The Hobbit and Hollywood’s Rapidly Expanding Franchise Syndrome

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I am a Lord of the Rings fan. I am also a fan of The Hobbit. I never thought of it as a prequel to The Lord of the Rings though. I thought of it as a one-off adventure, a completely contained story with overlapping characters and plots. Like JRR Tolkein once said, a children’s story.

The most important reason I felt that The Hobbit was very separate from the later trilogy was because of the stakes. It’s right there in the title: There and Back Again. Bilbo undoubtedly will come back. Yes his quest is dangerous and often life-threatening, but it’s also fun and an adventure and something of an extended holiday for Bilbo.

The Lord of the Rings is an entirely different story. The stakes couldn’t be higher. They are, in fact, apocalyptic. Frodo isn’t leaving his home out of any desire to see the world or have an adventure, he’s doing to because otherwise people will die. There is no fun involved as he’s chased by Wraiths and orcs and travels across barren landscapes with little rest and little food. And there is the possibility that this is a one way journey for him. And meanwhile, the rest of Middle Earth is caught in the throes of war, the outcome of which will be decided by Frodo. It is an epic. It has three stories to tell, and as such, was told in three films.

When I heard that Peter Jackson’s long-long awaited adaptation of The Hobbit was going to be split into two films, I was pretty nonplussed. The trend started with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The book was just too long to make into one film. Of course, Warner Bros. had the benefit of double the profits from two separate releases, but, as an avid Harry Potter fan, I’d agree that you could find two separate movies in that last book. And when I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 I was pleased that it was its own movie, if only because of the flashback scene with Snape and Lily. Then came Twilight: Breaking Dawn split into two films, which I could care less about, although it was clearly a profit minded move, as I’ve read that travesty of a book and there is certainly not enough material for two movies. Then The Hobbit announcement, which I accepted because The Hobbit is long, and I trusted Peter Jackson. Then the third Hunger Games installment is officially two films, which I could see, because Mockingjay is a wild and unwieldy book. Then comes today’s press release from Peter Jackson that The Hobbit will be not two, but three films. And I am out of excuses for the filmmakers. 

Peter Jackson made it out like we are supposed to be excited about this. Who’s excited? The reaction I’ve seen is mostly one of anger and disappointment. Does anybody want three three hour films? Did anybody really want two films? Sometimes stories are just that, one story. They deserve their beginning and end in one sitting.

But moreover, this latest announcement illuminates the problem with Hollywood right now that I like to call the Rapidly Expanding Franchise Syndrome. Symptoms include: sequels to crappy films (Transformers 2 and 3), sequels to films where the story really ended in movie one (Taken 2), reboots of franchises before the old ones have really died (The Amazing Spider-Man), continuing franchises after the original actors/characters have gone (The Bourne Legacy), remaking good old films into bad copies (Footloose), remaking bad old films into bad copies (Conan the Barbarian), and this new trend, breaking up adaptations into smaller and smaller pieces.

I’m not naive. I do understand that the movies are a business and the goal of a business isn’t to make art but to make money. It’s sad but true. Like 3Disease (a horrible affliction sweeping our nation), Rapidly Expanding Franchise Syndrome has taken over Hollywood and has become the norm. But the problem here isn’t that they’re trying to make more money, but rather that genuinely new stories are becoming rarer and rarer. Look at last weekend’s box office. The Dark Knight Rises, a threequel in a rebooted franchise, topped the chart, followed by the fourth installment of a children’s cartoon. And that is the real sad truth here. Hollywood isn’t safe for ingenuity anymore. I don’t mind that studios try to make money by betting on known quantities, but rather that they won’t gamble on a good new idea. Instead of seeing new ideas and new stories, we are going to start going to see the same movie over and over again.

And we are the cause. Movie prices are continuing to climb into the stratosphere, and so why would you waste $10 on something that you don’t know much about, when you can just go see the most recent James Bond film? I’m guilty of it too. I love adaptations and am excited for sequels that continue stories I love. I like reboots too. But I also like stories. And I wish I could see more of them.

Possibly the most disappointing thing about this announcement is that it came not from a money-grubbing studio, but from the artist himself, an artist that many fans have come to revere over the past decade. Jackson has become a trusted guardian of a story that we love. And now he’s broken our trust. What is the point of expanding trusted properties when that trust is gone? Hopefully one day there will be a tipping point. One film too far. I think a small one happened this past weekend with Step Up: Revolution, the fourth film in a teen dance franchise. The tipping point for Hollywood would have to be much bigger, a huge tentpole sequel that didn’t hold up at all. I don’t think it will be The Hobbit. Despite my reservations, I plan to see all three films. But hopefully, someday soon, they will start making new movies again.

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