence than they deserve. So there's another lesson in that phenomenon, I think.

      I could see the appeal of making Thorin more central--he has more of a motivation to go on the quest. But the book plot at this phase of the story doesn't give him a climax moment. Thus, we get a protagonist switch instead. Sad really. Bilbo could have been a wonderful protagonist in this film, but he wasn't written strongly enough. The underdog in overpowering circumstances can be very compelling too.

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  6. The decision to make it three movies (for the three times the loot) is what's driving these terrible extra storylines. Makes the story longwinded and boring but Smaug would be proud of the cash grab.

    mood
    Moody Writing

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    1. Smaug would indeed. The potential was there to make a decent story. We never get to know any character deeply. The personalities of the group, and group dynamics, which do come out in the book, would have made the film loads more compelling than random orc chases.

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  7. Have yet to read the books (blasphemous I know) so luckily don't have so many gripes with the whole translation to movie issue, the points you have raised however do make sense, and what Mooderino says definitely strikes true. If they don't put in the effort of making you invested it makes the dragged out elements dull. I would gladly welcome some delving into Bilbo's or Thorin's characters :)

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    1. There is a ton of humor in The Hobbit, which we get tastes of in the first film but it's pretty much absent in DoS. It's a fun book to read aloud to a small person (or a lonely shut-in for that matter).

      I think stronger characterization, rather than random plot additions, would have made a very strong film. If you've seen LotR, the Shelob scenes are far stronger than the Mirkwood spiders, even though it's only one enemy, because of the slow build up of fear in the characters and the slow, scary battle.

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  8. You've echoed many of my own problems with the films. I was particularly frustrated by the Mirkwood spider battle, which is one of my favorite parts of the book but felt oddly out of place in the movie.

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