The Structure of Smaug

When the final movie installment of The Lord of the Rings was released back on December 17th, 2003 (ten years ago today, in fact), I was eager to see them bring The Hobbit to the big screen. J.R.R. Tolkien’s original book was one of my favorites growing up, holding the rare distinction of being one of the few books I read cover-to-cover more than once.

So when the movie was finally announced, I was thrilled.

When it was announced to be a trilogy, I was puzzled, and didn’t see the necessity. But hey, they said they were pulling stuff out of the book-length Appendix that Tolkien added to Lord of the Rings, and I had enjoyed reading that Appendix, so no worries, right?

After watching the first installment (An Unexpected Journey) a year ago, and watching the second installment (The Desolation of Smaug) yesterday, I’m… ambivalent is the word, I think.

Tolkien’s Hobbit on its own didn’t have enough material for a nine-hour trilogy, so the screenwriters took material from the Appendix, and also made up stuff of their own in order to pad it out. They did the same thing with Lord of the Rings. I contend, however, that the original trilogy worked. The new one does not. The issue isn’t so much the material. The issue is the poor pacing, which is exacerbated by the lack of individual story arcs.

No matter what the medium, pacing is crucial in storytelling. Move too fast, and you risk confusing your audience or failing to establish a connection with the characters. Move too slowly, on the other hand, and you risk boring your audience. A balance is necessary, and it is often difficult to strike just the right balance.

Even more important to storytelling is the story arc. Do a search for “story arc” in Google Images, and you’ll be bombarded with all sorts of visual charts, but they all say the same basic thing: you have an introductory phase, an event occurs that starts the plot, tension builds throughout the story, there’s a climax, and then the resolution. Almost every story follows this pattern.

As far as pacing is concerned, the Lord of the Rings trilogy admittedly moved pretty slowly. For some people, way too slowly. However, each installment had its own individual story arc while at the same time contributing to the main story arc of the trilogy. Thus, despite the slow pace, there was generally a payoff by the end of each movie that made the slow pace worth it.

[Spoiler warning: I summarize the Lord of the Rings films here, and, while I don’t give details, I discuss the two Hobbit films. If you haven’t watched the movies, and don’t want to know anything, stop reading.]

The individual story arc of the first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring, was the titular fellowship- the formation, the journey, and ultimately the dissolution. The Two Towers focused on Saruman’s attack on Rohan, the revival of Theoden King, and finally the victories at Helm’s Deep and Isengard. (You could take Frodo, Sam, and Gollum’s scenes out of the movie and still have a cohesive plot.) The Return of the King focuses on Aragorn’s ascension as the leader of the race of Men (hence the title), first pushing Theoden to ride to Gondor’s aid, then getting the ghost army to do the same, and culminating in Aragorn leading the united armies of Gondor and Rohan against Mordor itself.

The use of individual story arcs allows each installment of the original trilogy to have an ending, even if the main story itself didn’t end until the final. Each installment features a resolution to one story arc that leads into the next story arc (fellowship dissolves -> helping Rohan defeat Saruman -> helping Gondor defeat Sauron).

The Hobbit lacks these individual story arcs, and this is why the movies feel so much slower than Lord of the Rings. The screenwriters have the original plot of The Hobbit, plus some subplots they pulled out of the Appendix (primarily Azog and Dol Guldur), plus some they created themselves. By the time we finish the second installment, after approximately 320 minutes of film, none of these plots have been resolved. They’ll all be resolved in the final installment, which is presumably set to be released next year. People who think Return of the King had too many endings are going to love part three of The Hobbit.

Now, to focus in on the newest installment, does this necessarily mean The Desolation of Smaug is a bad movie? Not really. The better question is, will you enjoy it? That depends on your tastes. The acting is good. The production values are amazing. The costumes, sets, and CGI are beautiful. There is a lot more action in this movie than in the first one, and it’s awesome (though a little over the top or too comedic in some instances). And, to its credit, the story keeps moving (unlike Unexpected Journey)… but then suddenly cuts to credits right before things are really getting good and renders the title a bit of a misnomer.

If you compare Unexpected Journey to Desolation of Smaug, the latter is a more enjoyable watch than the former. Compared to the original trilogy, though, Lord of the Rings did a much better job at keeping viewers engaged. If you like six hours of build-up and three hours of climax and resolution, than the Hobbit trilogy looks to be your cup of tea (and I am looking forward to the final installment just to see all the culminations and conclusions I’ve been waiting for).

If, on the other hand, you’re like me and prefer a more even distribution of build-up and climax with resolution, well, we still have The Lord of the Rings.

What do you think?

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