Didn’t Matter, Had Franchise (the Hobbit 2 from a screenwriting perspective)

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Thorin Oakenshield is a sawed off little runt who can’t fight but seems to think he can. He’s desperate to avenge his father’s defeat by launching a preemptive strike for the mineral rights of an enemy he doesn’t understand. He has no exit strategy. He makes George W. Bush look like freaking Aragorn.

The Hobbit Desolation of Smaug does not have a great screenplay.

  • It takes ten minutes for anything to happen in the story.
  • Most of what’s cool about it is visual spectacle that wouldn’t show on the page.
  • It’s 3 hours long
  • There are many sequences that you could cut out and the movie would still make sense.  Arbitrary plot points are not good things.
  • It loses the titular Hobbit for wide patches of the action.
  • No one has an arc.
  • The one interesting love interest pops in for four scenes, has chemistry with a dwarf for no reason, and then shows up again near the end almost randomly.
  • There are way too many dwarves.  Other than Thorin, I’m hard pressed to remember their names.  They get captured like all the time.  The only way the movie makes sense is if you imagine it as if they’re on a bondage tour where they pay fantasy creatures to contain them and menace them.

The list goes on.  None of this matters.

  • 66% Metacritic score, 74% Rotten Tomatoes.
  • Will win a grip of awards.
  • Audience response hovers around the 80% approval.  This movie has made more people happy than all of us put together are likely to do in the next ten years.
  • Most importantly, box office: .3 Billion Domestic, .7 Billion international.  Movies like these keep the lights on in Hollywood, and thank god they do.

That being said, it’s important that we take the right lessons here.  A lot of aspiring writers might be tempted to say, “Desolation of Smaug was a success, so it’s a good model for screenwriting.”  I’d hold that it is not, at least not for the kind of screenwriting journeymen are likely to focus on.

  • It’s based off of a classic book.  Regular folks won’t get the rights to material like this ever.  Yes, even if you’ve got the option on that one Michael Moorcock story that everyone in your WoW guild knows about.
  • It’s a sequel in a franchise.  No LOTR success, no Hobbit.  Side note:  Don’t write trilogies.
  • Much of what works about it is visual.  Peter Jackson can go into a meeting with artwork and pre-vis material.  The beginner screenwriter cannot.
  • Even with all these factors considered, it took years to get a greenlight from the studios.
  • Peter Jackson can make a movie like this because he built a reputation.  Look at his early works.  He cut his teeth on smaller, less ambitious movies.  His early projects used familiar genres to hint at his great imagination.  That’s why he was able to make Lord of the Rings when the time came.

The lesson to take is this: once you’re big, once you’re established, once it’s a studio project, once it’s a franchise (or preexisting material) some rules go out the window.  But that’s tomorrow’s problem.  If you’re serious about breaking into screenwriting, Desolation of Smaug could work as an aspiration target, but it isn’t a model of what to write next.

We aren’t writing to sell giant Lord of the Rings-type ideas, at least not initially.  We write samples that showcase our ability to write, so we can make more interesting or grandiose movies down the line.  Forget that at your peril.

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