The bane of the bottomless budget: A case for editing

I finally got to see Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. I loved J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. As a kid, I had the coffee-table size illustrated edition. I actually BLED for that book; I was turning the pages so fast I gave myself a hella papercut.

However, I don’t consider myself a ravening fan-girl. I loved the Hobbit book and songs, and I loved PJ’s The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy as well as the LotR source material, but I don’t have any of it memorized. (Although I admit I read The Hobbit 11 times in a row, it was a really long time ago.) I’m never wedded to canonical purity, and I’m totally willing to go along with a compelling new vision, even of a storyworld I love.

So to say I personify the ideal audience for The Hobbit movies is, I think, no exaggeration. And to say that the movie left me rather flat breaks my heart.

Having seen the first installment, I knew part 2 would be problematic, so my expectations were realistic. Indeed, after reading reviews (carefully, to avoid spoilers — sure, I read the book 11 times, but ya never know) my expectations might’ve been below realistic into low territory. I reminded myself that seeing the movie would at least support the epic fantasy genre. I even made sure to be mildly dehydrated so the 2:40 run-time wouldn’t leave me shifting restlessly in my seat.

And STILL I gave a sad sigh as I walked out of the theater at 1:30 a.m. after the late show.

In Desolation, I have seen the positive power of no at work. Or, in this case, not working.

Not the ability to SAY no — that’s one of the first things you learn as a toddler: nononononono — but the ability to HEAR no. As a storyteller myself, I’m inclined to believe that if only I was allowed to run amok, my creative life would be perfect. If only I could do whatever I wanted, with enormous talent and a bottomless budget and brilliant co-conspirators and an automatically adoring audience, certainly I would create a work to both entertain AND endure the ages.

Not so much, apparently.

editing the hobbit

Desolation was a gorgeous, thrilling, wonderful movie… stuck in a too-big hooded onsie, under a winter coat and galoshes, overlaid with a wetsuit, tucked into an EVA space suit, rolling inside a half-inflated bouncy house. Seeing the movie that could have been drowning in the morass of what was actually on the screen gave me a new appreciation for editing. Every single scene in the movie — not kidding, EVERY scene — could have been shortened, sometimes judiciously, sometimes brutally. Every speech (with the possible exception of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Smaug, but only because he was so very, very pretty) could have been trimmed. Every action sequence could have been tighter, most of them by multiple beats (which would have neatly gotten rid of some questionable CGI). Entire characters could have been cut without consequence.

The moviemakers just needed to hear no.

No, the movie shouldn’t be two hours and forty minutes. Heck, now that we think about it, no, it doesn’t need to be a trilogy. No, you can’t have two nearly identical speeches that aren’t even good echoes and you can’t have two nearly identical action sequences involving log rides. And while we’re saying no, no, you aren’t designing an amusement park, you’re making a movie. No, there aren’t that many orcs in existence who can’t land a single bloody blow. No, you don’t need that weak and undermotivated love interest story. (“But at least we added a character with woman parts, so of course she had to fall in love with someone for no fucking reason…” Gah.) No, we aren’t buying that cool special effect app just so you can use it on something that doesn’t even fit into the image bible you’ve already established. No, somebody doesn’t need to say something in a ringing voice because this is the story beat where somebody always says something in a ringing voice. No, we’re not randomly shoehorning this character even if certain fan-girls want it so bad. Okay, yes, you can sneak your cameo in the establishing shot, but it won’t be self-indulgent because on everything else that makes the movie feel slow and unfocused we are going to say no and you are going to hear it. No. Nonononono. Just… no.

In January, I’m writing one story and revising two more, so this lesson really hit home for me. (Hit home like one of Tauriel’s arrows, not like an orc blow which apparently can’t land EVER.) Not that I am anywhere near as indulged as PJ — tragically — but in my own little creative realm, I sometimes want to go easy on myself. And that’s no good.

No one wants to hear no. It sounds so… limiting. But hearing no shouldn’t stop you. No indeed! No is where we find the problems. It’s where we cut what doesn’t work. It’s where we find new ways around and over and through. It’s how we fight to a yes. An enthusiastic, unconditional, orgasmic yesyesyes!

Hearing no can be sharp and painful, honing back to the bone, but it’s the difference between a bloated, soft, weak hobbit who never would have left the Shire and a hot, sleek, glittering dragon who’ll burn everyone’s lowly expectations to the ground. That cutting NO creates the negative pressure that gives lift to the dragon’s wings.

So I’ll be taking NO and running with it like scissors — like Bilbo’s little Sting! — excising the bloat, slicing away the unnecessary, carving through to the shiny gold center. The power of no is a power I will use for good.

But I suppose the real question is, will I see the third Hobbit movie? Well, YES 🙂 I mean, c’mon, it’s The Hobbit!

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10 thoughts on “The bane of the bottomless budget: A case for editing

  1. I was laughing a lot through this. We haven’t gone to either Hobbit movie after seeing numerous reviews. I suspect we will see at least the first one on Netflix at some point, but it’s not at the top of my list.

    Your last line though tells so much: “But I suppose the real question is, will I see the third Hobbit movie? Well, YES 🙂 I mean, c’mon, it’s The Hobbit!”

    This is also why readers continue to read a bestselling author or series even when it falls apart and the writing or story goes downhill. I often see readers saying things like: “This book made me so mad…” or “It’s like the author didn’t know what to do, lost her way, or doesn’t care anymore.” Yet at the end of such reviews invariably the reader says: “But I will buy the next one because I love these characters.” or “But I will buy the next one and hope it becomes good again.”

    It’s all crack, baby. :0

    • I’m a hopeless codependent enabler! And I like it 🙂

      However, creators shouldn’t rely too much on my forgiving nature. It doesn’t take much to build up credit with me, but it does run out. And at $13/ticket, they can run through my goodwill pretty quick. I’m not sure what Mr. Shyamalan would have to do to win back my love.

      Actually Netflix is probably good for that. One happy viewing there and you could lure me back to the big screen. I’m an easy audience in that I WANT to be entertained.

      And yeah, I’ll go see the next Star Wars too. Hopeless, I tell ya. Hopeless!

  2. Jessa,

    So agree with the ‘editing needed’. The river sequence with the orcs who could not shoot was loooong.

    Photography, costuming and sets were so gorgeous, acting was fantastic, but we spent a lot of time of what seemed like non-essentials.

    Disagree about Smaug–he needed editing too. His scene chasing Bilbo through the jewels and his speech were both much too long. And I won’t even go into the idiocy of the molten gold statue!! Where the he** did that come from? I felt as if I’d wandered into the wrong epic fantasy at that point.

    Have to say, I preferred the spiders in Mirkwood to the incredible grossness of the goblin king in the first movie. Ick, icky, icy. Felt as if a 14 yr old boy wrote that scene, with a sort of ‘Let’s gross out the girls!’ motif.

    Like you, I’ll def be back for #3. After all, it is The Hobbit, and it is pretty.

    • In my defense, I just got Netflix for Christmas and I just watched the first episode of Sherlock (2010) so I might be a bit belatedly enamored with Mr. Cumberbatch and his accent 😉

      I think the wobble in the goblin king’s wattle was probably one of the CG effects that should’ve been cut from the budget. It was almost mesmerizing how it flopped around like Merida’s hair in Brave.

      Just say no!

  3. Please don’t pay money to go see any more Hobbit movies. As long as we’re satisfied with movies that are barely worth watching even for free, Hollywood will continue to churn them out. We have to vote with our dollars and start being more exclusive about entertainment we give our money to.

    I understand the hope we have that this next version will be better than the previous ones, but let’s be honest with ourselves and admit beforehand that we will almost certainly be letdown (when the evidence warrants that conclusion, as it does with any Peter Jackson movie at this point). People wonder why Hollywood is so obsessed with franchises. This is why! We have an attachment to a franchise, so we throw our money at all kinds of travesties because we convince ourselves they won’t be that bad. This is why there’s a Battleship movie!!!

    Why not take your money and go see original stories from young visionary directors, movies like Safety Not Guaranteed, District 9, or Monsters?

    • Ooh, I hadn’t heard of Monsters. Sounds good. I liked District 9 and Safety Not Guaranteed, and I agree with the need for more original stories. Of course I would 😉

      I won’t throw the franchise baby out with the bathwater, though. As a series writer myself, I think there’s great potential in developing an ongoing world. Yes, it can be blatant manipulation on the part of the creator to rope us in far past the point we should know better, but when it’s done right, you can create a whole new mythos. Which, yes, might be squandered in future “prequels” or “reboots”, but what amazing potential.

      I can, however, think of no excuse for a Battleship movie.

      • oh, i’m not saying that all franchises are bad. i’ll be going to see the new star wars movies too, hoping for the best. i’m just saying that when we KNOW the franchise is broken, then going to see it anyway will only encourage more crap. we KNOW the next hobbit movie is going to be awful. let’s not go.

  4. What? Not like the hobbit —
    Here are my 10 counter arguments 🙂
    http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20769139,00.html
    (or just focus on #4)

    No matter what we think of the movie, May we all write a story that sticks with people’s imaginations long after we are gone, to the point where our work is not criticized but someone’s interpretation of our work is called into question — what a feat to accomplish!

    • Bwa-ha! I LOVE that Gandalf is #1! On a technical note, I think he was the only one who looked completely right at the high frame rate.

      Okay, now I gotta go write a young Gandalf fan fic 🙂 I think in my version I will redeem Sauron through Gandalf’s love.

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