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Archive for the 'Narrative strategies' Category

Caught in the acts

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005).

DB here:

If you’re interested in how films tell stories, I think that you’re interested in several dimensions of narrative. Those include the story world (characters, settings, action), narration (how story information is parceled out as the film unrolls), and plot structure (the arrangement of parts).

Plot structure matters because a movie’s parts, like parts of a song or a symphony, help shape our experience. Just as a “curtain line” makes us return after intermission, a cliff-hanging climax to a TV episode makes us tune in next week–or click to continue, if we’re binge-watching. Accordingly, storytellers reflect on how to chop up and lay out sections of their plots. Novelists fret over chapter divisions, TV writers massage their scripts to allow for commercial breaks, and playwrights map action into acts.

The idea of act-structure has passed into commercial screenwriting as well. Just when that happened is hard to say, but certainly by the 1980s scriptwriters consciously broke their screenplays into big chunks. That trend was largely the result of Syd Field’s 1979 book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, although some of his points had been anticipated in Constance Nash and Virginia Oakley’s Screenwriter’s Handbook (1974). From these books came the idea that a feature film script had a three-act structure, measured by time segments (30 minutes/ 60 minutes/ 30 minutes). The prototype was a 120-minute film, with each script page running about one minute of screen time. Field fleshed the model out by noting that “plot points” at the ends of acts one and two turned the conflicts in a new direction. Although other writers argued for other templates, and Field’s model was refined (what’s the “inciting incident” in Act One?), versions of the three-act model still rule the international film industry.

Field presented his anatomy as an analysis of hit films like Chinatown and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He suggested it as a template for a successful plot. As Field’s book gained prominence, his guidelines gave production companies an heuristic for triaging submissions. Now a story analyst could simply check pages 25-35 and 55-65 for turning points, and “incorrect” scripts could be discarded immediately. (But see P.S. below.) Through a feedback cycle, the Field model became a guide to both screenwriters and industry decision-makers. Inevitably, the whole thing got mocked. The day-by-day structure of Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang parodies Field’s scheme, and it closes with a self-conscious epilogue. “So,” says the narrator, “that’s pretty much that….”

To what extent, though, was the three-act structure employed in earlier eras? Field’s original edition drew its examples from current hits, but he implied that classics would display the same underlying architecture. Kristin, in Storytelling in the New Hollywood, claimed that four parts were more common than three, and she supported her analysis with examples from films from the silent era and the classic studio years.

But film analysis depends on your perspective. In any movie you can find patterns different from the ones I find, and each of us can make persuasive cases. It would be valuable to know whether American screenwriters in the studio system consciously worked with an act-based model. If they did, what assumptions did they make about the length and organization of each act?

 

Some poor sucker of a screenwriter

Steven Price’s new book, A History of the Screenplay, surveys the practices of screenplay composition in America and Europe. It traces the early years of outlines and scenarios through the continuity script of the silent years, the sound screenplay, and postwar European models, up to the New Hollywood and contemporary standards. It’s a fascinating study and sure to set a benchmark in our understanding of the conventions of screenwriting. For the 1930s and 1940s in America, Steven shows that filmmakers used two formats, either the “master-scene” one or a format involving more explicit instructions about camerawork, lighting, and other aspects. But he finds little direct evidence that screenwriters of the studio era consciously applied a three-act structure.

For some time, I’ve held the same view. I couldn’t find any script draft broken into acts. Some veteran screenwriters admitted using a three-act model in plotting, but their testimony came long after the era. So, for instance, Philip Dunne refers to three-act organization in his 1940s screenplays, but he makes the claim in an interview published in 1986. Billy Wilder says he “wrote [Charles Boyer] out of the third act” of Hold Back the Dawn (1941), but the remark comes in an interview given decades later. There’s always the possibility that older writers, newly aware of the Fieldian template, were projecting it backward onto their work—assuring us that they conform to contemporary standards, or even asserting precedence.

Similarly, we can’t rely too much on secondary sources. True, screenplay manuals, from at least 1913 onward, have recommended a three-part structure, purportedy corresponding to Aristotle’s idea that a plot must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But this rests on a misunderstanding. As I’ve mentioned before, Aristotle isn’t talking of acts; ancient Greek plays didn’t have act divisions. And almost none of the manuals use the term “acts” to describe the parts.

Richard Brooks’ novel The Producer (1951), about a weak-willed executive trying to do the right thing, offers some hints along similar lines. He mentions that a screenplay should run to 120 pages, confirming the canonical length that Field proposes. Likewise, Brooks obliquely appeals to Aristotle.

Some poor sucker of a screenwriter has to create a beginning, a middle and an end, and all the dialogue.

Perhaps there’s an intentional irony in the fact that Brooks’ Hollywood exposé is itself broken into three parts, labeled “The Beginning,” “The Middle,” and “The End.”

Unlike many authors of manuals, Brooks was an established screenwriter, and we might expect his novel to refer to acts. It doesn’t. But Lewis Herman, a minor scribe with three screen credits (including Anthony Mann’s Strange Impersonation), does. His 1952 manual declares that a feature-length film is built upon “a three-act theme outline.” The context suggests that the Hollywood studios demand this as a step toward developing a full screenplay. Herman usefully illustrates the outline with a hypothetical example.

Still, manuals or novels aren’t ironclad sources for studio practice. Better would be contemporaneous evidence from memos, story conferences, and similar unpublished documents. Claus Tieber has done extensive research into such sources and has found no discussions of three-act structure. I’ve found a few, but they’re fairly sketchy.

Overseeing Casablanca, Hal Wallis told Michael Curtiz, “The Epsteins have agreed to deliver the film’s ‘second act’ the following day.” Darryl F. Zanuck mentioned the “last act” in correspondence about Viva Zapata! and On the Waterfront. Supposedly John F. Seitz asked Preston Sturges about the flashback structure of The Great Moment: “Why did you end the picture on the second act?” As I noted in an earlier entry, David Selznick’s papers record a story conference on Portrait of Jennie in which Jed Harris remarks: “The second act–he must get the picture back because that’s all he’ll ever have of her.” He adds that at this point the film “is about 1/3 gone.” This suggests that some practitioners thought of the parts as roughly equal in length. (Kristin’s model proposes that this was the case.)

It may be, of course, that three-act structure of some sort was so ingrained in studio writers’ habits that they didn’t have to discuss it explicitly.  Field was addressing aspiring screenwriters who wanted inside knowledge, but as intuitive craft workers, the old contract writers wouldn’t be likely to spell out rigid rules about length and dramatic patterning.

Since corresponding with Steven for his book, I’ve found that one screenwriter explicitly invoked three-act structure in his working notes. And I’m embarrassed not to have noticed it earlier.

 

Coupling, recoupling, and Joe Breen

F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sheilah Graham.

NICOLAS: Marriage has its phases–its acts–like anything else. This is another act, that’s all.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, screenplay for Infidelity.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Hollywood career was mostly a fiasco. Thanks to temperament, a mentally disturbed wife, bouts of breakdown and alcoholism, and an implacable industry, he worked his way down the hierarchy to unemployment. From July 1937 to his death in 1940, he earned screen credit for just one film, Three Comrades (1938). He also started, but didn’t finish, the best Hollywood novel I know, The Love of the Last Tycoon (aka The Last Tycoon)I think it spells out some features of the Hollywood aesthetic with special vividness.

In early 1938 Fitzgerald began a screenplay for MGM producer Hunt Stromberg (right). Given a title, Infidelity, Fitzgerald came up with a script centered on a dead marriage. What has turned happy young lovers into a polite, numb couple? An extended flashback shows that two years earlier the husband Nicolas re-met his former secretary while his wife Althea was abroad taking care of her sick mother. The secretary, Iris, spent one night at Nicolas’ luxurious home, and it’s implied that they had sex. At breakfast, Althea returned home unexpectedly and found Iris at breakfast. After this, Althea remained married to Nicolas, but simply lived with him in detached ennui.

Back in the present, to ramp up his mood, Nicolas decides to hold a party in the country estate he had more or less abandoned. At the same time, Althea rekindles her friendship with a former suitor, Alex. She can’t arouse herself to passion, though, and Alex leaves her. As she drives more or less hysterically to the estate where the party is in full swing, Nicolas is wandering through his mansion among the shrouded furniture.

At this point, because of objections from the Production Code office, Stromberg halted Fitzgerald’s work on the screenplay. Aaron Latham’s biography tells us that Fitzgerald had planned to present a reconciliation, in which a photographic trick presents Althea seeing herself as Iris and thus forgives Nicolas. But this ending would suggest that the husband’s sin went unpunished. Fitzgerald suggested an alternative, but this too was rejected by Joseph Breen. He tried to redraft the script later in 1938, but the project dissolved.

Fitzgerald had systematically studied Hollywood releases, even filing plot synopses on index cards. Accordingly, the Infidelity screenplay we have shows an awareness of 1930s storytelling conventions: montage sequences, wordless scenes, and revealing visual detail. We learn that Nicolas’ ardor is cooling when we notice that he has stopped opening Althea’s letters. Fitzgerald’s acquaintance with current trends led him to a thumbnail characterization of Althea’s friend Alex:

He is the type played by Ralph Bellamy in The Awful Truth–handsome, attractive, worthy, thoroughly admirable, but somehow too heavy in manner to grip the sympathy of an audience if playing opposite a man of charm.

Occasionally, voice-over dialogue in the present is matched with images in the past, in the manner of Sturges’ “narratage” in The Power and the Glory. (See our entry here.) And the large-scale flashback structure, leaving a key action in the present suspended for nearly an hour, anticipates a mode of construction that would be common in the 1940s.

Despite its up-to-date air, the plot of Infidelity creaks a bit. It relies on a great many coincidences and introduces rather late a major menace, a sinister surgeon who seems slated to play the disruptive role of George Wilson in Gatsby. But what’s of special interest to us is a schedule of work that Fitzgerald sent to Stromberg during the planning stages.

Fitzgerald groups his scenes into clusters, and alongside each one he notes a date on which he expects to complete it. Since each scene usually runs only a couple of pages, the groupings present a feasible day-by-day timetable. These clusters of scenes are gathered into eight “sequences,” labeled with Roman numerals. In the 1930s, a “sequence” meant, according to screenwriter Frances Marion, “a series of scenes in which the action is continuous without any break in time.” Each of Infidelity‘s sequences presents a unified phase of the action and is more or less continuous in time, although there are some ellipses as well.

Here’s the news: Fitzgerald’s timetable assembles the sequences into acts. Sequences I through IV are labeled “FIRST ACT 45 pages.” Sequences V through VIII are labeled “SECOND ACT 50 pages.” Sequence VIII is continued to form “THIRD ACT 25 pages.”

The first act  establishes the loveless marriage and launches the flashback. While Althea is away, Nicolas re-encounters Iris. Meanwhile, as Althea and her mother are on their way home, they conveniently run into her old beau Alex. Their departure for the United States ends this setup. In the screenplay Fitzgerald has typed: “The First Act may be said to end here.”

The second act develops the conflict to a point of crisis. Althea returns a week early to find Iris at breakfast with Nicolas. She resigns herself to a loveless union. Back in the present, he plans the party and at the instigation of Althea’s mother Alex starts to woo her. But he abandons Althea, and by chance she’s found by Dr. Borden, whom she starts kissing. In the notes for Sequence VIII, Fitzgerald cryptically ends the act on an alternation between the couples:

CUT TO husband and back to old beau [Alex]

[Alethea] with beau [Alex]

Crisis with beau and switch [to the surgeon, Dr. Borden?]

CUT TO husband

After presenting this alternation in scenes, the manuscript concludes:

Full shot of a bedroom, large and luxurious like everything else in this house. Soft lighting, everything covered with cloth or canvas.

Nicolas Gilbert is standing in the middle of the floor.

Close shot of Nicolas.

This is presumably the end of the passage labeled “CUT TO husband.” In the Stromberg schedule, this last portion marks the end of Act Two. Act Three isn’t in the canonical version of the screenplay.

A couple of final points about the structure. Although the screenplay is estimated at 120 pages, its proportions don’t conform to the Field paradigm. At 25 pages or minutes, the third act is short. This is a characteristic of both modern and older Hollywood climax sections. But Act One was projected to be very long at 45 pages, and Act Two approximates it at 50. Fitzgerald’s layout is perhaps more characteristic of a stage play, which can afford a longish exposition and equivalent second act. In the script version we have, both acts run equivalent page lengths.

Fitzgerald may have expected some trimming and compression at later stages. In The Producer, Brooks’ protagonist notes that a 120-page script would usually be cut down to 90 minutes because exhibitors wanted films at about that length. It’s true that few films of the studio era run to two hours.

Set aside brute measurements. What, in Infidelity, makes an act a coherent unit? Not a specific span of time. Act One breaks off partway through the flashback, and Act Two ends before the evening party does. The first act ends when we know a crisis is coming: Althea is returning home early and hasn’t told Nicolas, whom we’ve seen flirting with Iris. Act Two ends at another high point. Nicolas confronts the emptiness of his life without his wife, and nearby Althea is heedlessly making love to a stranger with dubious designs. We could easily imagine the script as a stage play, with a curtain ringing down on each of these teasing situations.

 

In sum, we have  one clear-cut case of a studio screenwriter laying out his plot in three acts. We can’t generalize from a single instance, of course, and we would need many more pieces of evidence to consider this a widespread writing strategy. Perhaps Fitzgerald isn’t typical. Did his relative inexperience as a screenwriter make him rely on a theatrical template that others could do without? Did he employ it more as a rhetorical device to convince Stromberg that the plot was firmly constructed? Still, taken with the reminiscences of Dunne, Wilder, et al. and the sketchy mentions we have in production records, the Infidelity project suggests that some conception(s) of  three-act structure were operative in the studio period.

Needless to say, we’ll need even more evidence before we can begin to consider whether the filmmakers’ craft practice matches the structural patterns that today’s analysts disclose in the films. The search continues!


The Fitzgerald outline is reproduced on pp. 161-162 of Aaron Latham, Crazy Sundays: F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood (Viking, 1971). This book is not only a stimulating account of the novelist’s Hollywood years but also a helpful view of the movie colony’s culture. My discussion relies upon the version of Infidelity published in Esquire 80, 6 (December 1973), 193-200, 290-304. It is available in a digitized version here. The original manuscripts are in the University of South Carolina library.

Philip Dunne’s remarks about three-act structure are in Pat McGilligan, Backstory (University of California Press, 1988), 158. Billy Wilder’s remarks come in George Stevens, ed., Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age (Knopf, 2006), 316. (In the same interview Wilder claims that Some Like It Hot has four acts.) Richard Brooks’ The Producer (Simon & Schuster, 1951) is worth reading for its almost documentary survey of the process of production at the period. Lewis Herman’s Practical Manual of Screen Playwriting for Theater and Television Films (World, 1952) is an unusually detailed guidebook.

On Wallis’ memo about Casablanca‘s second act, see Marshall Deutelbaum, “The Visual Design Program of Casablanca,” Post Script 9, 3 (Summer 1980), 38. For Zanuck’s comments see Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck: The Golden Years at Twentieth Century-Fox, ed. Rudy Behlmer (Grove, 1993), 173, 226. Seitz’s remark to Sturges about The Great Moment is quoted in James Curtis, Between Flops: A Biography of Preston Sturges (Harcourt, Brace, 1982), 172. There’s more discussion in our blog entry on The Great Moment.

I take Frances Marion’s definition of “sequence” as a bundle of scenes from her How to Write and Sell Film Stories (Covici-Friede, 1937), 373. Tamar Lane offers a comparable definition in his New Technique of Screen Writing (McGraw-Hill, 1936), 123. Interestingly, Lane adds that some scenarists think of each sequence as moving toward a high point, like an act in a play; but this seems only a rough analogy, and the comparison entails that a script would have several more “acts” than three. Steven Price suggests that the “sequence” as an extended script segment emerged in the silent period and hung on in some sound screenplays; see A History of the Screenplay, especially 63, 115-116, and 153-157. At the same time, “sequence” could refer to a single brief segment, as in “action sequence” or “montage sequence.”

Thanks to Steven Price and Claus Tieber for correspondence about act structure. Claus has a relevant case study of Grand Hotel, “‘A Story Is Not a Story But a Conference’: Story Conferences and the Classical Studio System,” in Journal of Screenwriting vol. 5, no. 2 (2014): 225-237. More generally, I’m grateful to researchers at the Screenwriting Research Network for what I’ve learned from their conferences in Brussels in 2011 and in Madison in 2013.

Other entries on this site have considered act structure. Kristin explains her model, based on goal formulation and injections of new information. She expands on this as it affects character subjectivity and point of view.  I illustrate her model with reference to what is supposedly the most wayward and narratively fragmented modern genre, the action picture. I offer some general reflections on how the four-part structure informs not only current films but best-selling novels. For a more general discussion of the dimensions of film narrative, you can download this chapter from my Poetics of Cinema. Also, too: there’s the precept that form follows format. Finally, I consider modern trends in screenplay construction, including act structure, in The Way Hollywood Tells It.

After a while you see the triplicate scheme everywhere. In Case History of a Movie (1950), p. 30, Dore Schary says that Charles Schnee turned in the script of The Next Voice You Hear in thirds. Acts? I’ll have to get back to you.

P.S. 19 May 2014: In reply to this post, Greg Beal comments that my discussion of rejecting screenplays based on Field’s plot points is inaccurate.

Having employed hundreds of readers over the past 25 years, many of whom also read for various production companies and agencies, I have never witnessed nor heard of a single person doing what you describe.  In fact, readers/story analysts, typically the initial gatekeepers at agencies, production companies and studios, can’t actually discard scripts at any point as they are required to write coverage, which usually includes a multi-page synopsis of the submission.
 
Most likely, if the above did occur, it might have been among newly minted execs, who might have known little more about scripts than what they read in Field’s Screenplay. Of course, most execs would have simply read the coverage and not even bothered to pick up the script, let alone turn to pages 25-35 or 55-65.

My claim was, I now think, an overstatement. I should not have suggested that the absence of canonical plot points would be sufficient to doom a screenplay. Naturally, I realize that the analyst would still be obliged to write fuller coverage. I meant simply that the Field template could set up expectations that the script wasn’t written to standard. Other factors would surely be taken into account in a final decision. The larger point, that three-act structure along Field’s lines shapes analysts’ judgment, remains to be determined.

My most concrete evidence for the saliency of the three-act, plot-point model in this production context comes from two manuals by story analysts. T. L. Katahin’s Reading for a Living: How to Be a Professional Story Analyst for Film and Television (Blue Arrow, 1990) recommends that analysts look for three acts, including a ten-page initial setup followed by a development and two further acts that forward the protagonist’s goals. But Katahin doesn’t propose exact page counts for further twists.

More specific is Jennifer Lerch’s 500 Ways to Beat the Hollywood Script Reader: Writing the Screenplay the Reader Will Recommend (Simon and Schuster, 1999). In following the three-act layout, she suggests that Act One, the setup, be consummated between pages 20 and 30 (ideally consisting of two scenes 10-15 pages each). Act 2, as per Field, is said to run long, up to pages 80-90, and typically consists of four to eight sequences (each 10-15 pages or so). This act is said to lead to a point of no return, the pivot-point for Act 3.

Lerch, who was a professional story analyst for the William Morris Agency for eight years, claims, “Your script’s setup can literally make or break your project in the Hollywood Reader’s eyes, particularly at some companies that instruct readers to stop at page thirty of a script if it looks substandard. You may have a great second act and climactic sequence, but Hollywood will never see it unless you give it a savvy setup” (91). Passages like this one led me to think that the Field template weighs quite strongly in analysts’ judgment. But I’ve never supervised story analysts, so I welcome Greg’s expert comment on the matter.

P.P.S. 20 May 2014: More information on Fitzgerald’s Infidelity screenplay and its act breaks. In a letter to Hunt Stromberg dated 22 February 1938, Fitzgerald wrote:

The first problem was whether, with a story which is over half told before we get up to the point at which we began, we had a solid dramatic form–in other words whether it would divide naturally into three increasingly interesting “acts” etc. The answer is yes. . . .

This point, the decision to sail, also marks the end of the “first act.” The “second act” will take us through the seduction, the discovery, the two year time lapse, and the return of the old sweetheart–will take us, in fact, up to the moment when Joan [later, Althea] having weathered all this, is unpredictably jolted off her balance by a stranger. This is our high point–when matters seem utterly insoluble.

Our third act is Joan’s recoil from a situation that is menacing, both materially and morally, and her reaction toward reconciliation with her husband.

Evidently the timetable reprinted in Crazy Sundays was prepared after this letter was sent. This letter is printed in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli (Scribners, 1994), 348-349.

P.P.P.S. 30 May 2014: I always enjoy getting correspondence from readers, and I must catch up by noting some other responses I’ve received. David Cairns, whose wonderful blog Shadowplay is always worth checking on (his latest post is on Hannibal, the TV show), writes with this comment:

I can’t find it at present, but Billy Wilder’s dictum “If there’s a problem in the third act, the solution’s in the first act,” appears, I am sure, in Maurice Zolotow’s biography of the great man. Published a couple of years before Syd Field. 
In Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges, PS discusses his troubles with the script of Remember the Night, and how he solved the second act. 
Of course, Sturges was a Broadway playwright and it would be natural to him to break a story into acts (though not necessarily three). But so were many others — I would question whether the influx of playwrights with the coming of sound perhaps changed the structural approach of Hollywood screenplays? 
I couldn’t find the Zolotow Wilder biography either, but when I do I will check. The only point I’d make in advance is that it would be better to have Wilder’s testimony at the time, rather than in the 1970s. But David’s memory of Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges has not played him false. One of the funniest passages in the book involves Remember the Night:
When I had him [the DA played by Fred MacMurray] take her up [to the mountains] moved by charitable impulse and the Yuletide spirit, it expired from galloping eunuchery. So I thought of a novelty. The district attorney takes her up to the mountains for the purpose of violating the Mann Act. This has always been a good second act. It is an act enjoyed by all, one that we rarely tire of, and one not above the heads of the audience. In Rain, for instance, the preacher started to reform her and ended up laying her like a carpet. (p. 288)
As David indicates, the reference to the second act is clearly meant to apply to theatre practice, but it would be natural for Sturges, stumped for a middle stretch for his plot, to make the analogy. Sturges also niftily puns on “act,” implying not only a dramatic segment but coitus (“it is an act enjoyed by all”) and even a law enacted. For readers too young to know what the Mann Act is, check here.
Like David and probably other readers, I’ve wondered whether the idea of a screenplay’s acts stems from the playwrights who came to Hollywood in the 1930s. Again, if that’s the case, it’s strange that we find so little evidence of it.
Another correspondent, Soren Schoff, writes to point out that Victor Freeburg’s The Art of Photoplay Making (1918) makes occasional reference to three-part dramatic construction. In this, Freeburg is in accord with those writers I mention who map this scheme onto Aristotle’s precept about beginnings, middles, and ends. Freeberg does mention that in a stage play the “beginning,” or “premise,” often coincides with the first act (p. 247). But he doesn’t follow through with this and equate the middle with the second act, and so on. In fact, I think, he can’t do so because many of the plays he takes as models, such as Shakespeare’s, have more than three acts. Freeburg finds the three basic parts–what he calls premise, complication, and solution–to be an undergirding structure, not a format that coincides with act breaks in plays (or presumably screenplays).
In addition, it’s worth remembering that Freeburg’s book isn’t a manual of practice but rather an analytical treatise articulating an aesthetic of the cinema. His prescriptive remarks are by way of sketching preferred ways of achieving artistic effects like unity. In this respect his book is in the tradition of Aristotle’s Poetics, as the title’s phrase “Photoplay Making” impliesFor more practical advice on “the practical side of plot building” (n.p.), Freeburg recommends Epes Winthrop Sargent’s Technique of the Photoplay. As an early academic effort to study film, The Art of Photoplay Making is still very much worth reading. It’s available, as Soren points out, online.
Thanks to David and Soren for writing.

Hold Back the Dawn (1941).

Pulverizing plots: Into the woods with Sondheim, Shklovsky, and David O. Russell

American Hustle (2013).

The different writers, who live in different times, come across the same pattern, the same chain of circumstances, which reveal themselves in different ways in each time.

This is how plot travels through time.

Viktor Shkovsky, 1981

 DB here:

Besides writing some fine tunes and cunning rhymes, Stephen Sondheim has been an audacious experimenter with storytelling on stage. Do you know Into the Woods? It’s a bittersweet mashup of fairytales. Instead of presenting each one separately, like the vignettes of Japanese history in Pacific Overtures, here Sondheim’s collaborator James Lapine has woven them into one elaborate super-story. Rapunzel turns out to be the sister of the baker who sells bread to Red Riding Hood to take to Grandma. The princes pursuing Cinderella and Rapunzel are brothers who eventually turn their affections to Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. And so on. It’s an ingenious contraption, and I look forward to the film version to be released this year.

Even before that, we can learn something useful from what Sondheim has done. In effect, he has offered us a nifty audiovisual aid for understanding some ideas about storytelling advanced by the Russian Viktor Shklovsky. Shklovsky is surely the most eccentric literary critic of the twentieth century. He is also one of the greatest.

Thanks to Maria Belodubrovskaya and web tsarina Meg Hamel, we’ve just posted the first English translation of a rare Shklovsky essay elsewhere on this site. Today I want to consider a couple of Shklovsky’s many provocative ideas.

 

All the reverses

Shklovsky wasn’t an ivory-tower aesthete. He fought in World War I, joined the 1917 February Revolution that overthrew the Tsar, and continued an army career. As a Social Revolutionary, he initially opposed the Bolsheviks and spent several years in hiding and in exile in Germany. In 1923 he returned to the USSR and settled in to work as a professional writer.

Abandoning university life (he never took his exams), he wrote countless journalistic essays and several film scripts for Soviet classics: By the Law (1926), Bed and Sofa (1927), The House on Trubnaya Square (1928), and the documentary Turksib (1929). His novels were experimental efforts, mixing memoirs with speculations on literature. Zoo, or Letters Not About Love (1923) subverts the form of the epistolary novel by including letters that are not to be read. (A red X crosses them out.)

He became known for a porous, cryptic approach to writing. He can be repetitious, puzzling, tedious, and maddening; outlining one of his essays is a wrestling match. His jittery style mobilizes brief paragraphs, some consisting of a single short sentence, much as Eisenstein and other directors used short film shots: as a percussive device to assail the reader.

A quick phrase can swing into a digression, a tactic Shklovsky relied on even more as he advanced into his eighties. The man who thought Tristram Shandy was “the most typical novel in literature” had a soft spot for delay and detour. Some variations:

To take a break, I am inserting here a page from one of my old manuscripts.

After such an opening, one can digress in any direction.

Being the theorist of “baring the device,” Shklovsky naturally accentuates the artifice of his technique. “It’s not easy to enact a change of theme,” he says, doing it while talking about it. Later we get a hint of the arbitrariness of organization. “I’ll repeat–continuity can be started from any place.”

Shklovsky’s most enduring fame came through his association with what has become known as Russian Formalism. While studying at St. Petersburg, Shklovsky and some friends formed OPOYAZ, the “Society for the Study of Poetic Language.” They were convinced that the literary history they were being taught failed to get at the essence of “literariness”—the specific quality that made literature a distinct domain. Historians could compile names and dates, speculate on biographical influences and social pressures, but this still wouldn’t distinguish literary forms from non-literary ones. What makes a poem different from a grocery list, a courtroom drama different from a trial transcript?

In the late teens and early twenties, Shklovsky and his colleagues set forth a new approach to literature. That approach was called, by its enemies, “Formalism,” and the name has stuck.

In English, of course, the word has so many meanings that it should probably be retired. Sometimes it means studying “form” and neglecting “content”; that was part of what the Stalinist hacks meant when they insisted that Shklovsky & Co. weren’t advancing the class struggle by emphasizing ideology. Today, to use “formalism” as a slam is often to suggest something similar—that a formalist ignores “content” like race, class, gender, and nation. But the Formalists didn’t neglect content. What others considered content they treated as material that is shaped by the literary work.

Following up Formalist theory fully would take me far afield. Instead, I want to turn to Shklovsky for some thoughts on plot structure that are fairly different from those I floated here a little while ago.

 

Once upon a time

The Formalists were among the founders of “narratology,” the systematic study of storytelling. They gave us the foundational distinction between story and plot, or fabula and syuzhet. The fabula consists of the events in the story world as they’re arranged according to time, space, and causality. The syuzhet consists of the story events as we encounter them in the finished narrative. Flashbacks furnish the most obvious example of how plot structure rearranges story order. Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along is more unusual: its plot presents its story episodes in reverse order, so that the last thing we see is the earliest fabula event.

My essay, “Three Dimensions of Film Narrative,” and the accompanying blog post on The Wolf of Wall Street, reflected my basic take on narrative analysis, which is holistic. I try to get a sense of the overall architecture, and see how particular elements slot into that. For instance, by suggesting that The Wolf has a five-part act structure, I traced a development from part to part as Jordan sets up his trading firm, conducts an affair that destroys his marriage, launches an IPO and attracts the attention of the Feds, expands his scheme to offshore money laundering, and eventually comes to ruin….and resurrection. My analysis traced action patterns that unfold like musical melodies through the movie.

Most people would defend a holistic approach in another way. The Wolf of Wall Street  runs 173 minutes without credits. Its admirers argue that it needs to be so long because it has to accommodate all the plots and counterplots. True, maybe some scenes are a bit stretched (notably Jordan’s and Donnie’s hilarious Quaalude orgy), but on the whole Scorsese and his screenwriter Terence Winter could say that telling Jordan’s story adequately demanded a long running time.

Shklovsky asks us to think of storytelling less holistically, or at least to think of a different sort of whole. He takes us through the looking glass.

*Instead of treating a narrative as a linear chain of events—say, the adventures of an egoist like Jordan—let’s think of it as a point of intersection of various materials. Not a linear flow, but a collage of items brought in, trimmed, or discarded as needed.

*And instead of taking a narrative as determining the time it takes to unfold, let’s think of the time as determining the narrative. Think of the narrative as built to scale, with a predetermined size into which material has to be fitted.

 

Every knot was once straight rope

The Decameron (1971).

Shklovsky thinks that a narrative is like a collage because historically, short narratives aren’t cut-down long ones. Instead, long texts have been woven out of short ones. He and his colleagues were much influenced by studies in folklore, which showed that folktales were often built out of familiar pieces, or motifs. A motif might be a character, such as a jealous stepmother; an object, such as a magical ring; or an action, such as a test or competition. Storytellers could combine these motifs to create their plots. This is, on a big and self-conscious scale, what Sondheim has done in Into the Woods.

Shklovsky extends the idea of motif-assembly to the novel, which he claims grew out of collections of shorter stories. One example is The Golden Ass, an ancient Latin novel of the first or second century AD. In this tale a traveler undergoes some adventures but he also encounters characters who tell him their own stories. (Some of those may be based on folktales.) Similarly, the fourteenth-century Decameron of Boccacio consists of tales exchanged among ten characters sequestered to escape a plague in their city.

We have such story-collections in cinema, though they’re not common. Most obviously, Pasolini’s “Trilogy of Life” (The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, The Arabian Nights) drew upon the tradition that Shklovsky is charting. A Hollywood example would be O. Henry’s Full House (1952).

Finding a pretext for assembling stories exemplifies what OPOYAZ called motivation. Motivation, as I’ve discussed here before, involves creating a justification for a formal choice. Motivation isn’t just for actors who figure out why a character behaves a certain way. It’s for every artist, as when a cinematographer tells of needing to “motivate” a pattern of light by providing a lamp or window.

More broadly, motivation gives the audience a reason to accept a formal option. One of my favorite examples comes in Citizen Kane. Having decided to tell Kane’s story in flashbacks more or less chronologically, Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles confronted a problem in their frame story. After Kane’s death a reporter would naturally turn to his surviving second wife before contacting friends or associates. But if Susan recounted her memories of Kane before the other witnesses did, her episodes would come from late in his life and throw off the chronology. Therefore the script makes Susan too drunk and angry to talk to the reporter Thompson when he calls. He must proceed to the Thatcher library, where he’ll learn about Kane’s earliest years. Later, when Susan is more sober, she recounts her flashback in its proper, chronological place.

Motivation is everywhere in cinema, and it assumes different guises. Sometimes filmmakers motivate their choices by realism. Susan, being an alcoholic, might well angrily refuse to talk to the reporter. Filmmakers also appeal to genre-driven factors, as when people sing and dance in a musical; presumably this will be the rationale for the musical numbers in the movie of Into the Woods, as they are in the play. Very often the motivation springs from what the plot demands. In a mystery, to keep viewers in the dark, you can attach the action to an investigator who gradually discovers what’s really going on.

Sometimes style needs motivation. In the recent vogue for first-person films like End of Watch, Chronicle, and the Paranormal Activity series, the makers find excuses for the characters to use their video cameras to record what’s happening.

Foreshadowing is a sort of motivation too. In The Wolf of Wall Street, Naomi’s aunt Emma comes to the couple’s wedding. In realistic terms, inviting a relative to the ceremony is plausible, but it’s there for structural reasons. The plot needs to introduce a character living overseas whom Jordan can later use to hold his smuggled money. This might seem a cold-hearted way to view a character, but the plot treats her just as heartlessly, killing her off at just the moment that precipitates a climax.

In sum, Shklovsky’s engineering approach prods us to ask why something is in this tale—not according to character psychology or thematic statement, but as part of a system of materials and their motivations. Perhaps Shklovsky thought he could motivate his late-period digressions by the reader’s knowledge of his age: the Grandpa Simpson alibi.

 

I’m in the wrong story

Wine of Youth (1924) publicity still.

How to motivate the sort of story-collections we started with? Minimally, you can create a framing situation in which one or more persons share a tale with an audience; that’s the Decameron solution. You can go further by making the tales seem to belong together. Perhaps they parallel one another, either explicitly or implicitly. One might prove that crime doesn’t pay, while another disproves it. Shklovsky calls this “a debate of stories.” In the 1924 film Wine of Youth, a young woman hears from her mother and grandmother about their courtships. The similarities and differences across the generations create comic parallels to the young woman’s own romance.

You could also motivate the connection between the frame story and the embedded ones. Shklovsky mentions that the very act of telling can slow down the action in the frame story, as when Scheherazade keeps narrating every night to postpone her death. Or perhaps a discovered manuscript (the embedded story) will have an impact on the people finding it. You might try to somehow blend the told story with the act of storytelling. In the British film Dead of Night (1945) the separate stories all involve fantastic events, and the people telling the tales stand outside them. But the film’s climax seems to turn the frame story itself into such a fantasy, creating a sort of Mobius strip that twists the film back to its beginning.

I think, though, the greatest power of Shklovsky’s idea comes with the notion that any big narrative is really composed of smaller ones. He goes beyond episodic assemblies like The Decameron and Dead of Night to suggest that even the most “organic” or tightly-designed plots can be considered well-disguised story collections. In other words, my holistic assumption is countered by one that treats a well-shaped whole as a heavily motivated collage of different stories. From Shklovsky’s perspective every narrative of any complexity is like Into the Woods.

We can imagine a continuum of the ways in which fairly distinct story lines are woven into one big one. You might bring the characters together in a single space, such as an inn. Cervantes used this tactic in Don Quixote, and the great Chinese filmmaker King Hu revived it in several of his films. Grand Hotel, Hotel Berlin, The VIPs, Nashville, and many other ensemble films gather different story lines within a single space and let them intertwine. Sondheim and Lapine brought their fairy-tale plots together in the same locale, the primeval woods. Often the linkage is one of time as well, with the action compressed into a few hours or days.

Given a unity of time and locale, we expect that the story lines will affect one another, which indeed happens in the films I’ve mentioned. This puts us in the land of what I’ve called “network narratives” and what Peter Parshall studies in his book Altman and After.

Apart from spatial connections and concentrated time connections, you can hook up your source-stories more tightly. Most complex narratives assign the characters roles in different story lines. For instance, Into the Woods ties its fairy-tale figures together by friendship, acquaintance, love, and kinship. Characters create goals that involve other characters. Rapunzel’s mother the witch demands ingredients for a potion, and these bring in Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Cinderella.

The implication is that every plot of any complexity, no matter how smoothly all its parts seem to fit together, is a paste-up, a virtual recombination of simpler action lines sewn together by motivations. A romantic comedy with a main couple and a secondary one? It’s essentially two separate plots joined by the simple strategy of making the couples friends with each other. The detective story in which various characters tell us their alibis? Separate plots hooked up by the need to involve them in the murder investigation. The heist movie that follows all the characters partnering in a single robbery? It compiles plots about different thieves and welds them together by a shared knockover.

 

Any path . . . so many worth exploring

For Shklovsky, even a novel’s protagonist can serve as a motivating device for connecting the various stories he or she encounters. “Gil Blas is not a human being at all. He is a thread, a tedious thread, by means of which all the episodes of the novel are woven together.” Likewise, in The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan is not given a lot of depth. Some viewers have criticized this tactic, since he doesn’t change his attitude or ethical outlook, and seems to learn nothing from his rise and fall. Shklovsky could suggest that he’s chiefly a device for hooking together a string of episodes about the giddy high life of stock trading. Showing a weasel behaving like a weasel for three hours—some viewers have found him indeed “a tedious thread”—isn’t especially edifying in itself, but the film’s fascination comes chiefly from the escalation of excess we’re invited to witness.

From this angle, The Wolf of Wall Street somewhat resembles another current release, The Great Beauty. This film is more explicit in using the protagonist to combine plots that represent a cross-section of a society. We’ve had other films that use one character to survey, fresco-fashion, different milieus. Mizoguchi’s Life of Oharu is one such plot, and La Dolce Vita, to which The Great Beauty has often been compared, is another. Usually, though, the protagonist responds to what she or he encounters and changes as a result; in The Great Beauty Jep’s wanderings create a sort of ephiphany. Perhaps the novelty of the plot of The Wolf of Wall Street is that after being introduced to high-flying hedonism Jordan rushes in and never looks back.

Of course we could imagine other versions of The Wolf—an apprentice plot showing us Jordan learning the ropes at length from Mark Hanna, or a multiple-protagonist plot in which Donnie, Teresa, Naomi, and other characters get much more attention. Shklovsky reminds us of what screenwriters know instinctively: plot unity is often a matter of ruthlessly chopping out all those intriguing alternatives. Every complex tale is yanked and snipped out of a vast network of potential plots.

Consider American Hustle, much more of an ensemble piece than The Wolf. (Spoilers ahead.) I see it as a romantic comedy with a crime ingredient. Three principal love triangles are interlocked (Irving-Sydney-Rosalyn, Irving-Sidney-Richie, Irving-Rosalyn-Pete). These are pushed forward thanks to the doubled plotline characteristic of classical Hollywood cinema: work and love so intertwine so that the sting operation develops along with the romantic complications. David O. Russell and co-screenwriter Eric Warren Singer use many well-practiced comic conventions, including overheard conversations that precipitate crises. (As usual, no coincidence, no story.) In its unfolding American Hustle fits Kristin’s four-part-plus-epilogue model tidily.

In contrast to my perspective, Shklovsky invites us to consider how several conventional plots are squeezed into Russell’s film. Here are some.

*A husband has an affair with another woman, and his wife learns of it.

*A woman is a man’s mistress but another man is attracted to her. She leads both of them on.

*A con artist fleeces gullible people with the aid of a confederate.

*A dutiful father tries to protect his son from the mother, who’s a little crazy.

*A man betrays his friend and feels the need to confess it, even though it will ruin their friendship.

*A cop tries to bring down big-time crooks, against the wishes of his supervisor.

*A cop has captured a crook and wants to use that crook to get to higher-ups.

*A wife, feeling ignored by her husband, seeks the attention of other men.

*A man has a fiancée approved by his mother, but he’s attracted to a more glamorous woman.

*A small-time crook tries to scam the Mafia, and the gangsters learn of it.

*A father warns his sons against fishing on thin ice.

These plots are blended by having a few characters play multiple roles in them. Even in this profusion, by rewriting the film we could go further—say, expanding the conflict between the cop Richie and his mother, or going back further into Sydney’s past. As with The Wolf, by developing the sub-stories, we could multiply story threads forever.

Narrative can flourish like kudzu. What curtails things? Among other things, the second factor I mentioned at the outset: format.

 

Slotted spoons don’t hold much soup

Shklovsky suggests that very often a story is created (or re-created) in order to be of a certain size. Instead of the old saw “form follows function,” Shkovsky suggests another: form follows format. The length of the narrative is dictated in large part by the sort of thing it’s going to be. A pop song isn’t an operetta, a short story isn’t a novel, a miniature isn’t a mural.

At first glance this notion seems too stringent. Surely a poem or play can be any length we want. There are gigantic symphonies and sprawling picture scrolls. Whitman seems to have had no problem adding more and more poetry to editions of Leaves of Grass. But these instances might be exceptional.

There will always be outliers, especially among the avant-garde, but most storytellers work in media that set limits and favor certain lengths. At the moment, three hours is sort of a maximum for an Broadway musical play like Wicked, The Book of Mormon, or Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. It makes sense that, given high ticket prices, audiences want a reasonably extended experience. They get one in Into the Woods: it standardly runs about three hours, including intermission.

Even a big name like Sondheim works within time constraints. When he and James Lepine were contemplating redoing a fairy tale, they made a discovery.

Fairy tales, by nature, are short; the plots turn on a dime, there are few characters and even fewer complications. This problem is best demonstrated by every fairy-tale movie and TV show since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, all of which pad the lean stories with songs and side-kicks and subplots, some of which are more involving than the interrupted story itself. And those are all less than two hours long.

They needed to expand their material to Broadway length, and they did it by recalling an idea they’d concocted long before—a TV show that brought together characters from other TV shows.

Shklovsky’s suggestion is particularly attractive to those of us who study media because most artworks in commercial formats fit basic dictates of size. . US network TV episodes run 22 minutes or 45 minutes. Novels have roomier boundaries, but editors still have their preferences. According to a publisher’s marketer, in 2010 the ideal novel ran between 80,000 and 110,000 words. The doorstops bestowed on us by Rowling, Martin, and Stephen King are the market-tested, lucrative exceptions.

As for films, we still have pretty strong constraints outside avant-garde and festival pieces like Sátántangó (seven hours). A-level feature films in the 1940s typically ran between 80 and 120 minutes; B-films were typically 60 to 80 minutes. The longest running times were reserved for roadshow specials like Gone with the Wind and Duel in the Sun. I don’t know of a systematic study of changes in running times, but today there’s still apparently a two-tiered system. Program pictures (horror, action, raunchy comedy) with unknowns or minor stars (e.g., Jason Statham) can run around 85-100 minutes, with credits. The big releases can run two hours or more, but seldom more than three. When asked why originally The Grandmaster was 130 minutes, Wong Kar-wai is said to have replied, “All movies are 130 minutes now.”

Granted, directors’ cuts and alternative editions offer some flexibility. An initial four-hour cut of The Wolf of Wall Street had to be chopped down to a little less than three, but the long version may show up on disc or VOD. For all I know, it could become a mini-series. But even then its installments will be constrained by the running times of that format. And my other main example today, American Hustle, fits Wong’s point: Without credits, it runs 130:30.

 

Only three more tries

Lion King 1 1/2 (2004).

How is the format’s scale connected to Shklovsky’s idea about building your narrative out of pieces? This way: You find or create the pieces that will fill out the narrative to a conventional size. The format helps you decide how much to add or take away from the ongoing collage you’re creating of characters, actions, and story lines. Again it’s a matter of motivation, finding ways of justifying what you want to keep in or leave out.

Within the overall size of the piece, there are smaller chunks that need to be filled. A recent example is Anchorman 2.5, in which new gags replace old ones but still must be squeezed into the original scenes. Today’s screenwriting manuals, with their insistence on something big happening on certain pages, also indicate how storytellers are encouraged to invent material to be squeezed into a fixed frame. Some people hate the idea of a “formulaic” screenplay, but Shklovsky the pragmatist would, I think, compare it to verse forms like the sonnet and the haiku, which dictate quite specific slots to be filled. In this respect, Kristin’s multi-part model of mainstream feature films is compatible with Shklovsky’s idea: She has made the format’s customary subdivisions explicit.

Very often, you may need to stretch out a story situation to fit the time allotted. To some extent, folding several mini-plots into your big plot gives you the chance to extend the whole thing. In particular, often the plots don’t blend but actually block one another. In American Hustle, Rosalyn’s jealous-wife storyline serves to prolong the action around Irving and Richie’s scam, especially when she starts flirting with the casino magnates at the big dinner. Similarly, Richie’s escalating schemes to go after bigger crooks keeps thwarting Irving’s plan to mount simple scams that will let him and Sydney skate.

What to do when you lack material? We have some historical examples. In cinema, Griffith found several ways to fill out the one- and two-reel formats. Instead of simply showing characters coming into a scene, he filmed simple, mostly undramatic “goings and comings” that followed characters leaving one spot, traveling, and arriving at another spot. He also discovered that he could stretch out a situation by crosscutting two simultaneous actions.

An Aristotelian could say that Griffith discovered that crosscutting could generate suspense in rescue situations, but Shklovsky starts from sheer delay as an engineering principle. Why do the villains in such situations take such an ungodly time to accomplish their villainy? In 1923, Shklovsky recognized the emerging conventions of action cinema, still going strong today.

Attempted rape in a modern film is almost canonized. The victim is struggling, her friends are far away, the villain is pursuing the woman, “meanwhile,” etc. In my opinion, the choice of the crime in this instance is explained not so much by the desire to play on the spectator’s interest in eroticism as by the actual nature of the crime, which requires for its completion a certain amount of time. Instead of rape, take murder by pistol shot. Such an act is too indivisible. That is why cinematic villainy is usually perpetrated by a method that requires a large amount of time—drowning, for example, with the victim suspended upside down in a cellar and water pouring in. Sometimes the victim is bound hand and foot, then tossed on the railroad tracks, or else immured. Also effective is abduction in all its varieties. Only minor characters, not involved in the plot, are killed off immediately.

He might have added that the hero may be given a weak friend, whose death can be a little more protracted (and motivate the hero’s quest for revenge).

We tend to think of delay as padding, but actually narratives need it. Delay can be unmotivated, as digressions are. More often it’s motivated. In folk tales, why does the hero have two brothers? So that they can try and fail at the task that he will accomplish. (Hollywood’s rule of three may have its roots in folklore.) Stretching out the intervals between major plot points allows other things to be inserted—gags, character exposition, musical numbers, witty dialogue. Tarantino is very accomplished at dialogue-driven retardation. Call it the Royale-with-Cheese tactic.

It sounds strange to think of a novel’s descriptions of what characters eat and wear and drive as filler material. Ditto weather reports and portraits of neighborhoods. But Shklovsky suggests that in most cases that’s what these portions are, more or less motivated bits that flesh out the plot and connect the bits that the story-maker has brought on for this occasion. They can be further elaborated to create motifs and bind the work more firmly.

It seems even stranger that the same purposes of filling out the format and delaying the main events should be fulfilled by character traits. We tend to think of characters as modeled on living people—simpler, but with recognizable traits, habits, temperaments, and the like. For Shklovsky, a character can be minimal or maximal, depending on how much time or pages you have to fill. If your plot material is thin, you can thicken it by expanding your character, and at some point you have a psychological novel.

In some cases, by searching for material to expand the tale, the artist discovers new depths in his characters, as Shklovsky thinks Cervantes did with Don Quixote. The Don, initially a compilation of clichés drawn from chivalric romances, becomes richer as the first book proceeds. By the second book there’s a new self-consciousness about Quixote and Sancho, who are now famous to the other characters as heroes of the first book. You might think of The Godfather Part II or the sequels to Back to the Future when Shklovsky notes that the sequels to novels often change their structure radically, taking the original as a pretext for other explorations. The ill-remembered Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000) and the more ingratiating Lion King 1 ½ (2004) use the Quixote device of building a sequel around characters who know the first installment.

Similarly, characterization serves to freshen up the familiar plot ingredients in American Hustle. Irving isn’t a slick con artist but rather a passable klutz who needs the social grace injected by Sydney. Richie isn’t your usual cop on a mission but a working-class guy burning with ambition, and this leads him to expand the scam to a level he can’t handle. Rosalyn is the slightly batty wife who’s expert in passive-aggressive combat. I suspect that what a lot of audiences enjoy about the film is the way several conventional characters are given vigorous detailing by the writing and the performances.

 

Happy ever after

The act of combining and fitting stories to a format demands that the storyteller find an ending. Shklovsky doesn’t have a lot of respect for endings. Given that making and motivating a plot are fairly arbitrary, the wrapup is likely to seem even more so. Shklovsky says that Thackeray wished he could order his servants to compose the endings of his novels.

Part of the problem is that while beginnings and middles bristle with surprises, resolutions are fairly routine. There’s the tragic ending, in which the hero dies. Another option is the ABA pattern, or “Here we go again.” In The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan starts over, selling not stocks but the very idea of selling. Something similar seems to happen at the close of Into the Woods. The main action springs from people yearning for more than they have, given in the opening number, “I Wish.” After all the mishaps and deaths, the characters seem to settle for what happiness they have. Hence the bustling closing number, “Into the woods…and happy ever after.” But just as that song resolves and closure seems complete, Cinderella pipes up with “I wish….” Here we go again.

Then there is what Shklovsky calls the “incomplete” ending, the sort of open structure that doesn’t fully tell us how things work out. Chekhov and Maupassant are Shklovsky’s examples. In such instances, he points out, our cue for conclusion is often a description of the setting or the weather. In a way, these inconclusive endings acknowledge a fact of art: all endings are equally conventional, pieces of high artifice. None captures real life, which is absolutely endless in a way a text can’t be. Individuals die, but human life continues, and fate is essentially indefinite.

Shklovsky realizes, however, that readers favor the happy ending. Lovers are united, usually by marriage, or the adventurer returns safely from peril (the end of Jaws). American Hustle, being at bottom a romantic comedy, concludes with the main couple back together and successful in their art business. There’s also the formation of a secondary couple, Rosalyn and the mobster Pete. The pay-to-play mayor, who wants genuinely to help his city, gets mildly punished, while the real loser is the cop Richie. He becomes the expelled lover in the Ralph Bellamy tradition.

I think that Shklovsky would enjoy the film’s self-consciousness about its neat wrapup. American Hustle parodies the model of the incomplete ending. We never learn the outcome, or the point, of  Stoddard’s childhood memory of ice-fishing. And the film’s final line, heard in Irving’s voice-over, ties his forged-painting scam to the overall dynamics of the plot: “The art of survival is a story that never ends.”

 

By tracing the activity of linking materials and filling the format, Shklovsky isn’t, I think, trying to describe every storyteller’s creative process. Many writers simply pour the stuff out. What I think he’s proposing are the principles behind the process. A practiced writer does all this intuitively. I once asked Elmore Leonard if he planned the very long dialogue scene that runs for several chapters in Get Shorty. He said, “It just came out that way.” But I notice that without that long section, the book would be severely out of balance—and too short. It’s a virtuoso cadenza, at once pure retardation and a package of motifs that point both forward and backward in the plot.

We’re now quite at home with films that intertwine storylines, restart storylines (Groundhog Day, The Butterfly Effect, Source Code), present branching and forking-path storylines (Run Lola Run, The Girl Who Leaped through Time), or simply set barely connected stories side by side (Chungking Express, Flirt, Nine Lives). So we should be ready to see more traditional plots as heavily camouflaged attempts at combining smaller stories. We should likewise be ready to see how stronger or lesser motivation governs all the options. Source Code relies on a science-fiction premise and a thriller deadline, while Groundhog Day motivates its replays and variations by setting its action on the one day that posits that the future will turn out either this way or that way.

For my part, I confess myself both an Aristotelian and a Shklovskian. I think that we ought to look for a plot’s structural unity at many levels. I think as well that those levels may incorporate the most wayward materials. The pieces are pulled into place and held there, sometimes precariously, by the scale of the format, their local purposes, and the motivational pressure of other components. Vincent’s Royale-with-cheese exposition does hook up with the Big Cahuna burger we encounter later.

And both approaches provide useful critical tools. Seeing Jordan as a pretext for a dissection of his Wall Street world opens up certain aspects of the film that might not be apparent if we kept expecting him to follow a learning curve. By seeing how American Hustle braids together many standard plot patterns, we can explain how the film can juggle its situations with such speed and how we can look forward to seeing certain patterns fulfilled (or not). Studying narrative from either a holistic or a “montage” perspective can only enhance our appreciation of all the different kinds of stories we encounter.


To save you scrolling back up, here is another link to Shklovsky’s “Monument to a Scientific Error,” posted in the Essays section of this site.

This entry’s primary accounts of Shklovsky’s thinking on narrative are drawn from his essays “The Structure of Fiction” of 1925 and “The Making of Don Quixote” of 1921. Both are included in his landmark book Theory of Prose, originally published in 1925 and available in translation from the ever-vigilant Dalkey Archive. Shklovsky talks about the distinction between form and material in the early chapters of the 1923 book Literature and Cinematography, trans. Irene Masinovsky (Champaign: Dalkey Archive, 2008); my quotation about villainy is drawn from p. 60. Other references are from the 1981 Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot, trans. Shushan Avagyan (Champaign: Dalkey Archive, 2007).

French Structuralism borrowed considerably from the OPOYAZ school. Roland Barthes launched his own version of Shklovsky’s retardation thesis in both his “Structural Analysis of Narratives” essay (the distinction between kernel actions and satellites) and his S/Z (the distinction between the proairetic code and the semic code). For his part, Shklovsky was skeptical about Structuralism, not least because of its vocabulary. “People today get carried away with terminology; there are so many terms that it’s impossible to learn them all, even if you’re a young person on vacation” (Energy of Delusion, 177).

My quotation from Sondheim about the construction of Into the Woods comes from Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981-2011) with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany (Knopf, 2011), p. 57.

For more on how the split-roads motif of folklore persists in modern storytelling, see this earlier entry. I consider how embedded stories and framing situations can tax our memories in this entry. The multiple-drafts plot of Source Code is considered here, while various motivations for first-person video style are explored in these pieces on Cloverfield and the Paranormal Activity cycle.

Into the Woods cast, San Mateo High School production of May 2006.

The book stops here: Theory, practice, and in between

Tinpis Run (Pengau Nengo, 1991). 

DB here:

Apart from things I’m reading for research (academic monographs, 1940s Hollywood novels, star bios and autobios), the film books I like best are blends. They bring together information, ideas, and opinion. I learn some facts about films and their contexts. I encounter some concepts that illuminate those facts. And I get introduced to some arguments about the best way to understand the information and ideas. In my ideal world, the blend winds up answering some questions—maybe questions I’ve thought about, maybe ones that never occurred to me.

I especially like books that have one foot, or toe, in filmmaking practice. The poetics of cinema I try to practice is, from one angle, an effort to grasp the principles underlying filmmakers’ creative choices. Sometimes those choices are announced by the filmmakers; sometimes we have to reconstruct them on the basis of the films and other data. So for me a drastic split between theory and practice isn’t very informative.

These pronunciamientos are but prelude some comments on books that push several of my buttons. Maybe they’ll do the same for you.

 

Philosophy goes to the multiplex

Stagecoach (1939); True Grit (1969).

What book brings together Cézanne and Tony Soprano, Gregory Peck and Simone de Beauvoir, Plato and South Park, The Twilight Zone and Wittgenstein?

Okay, I know the answer: Practically every book by a littérateur convinced that Great Big Theory gives you a way of talking authoritatively about anything, especially pop culture. So I rephrase my question: What book brings together these and many more items with care, rigor, and infectious amusement?

That narrows the field quite a bit. A strong candidate is a book that has chapters like “What Mr. Creosote Knows about Laughter,” “Andy Kaufman and the Philosophy of Interpretation,” and “The Fear of Fear Itself: The Philosophy of Halloween”— not the movie but the holiday itself.

The short answer to my question: Noël Carroll’s new collection of essays, Minerva’s Night Out: Philosophy, Pop Culture, and Moving Pictures.

Noël Carroll isn’t merely the most important philosopher ever to write about popular culture. He has been for decades a major force in film theory and criticism, as well as a philosopher making contributions to moral and legal theory, historiography, and a welter of other areas. His fertile mind and prodigious typing skills have combined to produce over fifteen books and a list of articles running to triple digits.

It’s not just quantity, of course. For those of us in media studies, Carroll has been the most well-informed and adroit analyst of trends in film theory. His Philosophical Problems of Classical Film Theory (1988), Mystifying Movies: Fads and Fallacies in Contemporary Film Theory (1988), and Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies (1996, coedited with me) have proven enduring contributions to the debates about the best ways to understand the nature and functions of cinema. He is, as you can tell, a controversialist. Like all good philosophers, he’s devoted his life to getting the ideas right. Over the same period, Carroll has proven himself a wide-ranging practical critic, discussing classic silent films (especially comedy), modern avant-garde work, and Hollywood movies from the 1930s to the most recent releases. This isn’t to slight his important work as a dance and television critic as well.

This focus on film theory stems from the fact that Noël’s first Ph.D. degree was in film studies. But soon afterward he went on to get a second Ph.D. in the philosophy of art. His cinema research was always philosophically informed, but once he became a card-carrying philosopher, he commuted between two academic areas. He helped found the broader movement called Philosophy of Film, and he continues to write on a lot of different topics. His Humour: A Very Short Introduction is due out in a couple of weeks.

Minerva’s Night Out scans the range of his interests—not only all types of media (which he genuinely enjoys) but a variety of the philosophical puzzles they pose. These he tackles with verve, patient but not plodding analysis, and a range of references that make you wonder if this guy has seen and read pretty much everything.

Here’s the sort of thing that Noël thinks about. We all know that to enjoy a movie fully we often have to appreciate the way in which a star’s performance builds on previous roles. But there’s a problem. The fictional world of a film makes only certain types of knowledge relevant to our experience. At the center of this knowledge is what Carroll calls the “realistic heuristic,” the premise that all other things being equal, the things happening in the fiction are assumed to operate under the laws of our everyday world. Sherlock Holmes (whether incarnated by Basil Rathbone or Benedict Cumberbatch) is presumed to have lungs like the rest of us, unless we’re told otherwise. Likewise, it is true in the fiction that a room’s walls are solid, while they might in reality be fake. If I see the walls as painted sets or green-screen mattes, then I’m not responding to them as part of the story world.

The same attitude shapes our sense of the unfolding plot. Armed with the realistic heuristic, we have to assume that characters’ destinies are open, that many things can happen to them (as with us). But the principles by which a movie fiction is constructed—say, boy gets girl—aren’t part of our realistic heuristic. “What we believe is probable of a movie qua movie is radically different from what we believe to be probable in a movie conceived as a credible fictional world.” Movie lore tells us that boy will get girl, but to grasp and respond to the story emotionally, we have to feel in doubt. (Perhaps this is what people mean when they say that a mistake in the movie, or a distraction in the auditorium, takes them “out of the movie.” We’ve left the fiction.)

Similarly, movie lore connects the Ringo Kid of Stagecoach to Rooster Cogburn of True Grit (the original) because John Wayne portrays both. Yet the characters live in different, sealed-off story worlds. Ringo and Rooster have no knowledge of each other. Barring transmigration of souls, how can their connection be part of our experience of either movie as a consistent fiction?

Carroll comes up with an ingenious explanation. Movies summon up star personas in the manner of allusions. Just as our experience is enhanced when we see a movie refer to another movie—Carroll’s example is a citation of Rocky in In Her Shoes—so do our mind and emotions respond to the presence of the star, as either a continuing allusion throughout the film or a one-off one, as with a cameo or walk-on. As he often does, Noël points out that practicing filmmakers use the concepts he elucidates. “Allusive casting” became part of the 1970s trend of paying homage to old Hollywood, but even in the studio era it wasn’t unknown. Carroll points to The Bigamist (above left), in which somebody says another character looks like Edmund Gwenn. Of course said character is played by Edmund Gwenn.

I’ve shrunk down Carroll’s line of reasoning to give you the flavor of the way he thinks. His piecemeal approach to theory focuses not on loosely named topics but specific questions. For example:

What if anything justifies us talking about popular culture as all one thing?

How do fiction films engage us in the emotional lives of their characters? Hint: It’s not through identification.

What makes us laugh at Mr. Creosote, rather than be horrified or disgusted by his vomit-laced gluttony?

How does a tale of dread, such as Poe’s “The Black Cat,” differ from a horror story?

Why should we care about Tony Soprano, who barehanded commits “crimes of which I don’t even know the names”?

Are the feelings awakened by art akin to friendship?

What role do moral emotions, such as the sense of community, play in our response to characters?

As for the jokes, they’re not of the esoteric academic type but rather straight-out funny. Just one essay, on the vague/implausible (you pick) notion that modernity (traffic, window displays, lotsa flashing lights) changed the very faculty of human perception:

The human eye rarely fixates; saccadic eye movement is the norm. We did not suddenly become attention-switching flâneurs in the late nineteenth century; we have been natural-born flâneurs since way back when.

No amount ot cultural conditioning will succeed in making normal viewers worldwide literally see human faces as cross-sections of centipedes.

I’m sure he’d give any indie filmmaker the rights to make Natural Born Flâneurs.

 

Viewers and their habits

     

Natsukawa Shizue in Town of Hope (Ai no machi, 1928).

Carroll tries to figure out certain logical conditions on spectators’ experience in general. That’s one province of film theory. But he’s also sensitive to the constraints on those conditions, the ways that historical and institutional circumstances can shape how viewers watch movies. (That’s part of the star-as-allusion argument.) Other researchers, historians by trade but sensitive to theoretical implications, have tried reconstructing the activities of theatres, trade personnel, and audiences in particular times and places.

A good cross-section of approaches has just appeared from Karina Aveyard and Albert Moran. Their anthology Watching Films: New Perspectives on Movie-Going, Exhibition and Reception contains 22 chapters of empirical research spread across the Europe, New Zealand, Australia, and the U.S. The researchers take us to particular cities and towns (Antwerp, Nottingham, and the Scottish Highlands) and to various points in history, from the 1920s to the present, passing en route the arrival of TV and the effects of the VHS revolution. There are also considerations of early reception theorists like Barbara Deming, along with studies of fan activities in Italy and elsewhere. Altogether, you couldn’t ask for a more enticing sampler of contemporary strategies for studying how audiences interact with cinema. Multiplicity long preceded the multiplex.

A similar approach, but focused with razor acuity on a single country and period, is Hideaki Fujiki’s Making Personas: Transnational Film Stardom in Modern Japan. This book is an expedition into a nearly sunken continent, Japanese film of the silent era. Frustratingly few films have been preserved from those years, but paper documents abound. Fujiki has made intense use of them to answer the question: What were the cultural causes and results of the early star system in Japan?

The answers are rich and detailed. The very first stars weren’t on the screen at all; they were the benshi who narrated the silent program. Hideaki goes on to trace the career of the paradigmatic male star, Onoe Matsunosuke, and to show how his main traits (virtuosity and stature as “great man”) were reinforced by a troupe-based business model. Later chapters focus more on female stars, with emphasis on the influence of American actresses like Clara Bow. The flapper figure shaped not only Japanese female performers but women in real life.

Fujiki traces in some detail how the “modern girl” or moga floating through Ginza owed a good deal to Hollywood movies. He makes good use of what films survive from this period, particularly The Cuckoo (Hototogisu, 1922) and Town of Love (Ai no machi, 1928). In-depth analysis of the star image Natsukawa Shizue, above, allows him to discuss fan culture and movies’ role  in accelerating trends in fashion and advertising. In all, Making Personas is a fascinating consideration of stardom as both an industrial and social construction in one of the world’s most important national traditions.

 

Education and environment

     

Institutions of another sort feature in two impressive books from the prolific Mette Hjort. She has had the very good idea of assembling documentation about how film schools work. How do different schools, academies, and more informal agencies understand the craft of filmmaking? What ethical values and social commitments are brought to the classroom and enacted in the production process? What are the histories of film schools around the world?

The answers come in two packed anthologies, The Education of the Filmmaker in Africa, The Middle East, and the Americas, and The Education of the Filmmaker in Europe, Australia, and Asia. From these we learn of the creative practices put into action by institutions in Nigeria, Palestine, Denmark, the West Indies, China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Sweden, Germany, Australia, Japan, and many other localities. We get a real sense of intercultural communication and its breakdowns. Rod Stoneman points out that Tinpis Run, Papua New Guinea’s first indigenous feature, demanded postproduction discussions when outsider viewers couldn’t distinguish the villages presented in the story.

Things happen in these places that would astonish students at UCLA and NYU. Hamid Naficy tells of taking his Qatar students to Tanzania, where they worked on research projects only after spending the morning doing clerical and custodial work in schools and hospitals. We learn of children’s filmmaking initiatives in Mexico City, programs for at-risk youths in Brazil’s City of God favela, and students making photo and sound montages in Calcutta. One purpose of Mette’s collections is to remind us that film training goes far beyond getting your MFA and a showreel on a maxed-out credit card.

Hjort’s initiative, while already stimulating, ought to be continued and enriched. People are starting to understand the importance of film festivals within film culture—as distribution mechanisms, publicity arms, and in a roundabout way feedback systems shaping production. (One essay, by Marijke de Valck, points out the move by festivals toward film training.) More generally, we need to understand film education at all levels as shaping film production and film audiences.

Hjort’s introduction emphasizes that institutional politics are always related to larger political and cultural concerns. Social implications of filmmaking are brought to the fore in another emerging area of research. As each day seems to signal a new ecological disaster, it’s timely that a critical school has emerged to track how films and TV represent our relation to nature and technology. Among the scholars working prolifically in this area are Robin L. Murray and Joseph K. Heumann.

Their first book, Ecology and Popular Film: Cinema on the Edge argues that apart from films like An Inconvenient Truth, which wear their green politics on their sleeve, there’s a much bigger and broader tradition of films about humans and the environment, ranging from fictional films with explicit messages, like Happy Feet (2006), to films with unintentional ones, like The Fast and the Furious (2001).

As “second-wave” practitioners of eco-criticism, Murray and Heumann aren’t much concerned with cheerleading or finding villains. They want to explore how media representations of the environment have responded to various cultural pressures. Their two most recent books are good examples. That’s All Folks? (2009), building on their analysis of Lumber Jerks in their first book, concentrates on American animated features. They perform careful symptomatic readings while also providing industrial context, such as the tactics by which Lucas and Spielberg adapted to the growing dinosaur craze of the 1990s.

In Gunfight at the Eco-Corral (2012), Murray and Heumann tackle the Westerm on similar grounds, ranging from Shane and Sea of Grass to There Will Be Blood and Rango. Reading these chapters I was reminded how often the genre’s plots hinge on disputes over natural resources. Water, minerals, timber, grazing land, and what the authors call “transcontinental technologies” like the telegraph and the railroad are at the heart of classic Westerns, and the genre’s formulaic conflicts often have strong ecological resonance. This is the sort of criticism that refreshes your vision of movies you think know very well.

Their next book, Film and Everyday Eco-disasters is due out in June.

 

Things stick together

     

Lone Survivor (2013).

Finally, two more books merging theory and practice—but from opposite ends of the spectrum. One question that intrigues me involves coherence and cohesion in film. Roughly speaking, coherence involves the way the whole movie hangs together. If it’s a narrative film, how do the scenes or sequences fit into the larger plot? If it’s not narrative, what other principles organize the whole shebang? Cohesion involves how adjacent parts fit together—shot against shot, sequence to sequence. Both these concepts have practical implications, since every filmmaker confronts concrete choices about them in scripting, shooting, and editing.

Michael Wiese has contributed enormously to our understanding of filmmaking practice by publishing a series of books on cinema craft. The most recent one I know is by Jeffrey Michael Bays and it bears directly on cohesion. It’s called Between the Scenes: What Every Film Director, Writer, and Editor Should Know about Scene Transitions. Bays himself has written and directed films, written radio dramas (a great place to study transitions), and published books on filmmaking.

Between the Scenes is an entertaining and damn near exhaustive account of the ways that images and sounds can tie one scene to another. Bays considers aspects of space, like location or objects or actors; time; and visual graphics. The book also shows how sounds can bind scenes or emphasize sharp contrasts. In the example from Lone Survivor above, a soft whir of helicopter blades is heard over the first shot and grows louder when we move from the map to the landing area.

In a web essay called “The Hook” I explored some aspects of this process, but Bays goes into much more detail with many recent examples. He also raises ideas I never considered. For example, if we think of narratives as people traveling from one place to another (and most narratives are that, at least), then every filmmaker faces a choice: Show the journey or don’t show it. And if you show it, what parts and why and what does it tell us about the character? The larger point is: “Make sure you know where every character goes between every scene.” Thinking about this suggests ways to enrich your presentation, and it allows the characters—if only in your imagination—to inhabit a more fleshed-out world. Ideas like this can provoke everyone, filmmakers and film scholars alike.

Small-scale links between parts are considered more theoretically in Chiao-I Tseng’s Cohesion in Film: Tracking Film Elements. Trained in functionalist linguistics, Tseng brought her expertise to bear on film analysis. The results show a remarkable kinship between devices in language and certain cinematic transitions. Such linguistic functions as saliency (what stands out) and presumption (what can be taken for granted) are found in audiovisual texts too. For example, a shot taken over one character’s should tends to lessen that character’s saliency and make another character, the one we see more clearly, more prominent.

This example is simple, but once Chiao-I gets going, she’s able to show how nearly every cut or camera movement can be seen as activating a unique tissue of cohesion devices. The words in a paragraph not only refer to ideas or things; they also link to other words in the paragraph and in the larger discourse. Similarly, in film, different aspects of the images and sounds stand out and adhere to one another instant by instant. Tseng’s analyses of passages in Memento, The Birds, The Third Man, and other films are accompanied by equally close studies of television commercials and educational documentaries. At the end, analysis is supplanted by synthesis, as she shows how the configurations she has pulled apart coalesce into levels that highlight characters and actions. It’s a fresh way to think about how we understand films within genres and stylistic traditions.

In effect, she’s showing the fine-grained patterns that emerge from the choices every filmmaker faces. It would be fascinating to sit in on a dialogue between Bays and Tseng, for they belong to the same community, or so I think anyhow. We’re all trying to understand aspects of cinema, and by focusing on certain phenomena rather closely, we have a good chance to understand them better.

 

So to the filmmaker who’s skeptical of theory, I say: We can’t think clearly without concepts, or talk clearly without terms. We need to develop rigorous ideas and arguments (i.e., theory) to understand film as best we can. But to the would-be theorist I say: Keep fastened on the look and feel of the films, and test your ideas and arguments not only against them, but against what you can find out about the craft of cinema, in all its historical implications.


I was pleasantly surprised, after I’d decided to talk about these books, to find work by Kristin and myself cited in some of them. Remaining coldly objective, however, I didn’t let these mentions diminish my praise.

Rango (Gore Verbinski, 2011).

Is Tauriel more powerful than Eowyn? and other questions we shouldn’t have to ask

Kristin here:

Film franchises now make up a significant portion of Hollywood’s output, and that situation that is likely to linger, at least until we see even more blockbuster flops than in 2013. Prequels are one way of extending a franchise. They’re a risky proposition, though. These days, who ever thinks about Butch and Sundance: The Early Days or Hannibal Rising? How many would defend the idea that the second Star Wars trilogy (now Episodes I, II, and III) are equal to or better than the first (now Episodes IV, V, and VI)?

Quite often the original entry is an adaptation of an existing work, and there is no additional source material for a prequel. The filmmakers have to make up the story, and the risk is that the prequel will end up being an imitation of the original or take the premises of the original too far. This is especially true of literary properties, even if the original author pens the prequel, as Thomas Harris did with Hannibal Rising.

Peter Jackson and company would seem to have been in the ideal situation. They adapted a beloved literary classic, The Lord of the Rings, and it became a popular and critical success. There was already a potential prequel in the form of a second classic by the same author, J. R. R. Tolkien. Of course, The Hobbit was published first, and The Lord of the Rings was a sequel to it. Through sheer chance, however, the fact that the distribution rights for The Hobbit had not been sold along with the other film rights to the two novels, the filmmakers were not able to begin with it. Only after LOTR was out did MGM, owner of those distribution rights, come on board as co-producer, and the film Hobbit became a prequel.

Now Jackson had a book written by the same author and access to considerable material in Tolkien’s appendices. He was working with a team consisting of many of the same writers, designers, and technical experts. They were in a strong position to create a film that had the same look and feel as LOTR. With the added material, the dramatic weight and the length of The Hobbit could balance that of the LOTR trilogy. The two stories could blend seamlessly. Possibly more seamlessly than the original novels, which had some gaps and inconsistencies arising from the fact that The Hobbit was a children’s story published in 1937 and The Lord of the Rings was a longer, more serious novel that came out nearly twenty years later.

Now that The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second of three parts of The Hobbit, has been released, perhaps it’s time to check in on how the filmmakers are maintaining it as a lead-in to their LOTR trilogy. Unfortunately, I think some serious problems have arisen that were not present in the The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Some of these problems arise from departures from the novel that don’t make sense in relation to the original trilogy; some arise from unclear or unmotivated actions invented by the screenwriters; and worst of all, some result from new characters and situations that too closely resemble those in the original trilogy. Whatever is added to the extended version of Desolation and whatever happens in the third part, There and Back Again, the prequel is now flawed.

 

The Extended Edition of An Unexpected Journey

But first, some unfinished business concerning the first part of the prequel. Almost exactly a year ago, I posted an entry on the theatrical version of Journey. Having already pointed out that there was plenty of material in the Lord of the Rings appendices to extend the two-part Hobbit adaptation to three parts, I defended certain additions to the plot. These were notably the White Council scene at Rivendell and the inclusion of Radagast the Brown, a wizard only referred to in J. R. R. Tolkien’s novel (though he does appear briefly in LOTR). After all, the appendices are really for both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, containing additional material for each of the novels.

I was far less keen on the Azog the Defiler plotline, entirely invented by the filmmakers. Yes, there is a scene in the appendices where Azog briefly appears in the battle at Moria, but he dies in that battle. The notion of him chasing down Thorin from motives of revenge is wholly new. I argued that the Azog-related scenes overburdened Journey with extra action that disturbed the balance of the narrative, adding an unnecessary battle at the end that came too soon after what should have been the highlight and climax of the film, the underground escape from the goblins and the Riddles in the Dark scene.

I speculated at the time that some specific scenes eliminated to make room for Azog would be added to the extended edition, perhaps helping to redress the imbalance. Were they, and did they?

The main scenes that I anticipated did get added to the extended-edition DVD/Blu-ray release. I think almost everything added to it is a plus. Most of the new scenes are quiet ones of exposition and characterization rather than frantic action, which the later portions of Journey were sadly lacking. Yet this doesn’t help much to balance the narrative any better, since most of the added bits come in the first half of the film, the half that was already quieter and less jammed with action than the later portions. Still, given how much violent action there is late in the film, any quiet action helps counter it to some degree.

As seemed very likely, early on there is a flashback to Gandalf setting off fireworks at a Hobbit party where he meets young Bilbo for the first time. It’s charming and all too short, zipping by, but at least we see a rambunctious young hobbit very different from the staid, middle-aged Bilbo of Bag End. The contrast helps motivate Gandalf’s disappointment in the adult Bilbo and his remarks about how he has changed. The moment also helps motivate the notion that there is a suppressed Took side to Bilbo’s nature, just waiting to be summoned forth by a pushy wizard.

Another extra early scene shows Bilbo, nervous after the visit from Gandalf, shopping for the ingredients for his supper (including the fish later consumed so thoroughly by Dwalin). The brief scene doesn’t add much to the plot, but it serves to introduce the Shire and Hobbiton to those who may not have seen LOTR, and it provides some humor after the tense ending to the initial conversation with Gandalf.

As I anticipated, the Rivendell interlude is expanded. In fact, the bulk of the new and extended scenes occur here. Bilbo wanders around Rivendell, clearly overwhelmed by its beauty. He not only sees the shards of Narsil but stares at the nearby mural of Isildur cutting the Ring from Sauron’s hand. Thus Bilbo sees the Ring shortly before he finds it himself, though there is no one present to tell him what he’s looking at. He also chats with Elrond, who says he is welcome to stay in Rivendell. He presumably means that Bilbo need not accompany the Dwarves when they continue on their journey, but a bit over sixty years later Bilbo will end up living there.

The extra comic bits with the Dwarves, including Bofur’s song, are perhaps entertaining enough, though they continue to film’s general tendency to make them overly boorish.

The White Council scene is extended mainly by Gandalf’s exposition about the Seven Rings of the Dwarves, which Saruman dismisses as irrelevant. The Seven Rings are not referred to in the theatrical version of The Desolation of Smaug, though presumably they were put into Journey for a reason and will return at some point, if only in future extended versions.

The scene with the Great Goblin is stretched out, as he is allowed to sing the Goblintown song from the original book. I think Barry Humphries was an inspired choice to provide the Great Goblin’s voice, so having a little more of him is welcome.

Luckily, there are no extra scenes involving the Azog plotline.

Caution: From here on there are major SPOILERS for the concluding part, The Hobbit: There and Back Again as well as for Desolation.

A better film–if you don’t think too much about it

The reaction to Desolation has been strangely split. On the whole, the critical establishment has heralded it as an improvement on Journey. No long setup of thirteen Dwarves and their quest–just a long series of exciting action scenes culminating in an extraordinary special-effects achievement with the dragon Smaug. The Dwarves’ escape from Thranduil’s realm in barrels rushing down a river with a running battle involving Orcs and Elves has been compared, in the usual reviewers’ cliché, to a thrilling theme-park ride. The battle with the large spiders has also been lauded.

Many fans of Peter Jackson’s other films in the series love Desolation as well and have been going to see it multiple times. Yet fans who know Tolkien’s books really well, while often enjoying the film, have been far more grudging and selective in their praise.

This is largely because Desolation departs far more radically from the novel than any of the previous four films have. New characters have been invented, most notably the female Elf Tauriel, and new scenes fabricated, as with Gandalf’s disastrous solo visit to Dol Guldur, where he ends up imprisoned, or the hectic string of suspense and action scenes at Lake-town. Thranduil briefly appears in the book, but his role as an enemy to the Dwarves has been expanded. The scene of the Dwarves entering Erebor and trying to kill Smaug with molten gold has no parallel in the book.

Inventing scenes needn’t be a problem. Many have complained about the made-up warg attack that ends in Aragorn’s apparent death in The Two Towers, but it is integrated fairly well into the plot. Departures from the original Hobbit novel may be annoying to some, but one should ask how well they fit into the cause-and-effect flow of the plot and into the film as a whole. More specifically, the filmmakers were trying to make The Hobbit into a more substantial film than simply following the book would have allowed. They had to do so in order to blend smoothly into the same world as the LOTR film. The question, then, is really whether the changes 1) are logical in themselves and in relation to the other trilogy, and 2) are an improvement on what the filmmakers could have accomplished had they stuck closer to the story.

Unfortunately, I think that in many cases the new and extended characters and scenes are not as strong as they could have been. More problematically, certain choices steal inspiration from the LOTR film trilogy and in the process undermine the dramatic impact of some of its scenes. This would seem to be something to avoid at all costs in creating a prequel: making the original seem less fresh and dramatic.

Back when I wrote about the decision to split The Hobbit into three parts, I defended Jackson from the accusation that he was clinging to this franchise because he had lost some of his inspiration and didn’t know where to go once the Tolkien adaptations were finished. I don’t know whether it’s true that such a lack of inspiration led to Jackson’s choice to direct the film that he originally wanted to assign to someone else. My point was simply that there was enough material in the novel and in the appendices to expand the film to three parts, if the screenwriters took advantage of that material and fitted it into the plot skillfully. The addition of the White Council/Dol Guldur plot line, largely based on brief statements in the appendices, suggested that Journey was following that path. I don’t think Desolation continues that pattern of relying on snippets from the original books–and there are some that go unused–to flesh out into new story material. This change is to its detriment.

There have been some thoughtful essays suggesting that the film falls down in its invented portions. Timothy R. Furnish, a long-time columnist for TheOneRing.net, has contributed an essay criticizing the main changes from the book. Furnish admits to being a purist, but his claims about the changes suggest that they do not benefit the film. For example, he points out that the plot line involving Gandalf’s and Radagast’s visit to investigate the tombs of the Nazgûl is “rather confusing” and “seems forced and, frankly, unnecessary.” I don’t completely understand that plot line myself, given that it’s not in Tolkien and not explained very well in the film. Elrond said at the White Council meeting that the spells holding the Nazgûl in their tombs were unbreakable. So far there’s no explanation as to how they escaped. Are most viewers able to connect those empty tombs to the Black Riders we had first met early in Fellowship? I doubt it.

The inclusion of this tangential plot line also means that Gandalf is lured away from his commitment to the Dwarves’ quest not once, but twice, which isn’t very effective dramatically. Galadriel goads Gandalf into investigating the tombs, and Radagast persuades him to explore Dol Guldur. Thus the two of them end up being responsible for his defeat by Sauron while themselves not offering much help. Gandalf also looks weak and indecisive, capable of being talked into an unwise course of action.

How could this have been handled better? Stick to the book. Tolkien never tells us what happened to the Nazgûl in the centuries immediately following Sauron’s defeat and Isildur’s taking of the Ring. It just doesn’t matter. Why drag it into the film? (Possibly extra material in the extended version will better explain this minor plot line, but I doubt there will be anything new relating to it.)

Furnish points out something that has been universally criticized among fans of the books. The episode at the home of Beorn, the large man who can change into a bear, has been so truncated as to be rendered almost pointless. Sure, the design of his house is nice, but why bother? Yes, it offers a brief refuge from the pursuit by Azog’s band–but that just raises the unanswered question as to how Azog found them again after they had been carried so very far by the eagles. The filmmakers needed to include Beorn, since he should return to play a major role in the third part. At least his presence strongly hints that they haven’t eliminated him from that major role. Jackson has assured fans that there will be “a couple more scenes in the extended cut of this film, and some more of him, which I won’t be describing, in the third movie!”

A better approach? In the book, the company have lost all their ponies and supplies in the goblin-caves adventure and are in need of rest and assistance, not rescuing from Orcs. They stay with Beorn for a few days. He’s a fascinating figure in the book, with his giant bees and animal servants. He’s also not the defeatist, lonely figure of the film but a pugnacious guardian who keeps a small region east of the Anduin River free of goblins and wargs. Presumably the extended edition will at least give him a little more screen time. This could have been a chance to add some of the charm and humor of the book to a film that sorely lacks them, in its second installment at least.

As Furnish writes, Bard is a “grim-voiced and grim-faced” leaders of Lake-town’s archers in the book, not a ferryman and smuggler with children to feed. Yet, as Furnish says, “making Bard less of a recalcitrant loner is defensible.” I’d say more than defensible. It may be the only major change that improves on Tolkien, at least in one way. Tolkien’s decision to have Smaug killed by a very minor character was probably a mistake, and fleshing Bard out into a significant figure works reasonably well–though it also is encumbered by the whole conceit that the Dwarves and Bilbo have to be smuggled into Lake-town and that Bard is at odds with the Master of Lake-town and his assistant Alfrid (the latter an invention of the filmmakers). In the book, the Dwarves are welcomed to the town from the start, as potential slayers of the dragon and sources of future prosperity. The chapter about Lake-town is titled “A Warm Welcome.”

Furnish also makes a more general point: that both parts of The Hobbit far are short on sympathetic characters. LOTR is full of heroes–and even Boromir, after trying to take the Ring from Frodo late in Fellowship, redeems himself by trying to save Merry and Pippin. But in Jackson’s Hobbit, few of the characters beyond Gandalf, Bilbo, a few of the Dwarves, and Tauriel are particularly admirable. Dwalin, ever suspicious, even suggests killing Bard and taking his boat. Not nice.

Whether or not audiences perceive the characters as Furnish suggests, there is no doubt that LOTR involves characters fighting for the common good and making considerable sacrifices to do so, while most of The Hobbit‘s characters are in contention over the wealth they would gain if Smaug can be killed. There’s also a prominent revenge motif. (Again, Gandalf, Bilbo, Galadriel, and Elrond excepted, and the latter two essentially don’t appear in Desolation.) The Dwarves are a greedy bunch in Tolkien’s novel as well, but The Hobbit is a more comic, more conventional fairy tale than is LOTR, and besides, none of his Dwarves ever behave as callously or as crudely as the film versions do.

This problem of unpleasant characters is particularly noticeable with Legolas. He has been made so intolerant, so offensive, and so callous that many fans would rather he had been left out altogether. Certainly the Tauriel-Kili romance could have worked without him. Perhaps he will improve a bit by the end of the third part, but he is far from the sympathetic Elf that became the idol of fangirls in LOTR. He even looks different, as if Orlando Bloom’s entire face has been Botoxed and too light a shade of blue has been used for his contacts. Here’s a case where purely financial considerations may have played a prominent role in the decision to insert him into The Hobbit.

How could all this have been avoided? In part by trying to achieve something of the sense of fellowship that made LOTR so appealing. Avoid overloading the film with characters who act through motives of revenge and distrust. The invention of the Orc-pursuit subplot is largely to blame for this, as is the caricatured depiction of the Master of Lake-town. The focus should really be on Thorin’s growing obsession with the Dwarves’ lost treasure, which eventually will lead to his break with Bilbo, despite all the latter’s heroic rescues. That obsession is brought up a few times, but it’s obscured by the general emphasis on revenge and greed.

 

Once more on the issue of padding

Another insightful piece, written  by Michael Martinez, takes on the question as to whether Desolation‘s story has been padded out. He points out that in fact a great deal has been cut out of the book, trimming what was already supposedly too short to form the basis for two or three lengthy films. As Martinez writes, the crossing of Mirkwood has been compressed from weeks into what apparently are two or three days. The passage where they wander, dazed, in the woods is the only point at which much time can have passed, and we’re given no sense of how long they are lost before Bilbo climbs the tree–a moment that at least keeps the book’s scene of him delighting at the butterflies he encounters. In the novel, there are other adventures in the woods, and the Dwarves apparently spend about two weeks locked in their cells in Thranduil’s realm, during which time Bilbo, wearing the Ring explores the caverns and finally figures out a way to free them.

The filmmakers then add all sort of things that are not in the book. Is this new material, Martinez asks, padding? He seems not to think so, but I’m not so sure. If the new material is, like the whole Azog subplot, unnecessary and even detrimental to the balance of the narrative, doesn’t it count as padding–especially since it crowds out such things as a more satisfying episode involving Beorn?

Take whole running battle as the Orcs chase the fleeing Dwarves in their barrels down the river and the Elves chase the Orcs. (In the book, the barrels are sent down the chute into the river and simply drift downstream until some Elves steer them along to Lake-town, which is on the near side of the lake.) Yes, the river escape and battle are exciting and fun to watch, if overlong, but they point up yet another problem of balance in this and other action scenes. The barrels chase make the Orcs look remarkably ineffectual. Tauriel and Legolas pick them off at a great rate, both in this scene and in the Lake-town skirmishes. In the river scene, the Orcs do manage to kill some anonymous Elven guards at the sluice gate, and they wound Kili, but they ultimately create more delays than damage and eventually lose their quarry. Such efficient killing of Orcs happens to some extent in Journey as well, but as the Dwarves’ bowman Kili does not have the athletic virtuosity of Legolas and Tauriel, the cannon-fodder nature of the Orcs is less obvious. By the end of Desolation, though, can we really take them that seriously?

The messiness of the Azog/Bolg revenge plot line culminates (at least for now) in the Lake-town scenes, with sinister forces multiplying to a confusing extent. As Martinez puts it, “But with Orcs, elves, dwarves, and the Master’s spies all sneaking around Lake-town I really felt like we had left The Hobbit behind and entered the world of ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ or something.” New or not, I would say that such antics constitute padding, in this case via Jackson’s penchant for extending and multiplying dangers and fights.

Certainly all these invented characters and scenes aren’t necessary because there really turns out not to be enough material in The Hobbit and the LOTR appendices to make up three parts. One puzzling aspect of Desolation is that it fails to pick up plot lines the filmmakers themselves had set up in Journey. The latter, despite its awkward concentration of slower sequences early on and rampant, almost continuous fighting in the second half, had established a pretty good set of plot lines (excepting the superfluous Azog one). They’ve all but disappeared.

I speculated in my entry on Journey that we might discover in part 2 that Saruman was already corrupted by desire for the Ring and wants to prevent an attack on Dol Guldur because he’s already looking for the lost Ring himself. That would have been interesting and true to the information in the appendices. Instead, Saruman doesn’t appear in Desolation. Was bringing Saruman into The Hobbit (where he doesn’t appear, given that Tolkien didn’t invent him until well into the drafting of LOTR) just a little salute to a popular actor? Or will he return in the third part to take part in the attack on Dol Guldur? In which case, will he actually be helping the other White Council members, or doing something devious? (In the appendices, we learn that he did help, mainly to get Sauron away from the area near Dol Guldur where the Ring slipped off Isildur’s finger and sank to the bottom of the Anduin; Saruman himself has been searching the river.) The filmmakers created Saruman’s scenes in The Two Towers so skillfully that his absence here is disappointing. If he is going to reappear in the concluding part, it would seem a good idea to at least mention him. If he isn’t, some way of motivating his absence would have been helpful.

Similarly Radagast, whose insertion into the first film I defended, is barely in this one. He doesn’t do much when he is present, either, mainly pressing Gandalf to investigate Dol Guldur and then, once they reach it, going off to take a message from Gandalf to Galadriel. Will Radagast play a significant role in the final part? One would think so, but at this point I’m not betting on it.

 

That reminds me

Most crucially, I think, instead of using these already established characters in Desolation or just sticking more closely to the book, the filmmakers have introduced many new elements that are essentially diminished versions of characters and events in LOTR. That strikes me as a bad idea and perhaps really does betray a lack of inspiration. Already fans of the LOTR films have complained that so many echoes of LOTR appear in Desolation. Worse is to come, though. When people view LOTR as part of a series of six parts beginning with The Hobbit, they will end up seeing things in LOTR as echoes of Desolation. The result will be to rob LOTR of some of its originality and effectiveness.

Take Tauriel. She’s a pleasant, admirable character, with a stubborn, headstrong streak that keeps her from being bland. Evangeline Lilly’s performance strikes me as excellent. A lot of fans worried about her inclusion in the film but came to like her. They seem to see her as blending well into the world of the film. But there’s a reason for that. She does come from the world of LOTR.

Was it really a good idea to add a major character who’s basically a blend of Arwen and Eowyn? Doesn’t she make both of those characters less distinctive?

If a lowly Sylvan Elf like Tauriel can rescue Kili from a giant spider and later use the herb athelas (“Kingsfoil”) to heal his wound, are LOTR’s similar rescues of Frodo by Aragorn, Arwen, and even Sam not rendered a bit less impressive? (In the book, Bilbo does all the saving of the Dwarves from the spiders; no Elves appear.) Later, the arrow that strikes Kili is referred to as a “Morgul” weapon that will kill him. Thus it resemble Frodo’s wounding by a Morgul blade by the Witch King at Weathertop in Fellowship. Again, Frodo’s wounding, which seems unique and bound up with the Ring’s evil influence, is cheapened. How can just any random Orc be carrying a weapon with a Morgul spell on it, something we were led to think is unique to the Nazgûl (and in the book, such weapons are).  In Bard’s house, Kili’s vision of Tauriel surrounded by glowing light recalls Frodo’s vision of Arwen when she approaches him in Fellowship. Arwen’s stature is lessened by the suggestion that all Elven women can appear this way to mortals. (There’s a reason why Thrandruil doesn’t want his son to fall for Tauriel, though I’m sure he would be thrilled were Arwen to agree to marry Legolas.)

With Tauriel’s limitless athleticism and fighting capabilities, won’t she steal some of the thunder from one of the LOTR film’s most beloved characters, Eowyn? Across Tolkien’s two novels, Eowyn as a female warrior of Rohan was unique. She was unique in the films, too, until now, when Tauriel popped up to dispatch dozens of Orcs with the same aplomb that Legolas does. Did the writers never consider this problem? Was there no other way of creating a “strong” female character besides making her a fighter?

For that matter, why not do something more with the strong female character they already have, Galadriel? Why does she send Gandalf off alone to do the dirty work of investigating the tombs and Dol Guldur? After the White Council scene Galadriel assures Gandalf that she’ll come and help him if need be. Why not just give him a hand to begin with and not wait until Gandalf nearly gets himself killed.  In the book Galadriel is ultimately the one who destroys Dol Guldur at the same time the Fellowship and other characters are down south attacking the Black Gate and destroying the Ring. It’s not as though she’s a shrinking violet.

Beyond being the strong female, Tauriel is also there partly to create the love triangle between her, Legolas, and Kili. That romance, though, is sketched out in terribly conventional terms. Tauriel’s interest in Kili is expressed through her remark that he’s tall for a Dwarf, and the final moments between them after she has healed his wound turn distinctly maudlin, with him failing to recognize her and asking weakly if she thinks Tauriel could have loved him.

One of the fans on the TORn Message Boards, ec1988, has started a thread called “The inclusion of Tauriel diminished Legolas.” There simplyaven argues that the Tauriel-Kili romance to some extent presages Legolas’ friendship with Gimli and undercuts its presentation in LOTR as an unusual, even unique overcoming of racial hatreds. That seems right. Her “Aren’t we part of this world?” also echoes Merry’s question to Treebeard when the Ents resist the idea of attacking Saruman. (This isn’t the only line repeated almost verbatim from LOTR.)

Another distinct echo of LOTR results from Gandalf’s fight with Sauron in Dol Guldur. It looks remarkably like his duel with Saruman in another tower, Orthanc, in Fellowship. Saruman takes Gandalf’s staff during that one, while Sauron seemingly dissolves Gandalf’s staff into dust:

This moment also echoes the scene in Return of the King where the Witch King knocks Gandalf the White off Shadowfax and dissolves his staff (in the extended edition only).

By now Gandalf has lost a number of staves across the five parts of the epic tale. It has become a sort of unintentional running joke on discussion sites as fans tot up how many staves Gandalf has lost and where he might be getting the replacements. Posts include photos to demonstrate the slight differences among them. One relatively brief example from the Message Boards on TORn comes from 2008–years before The Hobbit included at least one more destroyed staff. As moderator Ataahua remarked, “Back in the day, someone on TORN wondered if Gandalf had a locker of spare robes and staffs at Rivendell, as if it were a handy bus station. :) ” Whether Radagast will give Gandalf his to replace the one destroyed by Sauron is a current topic of discussion.

But getting back to the Dol Guldur battle. Sauron slams Gandalf to the ground, then tosses him up so that he’s “velcroed” to the wall–pretty much as Saruman had done:

In Fellowship, Saruman imprisoned Gandalf on a tiny space at the top of Orthanc. Sauron suspends him in a small cage. I wonder if someone watching all six parts straight through might not find the Saruman-Gandalf battle a bit ludicrous because it is so similar to the “earlier” one. (To me, the wizard-duel was already somewhat ludicrous–and of course, it didn’t happen in the book.)

There are other signs of Desolation cannibalizing ideas from LOTR. The invented character of Alfrid, assistant to the Master of Lake-town, is a lot like Theoden’s slimy, treacherous adviser Grima. Thranduil is like Denethor in his refusal to consider the welfare of anyone beyond the boundaries of his own realm. Furnish calls the Master of Lake-town “the Goblin-King with a comb-over and more clothes,” suggesting a cannibalization from within The Hobbit as well.

 

Gandalf the Wimp

In this film, the writers don’t seem to know what to do with Gandalf. Midway through the book, he simply leaves the Dwarves and Bilbo at the edge of Mirkwood to take care of “some pressing business away south”–as he had planned from the start to do, so there he isn’t suddenly abandoning them. He returns in time to participate in the Battle of Five Armies, near the end of the novel.

Tolkien was smart enough to know that Gandalf was simply too powerful to keep around all the time. Where’s the suspense if you’ve got a wizard along to solve problems like capture by trolls or goblins? So he invented various devices to take him away from the action for stretches of time. (These became more complicated in LOTR; I devote part of a chapter of my book-in-progress to these tactics.) Only near the end of The Hobbit novel do we learn that Gandalf and the White Council have driven the Necromancer out of Dol Guldur. Indeed, Tolkien invented the “Necromancer” simply as an excuse to leave Bilbo and the Dwarves alone, forced to defend themselves. It was only by happy accident that this sinister figure, barely mentioned in the novel, was available to become the source of LOTR’s supreme villain.

So why doesn’t Desolation have Gandalf go off to do his “pressing business” and then concentrate instead on Mirkwood, Thranduil’s imprisonment of the Dwarves, the trip by barrel to Lake-town, and above all on Bilbo’s maturation? I have to believe it’s because Ian McKellen is arguably the biggest star involved in these films. True, others have also become famous as a result of appearing in The Hobbit, but back when the film was being written and shot, Ian was central. In the credits his name appears before that of Martin Freeman.

The problem confronting the filmmakers was that Gandalf is a supporting character in The Hobbit, albeit a major one. (I would argue that he and Frodo are the two protagonists of LOTR, the novel.) It would be appropriate for him to be absent for most of the second half of Desolation, but clearly the filmmakers felt they couldn’t afford to give up their top star for so long. Hence they invented scenes to give him something to do. The obscure mission to the tombs in the High Fells is one such scene. In terms of the plot as a whole, however, it could easily be done without.

More crucial, though, is Gandalf’s invasion of Dol Guldur, his challenge to the hidden forces there, and his losing battle with the Necromancer, now revealed as Sauron. The fact that he ends up helpless and in need of rescue raises yet another question: Why does he do such an idiotic thing? No reason is provided. He is certain that he’s going into a trap, and he has no idea what’s waiting inside for him. What could he possibly hope to accomplish? (If he were going in to try and rescue someone held prisoner inside, that would be another matter.) I think we’re to take it as a brave move on his part, and he does manage to hold his own against Sauron for a short time. But basically it’s a huge mistake on the part of a wizard we’re supposed to consider wise.

The sensible thing for Gandalf to do would be to go and alert Galadriel, who presumably has returned to her home in Lothlorien. That realm is situated relatively close to Dol Guldur, almost directly across the Anduin. Gandalf and Galadriel could summon the White Council and gather Elvish troops to lead an attack on the tower. In the book, that’s what Gandalf’s “pressing business to the south” is.

In general the Gandalf of the films is a far weaker, more vulnerable figure than the one in the books. I cannot imagine the Gandalf of the books would say that he’s afraid and that having Bilbo along on the quest gives him courage, or that he would need such reassurance and guidance from Galadriel. The Witch King could hardly knock him off his horse. In Fellowship (the book) Gandalf manages to hold off the nine Black Riders all night when they attack him on Weathertop. He doesn’t kill any of them, but he manages to escape unscathed.

Moreover, in the book Gandalf has been to Dol Guldur twice before, long before the action of The Hobbit. The first time, nearly 900 years earlier, Sauron is hiding there, slowly regaining physical form. Tolkien’s summary of the event in Appendix B is terse: “Gandalf goes to Dol Guldur. Sauron retreats and hides in the East. The Watchful Peace begins. The Nazgûl remain quiet in Minas Morgul.” Later Gandalf sneaks into Dol Guldur to as a spy and discovers that Sauron has returned. He also finds Thrain, Thorin’s father, dying, and receives from him the key and map that he later gives to Thorin in Bag End. (One would think that a flashback to that scene would have been dramatic and suspenseful.)

Tolkien never tells us what Gandalf did to make Sauron retreat. Maybe just the wizard’s presence frightened him away. Similarly, how he managed to spy inside Dol Guldur remains unexplained. The point, though, is that the filmmakers have made Gandalf weaker primarily to generate even more suspense and violent action and to set up a rescue of the hapless wizard that will surely involve an attack on Dol Guldur in the final part. Never mind that Gandalf’s invasion of Sauron’s stronghold in Desolation makes no sense.

Gandalf isn’t the only one who is made less powerful and dangerous in order to generate a grand action set-piece. Even the villain of the title is made to look rather foolish.

 

Smaug the Clueless

There is no question that Smaug as a CGI creation is a marvel, and Benedict Cumberbatch provides his voice, as manipulated by the sound crew, very effectively. Throughout his initial scene with Bilbo, which sticks pretty closely to the book, he seems appropriately menacing, sly, and playful in the manner of a cat toying with its prey.

As soon as the Dwarves join Bilbo inside Erebor, however, Smaug is revealed to be strangely ineffectual.

Once the Dwarves decide on their strategy of flooding Samug with molten gold, they split up to take separate routes to the forges. Time and again they manage to elude the beast as he searches for them. At once point he passes right above Thorin’s group and fails to notice them. Wouldn’t Smaug be glancing in all directions as he moved? And so much for his vaunted sense of smell. At one point Thorin leaps into space to avoid a blast of fire (below) and manages to catch hold of a chain hanging conveniently in his trajectory. Smaug follows him, curling around the dangling Dwarf but makes no real attempt to kill him. At one point, Thorin even ends up standing astride the creature’s mouth for a few moments. Now that he has found Thorin, Smaug doesn’t do the obvious–open his mouth and take a bite of him. Later, when Thorin stands exposed on the giant mold full of molten gold, he and Smaug are face to face. The dragon, instead of incinerating him, trades insults. (Of course, movie villains often miss their chance to vanquish their foes, in a convention termed by Roger Ebert “The Fallacy of the Talking Killer.”)

There is so much in the sequence of the Dwarves’ attempt to kill Smaug that is distractingly implausible. Just as the lengthy falls in the Goblintown scene of Journey never seemed to cause so much as a broken bone, in Smaug’s domain the dragon breathes great sheets of fire repeatedly and never seems to singe the Dwarves. When Thorin’s jacket is set afire, he simply takes it off and keeps running.

How could this vast quantity of gold be melted so quickly? How could Thorin ride a river of molten gold in a metal wheelbarrow and survive? Why does the giant Dwarf king’s statue, when the mold is pulled away, stand for several seconds as Smaug admires it before suddenly gushing into a golden lake that momentarily overwhelms the dragon? And why, if Dwarves know so much about dragons, does it not occur to them that a creature full of fire couldn’t be killed in this fashion? Why would Smaug keep bashing down columns and other parts of the “building” which he considers his and where he plays to spend the rest of his life?

As with Gandalf, the filmmakers have robbed Smaug of much of his power in order to concoct a big action scene as a climactic lead-in to the cliffhanger. Admittedly, the shot of Smaug shaking off the coating of gold into tiny fragments is spectacular, and with that he regains something of his original menace. Yet the cliffhanger works mainly because we assume that the men, women, and children of Laketown, in their wooden houses, will be easier for the dragon to kill.

 

Mistakes, confusion, and omissions

There are a lot of unexplained, unmotivated things about Desolation. Some are relatively minor, such as how Smaug, who has been alone with his treasure ever since attacking Erebor, could know that Thorin had in the interval before returning gained the sobriquet “Oakenshield”? Or why does Lake-town, which seems to station guards and customs official at every possible entry into the city and spies everywhere, not keep a single guard on the broad, long bridge that links it to the shore?

As in parts of LOTR, there is some jiggery-pokery with time and space. Azog is summoned from a forest near Beorn’s house back to Dol Guldur, which he reaches during the same single night that the Thorin and company spend in the house. Gandalf remarks later that to go around Mirkwood would involve hiking 200 miles north and twice as far south (one fact that does come from the book). Dol Guldur is near the southern end of Mirkwood, so we are to believe that Azog’s warg is speedy enough to cover perhaps 350 miles in several hours. Of course, films play with compression of time quite frequently, but this case is very obvious, since there is an immediate return to the Dwarves’ group still at Beorn’s house.

There are other noticeable causal inconsistencies that make a greater difference in the plot. It was set up in The Two Towers that Galadriel and Elrond could communicate telepathically from a considerable distance. Galadriel and Gandalf speak mentally to each other in the White Council scene. Galadriel seemingly disappears instantly at the end of her talk with Gandalf after the White Council.

Now it turns out that Gandalf apparently can disappear, as he does during his battle with Azog, just before he meets Sauron. Why doesn’t he just stay invisible until he has escaped? Moreover, Galadriel speaks mentally to Gandalf from somewhere, presumably fairly far away. Yet he can’t speak to her that way and must send Radagast with a message to her.

What are the rules here? Why does Galadriel seem more powerful than Gandalf? Who are the wizards and how do they as a group relate to the Elves? The filmmakers could have dramatized a major passage in the appendices that explains who the wizards are, messengers sent by the “gods” of Arda to aid and advise the peoples of Middle-earth in their struggle against Sauron. Then we might be left with fewer crucial questions about these powerful figures, and some reliable premises could be established. LOTR does end with the subtle revelation that Gandalf, Galadriel, and Elrond have the Three Rings of the Elves. (Look quick or you’ll miss them.) The fact that Gandalf has one of the Three comes from that passage on the wizards that I just mentioned. Why ignore that passage, one of the precious few that do relate directly to the action of the White Council plot line?

Again, I think this happens partly because the filmmakers have adopted a tactic of weakening powerful figures like Gandalf and Smaug in order to general more suspense and big action scenes.

There’s another decision that I think creates confusion. Yes, Azog, the character I dislike both in himself and for his revenge plot line’s unbalancing the film’s scenes, continues to intrude at intervals. As I had speculated, he turns out to be a minion of Sauron. There is still no explanation as to how Sauron could know that Thorin and company have set out from Hobbiton to Erebor and thus direct Azog as to where to hunt for him. For some reason, Bolg, another uber-Orc (above), shows up and summons Azog to Dol Guldur to consult with Sauron–presumably to help prepare his army for a big attack on … something. Then Azog sends Bolg off to take his place and continue the hunt for Thorin. Given that the two seem interchangeable, this whole replacement of Azog by Bolg makes little sense, except presumably to try and inject a little variety into the repetitious revenge plot. Little is the operative word.

One final point. In my previous entry, I mentioned that in Journey the filmmakers did a good job of planting links to LOTR: Saruman’s obstructionism, Galadriel as a powerful figure, Bilbo’s immediate love for Rivendell, the stone trolls seen in Fellowship, the frame story involving birthday-party preparations, and Bilbo’s wealth from the trolls’ hoard. Desolation has far less of this. There’s the picture of young Gimli that Legolas sneers at. There’s also Bilbo’s reaction to the corrupting power of his newly acquired Ring. I think his reaction is overdone. Only a short time after finding it, he seems at least as obsessed with it as we see him sixty years later, at the beginning of Fellowship. Good thing it’s a giant spider that he thinks is trying to take it from him, not one of the Dwarves. Shades of Smeagol! Apart from those added elements, there is little attempt to stitch Desolation a little closer together with LOTR.

Despite everything I’ve laid out here, I enjoy much of Desolation, and it has many good things in it. As usual, the sets, costumes, makeup, and all technical elements have been achieved with the utmost care and imagination. Quite apart from the complex movements of Smaug, with his long body and tail looping through the enclosed spaces of Erebor, there is much to admire. The big action sequences are quite fun. The acting continues to be excellent in most cases, particularly Martin Freeman as Bilbo. Although the hobbit no longer seems the center of his own story, Freeman manages to make every scene he is in a delight and to capture something of the feeling of the book.

Taken as an autonomous film, and despite its lapses in motivation and logic, it offers considerable entertainment and enjoyment. But as the second part of a series, it has gone off the rails, much as the Dwarves lose the Elvish path in Mirkwood. I suspect it will turn out to be the weakest of the six parts. At this point there is little if anything to be done to remedy this. (I cannot imagine that the extended version of Desolation will ameliorate the problems much, though I hope it will do so a little.) We are stuck with Tauriel, Bolg, and a weakened Gandalf for the third film. Still, I hope that There and Back Again will steer more directly toward links to LOTR. We shall see the Battle of Five Armies, and Jackson is nothing if not adept at big battle scenes.

 

What we can take away about prequels here is simply that filmmakers must not only make an original film in itself but must take utmost care to make it serve the franchise as a whole. Through the insistence that there must be a strong female character no matter what or Jackson’s frequently expressed justification that he added something simply because it would be fun, The Hobbit no longer fits well with The Lord of the Rings. That’s a pity, because up to now the filmmakers had been doing so well.


Purchasers of the extended version of AUJ will note that the packaging is not quite as impressive as that for the LOTR EEs. There is no booklet with John Howe and Alan Lee illustrations, nor one of the very helpful indices indicating which chapters are new or expanded and offering a map through the supplements. Fortunately a dedicated Russian fan, TheHutt (editor of the website Henneth Annun), has created one (left), with a remarkably accurate simulation of the design and contents of the LOTR booklets. The pages can be downloaded here.  (Scroll down for the English-language version.) Kudos to him!

For those interested in the saga of Gandalf’s loss of staves. The Dol Guldur duel is chronologically the first time Gandalf loses a staff. Saruman takes the next one in Fellowship. The replacement is lost when Gandalf strikes the Bridge of Khazad-dûm with it, and bridge and staff both shatter. In his new incarnation revealed in Towers, Gandalf gets a white staff, which is destroyed by the Witch King in Return (extended edition). He has a duplicate of it in the Grey Havens scene at the end. Five staves–four of them destroyed–and counting. In the book the only loss of a staff comes at the breaking of the Bridge.

 

 

 

 

David Bordwell
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comments about the state of this website go to Meg Hamel.