In my first installment of The Fanboy Chronicles I talked about the largest franchise in history, Star Wars, and how it is constructed in such a way as to allow seemingly infinite and organic expansion with new stories, new characters, and also further stories about the characters we already have come to love.
As a recap, Star Wars began with a single motion picture, but was presented as an episode – Episode IV to be precise – and, when popularity struck, was spun off into a series of action figures, television specials, books, and video games. In fact, Shadows of the Empire on the N64 was a test to see if the franchise still had fan motivation for future installments in the film series, providing data that eventually led to the prequel trilogy becoming greenlit by 20th Century Fox.
But, what about the franchises that run out of steam? What about the stories, worlds and characters that seem to have so much promise but then continue to be stretched until there is no substance left? This can be the death of a franchise, and many times these series go out with a whimper instead of a bang.
The series that I’m going to take a look at is one that is near and dear to my heart, but inevitably is outstaying its welcome. This series is Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films, specifically the latest installments in The Hobbit trilogy.
For those who are unfamiliar with Tolkien, he is largely considered the grandfather of modern epic fantasy. His contributions to the genre began with The Hobbit, a simple faerie story for children, and later continued with the more mature and mythological Lord of the Rings – a book so large that it was meant to be a single volume but was split into a trilogy at the publisher’s request.
The Lord of the Rings was my first brush with epic fantasy on the page. I was actually led to this series when I saw the teaser trailer for the trilogy in front of a movie. Yes, if you adore the series as much as I do, you know what a treat it is to have your first experience with these characters on the silver screen actually take place on the silver screen.
I was intrigued as I had never heard of this series of books before (I was only in eighth grade) so I rushed to the library to see what the fuss was about. To my dismay, the books were all taken out and there was a waiting list. However, all was not lost because on a trip to the local superstore I found the first book in the series. I begged my mother to get it for me, but she played coy and told me that I would have to wait. Imagine my surprise when she presented the book to me later that night as a surprise. I nearly cried.
Opening a Tolkien book for the first time is such a treasured memory of mine. His trilogy, steeped in ancient lore and family histories, is one that has forever affected my perception of what fantasy is and should be. The story of the return of an ancient evil is universal and humanity, or in this case, all the races of Elves, Men, Dwarves, Ents, and Hobbits, come together to stop Sauron and his minions from destroying the world in fire and ruin.
On paper this series was masterful. Imagine how exciting it was the see the films on the big screen successfully capturing the spirit of the books. I couldn’t get enough of this series. As with Star Wars, I sought out everything else I could to quench my thirst in between movie premieres. I finished the trilogy of books, stunned by the conclusion, and then read all of the Appendices. On a class trip I was able to stop at a book store and picked up The Tolkien Reader, devouring the author’s essays on fantasy, faerie stories, and even some of his shorter, non-Rings related stories.
It seemed that this series could go on forever. Indeed, Tolkien had entire volumes of history, Middle Earth legends, and other musings that I was able to savor. But, sadly, the master of Middle Earth died before he was able to complete any further adventures in his mythical land.
The lack of extra material was not an issue for a few years. After all, the film trilogy stretched from December 2001 thru December 2003. New Line Cinema and Peter Jackson made sure to capitalize on the popularity of the franchise and produced action figures (which I had many of), books about the film trilogy, video games (I played all of them), television specials, and even fueled the publishing of more works by Tolkien that were discovered and polished by his son, Christopher Tolkien. Perhaps most exciting was the extended edition of the films, versions that were recut and provided a new viewing experience only on DVD. Try watching all three films in one day. It will take you an entire day to watch from beginning to end.
But, then December 2003 came and the films were finished. It was evident that the three years of constant content was coming to an end. With the release of The Return of the King on extended DVD, the era of The Lord of the Rings was over.
Then came the grumblings. If you are a fan of the franchise, you already know what I’m referencing.
Peter Jackson eventually signed on to direct The Hobbit, a prequel to the beloved trilogy of movies. This was fantastic news. We would get more cinematic visions of Middle Earth and see some of our favorite characters once more. What could go wrong with that?
Well, as Hollywood loves to do, money quickly became the main motivator. How much money could be squeezed out of this last Tolkien work? The solution from the studio’s standpoint was simple: split The Hobbit into three films. After all, The Lord of the Rings was a financial and critical success as a film trilogy. New Line hoped that lightening would strike twice.
The sad fact of the matter is that The Hobbit as a book does not warrant the creation of three films.
Now, allow me to say that I really enjoyed The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and even lined up at midnight to see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. My eyes teared up at the sight of Rivendell in all its glory, and I am so thankful to see Middle Earth one last time on the big screen.
But, there is something lacking in this trilogy that the original one was not. This is simply a lack of story. No matter how much the writers of the Hobbit trilogy tried to infuse the simple children’s story with lore from Tolkien’s Appendices and other writings, the story is still just that – a simple children’s story.
This means that the plots for these films are stretched too far. There just isn’t enough story to justify three films at two hours and thirty minutes each. Try as the filmmakers might, the stories are filled with fluff that has little relevance to the overall plight of the Dwarves in their search for Erebor, and the emotional resonance that was at the forefront of The Lord of the Rings becomes laughable here. The characters should be able to see that they are simply being herded from point A to point B just to allow for some special effects showcases. There simply is no depth, and the well is being sucked dry in trying to continue this film franchise at the length that it is.
Would we have been better off with two films as was originally expected from fans? I believe so. However charming the first film was, An Unexpected Journey felt too slow and the finale too jarring to be considered a single arc. The Desolation of Smaug tried to fix what it got wrong the first time around, and mostly succeeded. However, the finale again felt like it was simply stringing us along until we got to the third film – which is true. There are no logical breaks within The Hobbit novel where a series of films could come to a close and then return at the start of the next. This gives the audience a half-baked experience.
It is still yet to be determined if the final chapter in The Hobbit film trilogy will gain the accolades that the studio and Jackson no doubt desire it to earn. Regardless, I will still be seeing it opening night in December. As a fan, I know these films won’t be the masterpieces we deserve, but I will still take what I can get.
In this case, it’s better to know the limitations of your story and expand only where an expansion is warranted. Otherwise you will earn dissatisfied fans.
So, there you have my dissection of the Tolkien films. But, what about other popular franchises? Are there more to look forward to that have yet to expand where there is room to? Be sure to read my next installment in The Fanboy Chronicles as I examine the work of JK Rowling and her current and future expansions of the Potter-verse.