In a future episode of the podcast I mention how little I care for the notion of the trilogy as standard for longform storytelling in film — if we toss out the inherent cynicism associated with the institution and take it at face value, it still doesn’t 100% work. To me, it’s straightforward, especially with something like The Lord of the Rings movies, of which there are three. Now, this is directly, mathematically correlating to the books, where Tolkein had written six under three titles, but it doesn’t escape the painful reality that each act of story is equal in length, and therefore significance. Applying the Syd Field approach, Act II should be the longest, because when we think about it, that’s the meat of the story. Act I contains premise, the setup, the story pitch, and Act II follows it up with what you came to the story for, to see the premise play out.
The Two Towers should be the longest by at least 50%, if we think of a two hour movie as Acts I and III are a half hour each, and Act II is one hour. But since it is of comparable length as the beginning and ending, it’s awkward. Of course, the fellowship’s quest doesn’t begin a second before the first movie’s credits roll, and the Ring gets melt long before Bilbo says good-bye one last time.
Even better than 50% is two movies for Act II, though this prospect seems so much less commercially tenable. You would need a major franchise like The Lord of the Rings or The Hunger Games. Four movies comprising a film series just doesn’t really exist, outside of clearly unplanned ‘stories’ like Alien and Rambo. Those are structural nightmares. For a time, I felt that the Metal Gear Solid games really represented a perfect example of this (having played really none of them). I always go back to them in this line of thought, because the first four in the main Solid series (it’s very confusing) felt to me, the layman, perfect; they told a story just in their premises alone.
First we have Metal Gear Solid, which is about the hero, Solid Snake, doing the mission from The Rock, but with robots and supernatural terrorists. This is kind of the ‘big event’ that establishes the story going forward. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty takes the perspective to a different character, Raiden, and expands the universe/backstory, which is key. The Raiden thing is sort of unimportant but always must be mentioned — that much I know about the games. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater takes the perspective again to another character, this time a Solid Snake lookalike known as Big Boss, and we explore on a more intimate level the backstory/universe. I know that there’s a central tragedy in this story, and I assume that the ‘core arc’ is furthered in a significant way, with the inception of the titular weapon being explored, as well as the grand Illuminati-like conspiracy. And then Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, returns to Solid Snake, this time as Old Snake, and we go into the most futuristic, most cataclysmic MGS world for the grand finale, knowing everything we need from the prior two games.
Of course, now they (he) are/is doing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, another cool subtitle, but a strange entry for my little structure. We go back to Big Boss, after having played him for at least three games, and uncover more of the universe. I fail to see how a prequel will properly end a series (much as I like Star Wars III…), but of course, I have no experience with any of them.
Keeping this OCD in mind, let’s take a look at last year’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. More broadly, the structure of a longform narrative over a span of films, in this case four (the preferred number [over a trilogy], though this doesn’t follow the preferred convention of two films for Act 2; this is Act 3 broken up into two). Opening Catching Fire, we see our protagonist Katniss wanting to leave it all, suffering a singular episode of PTSD, and declaring her inability to help those in the districts. By the end, she is the key to inciting revolution for the districts, and so we have a complete arc, however inactive she was in reaching this endgame (it is ‘excused’ by theme; Katniss is a soldier, and so she’s constantly strung along fighting other people’s battles, though this may render her a passive protagonist in plot/character terms).
I imagine that the endgame of the prior film has set up the initial conflict for this movie, and so there is this cycle of setups and payoffs that morph into each other — the product here is dynamism, in character as well as plot. There are characters who are interesting because they never change, like James Bond or the Man with No Name, but the more literary characters out there are not flat, and in this case, Katniss evolves in time with the beats of this greater structure, Act I, Act II, and an extended Act III.
Theoretically, each story would then increase in scope, and this seems in line with what a big franchise story should be. Herein lies the issue, and so now we must return to the commercial realities underlying storytelling in film.
That ultimately, it is much less organic than longform storytelling in television, and even novels that feel episodic. As we know, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, the third and final entry in the book series, is being split up into two movies, much like how Twilight’s final book was also split, and the way The Hobbit’s final and first entry were split into three movies.
Like I’ll say in an actual episode, this represents a critical misunderstanding of the film medium, even if the nature of film is fully acknowledged and appreciated, but willfully ignored, by the studio execs/creatives. It’s unfortunate that film is this completely bastard medium of literature, where prestige projects are based on books, no exceptions, and there’s a category called “Best Adapted Screenplay” for the Oscars. How is that different from there being a “Best Novelization” category for the Pulitzers? How is this not a two-way street? Because movies are the ones that make money, so at the cost of everything else, engineer them to make as much money as possible.
Obviously, story is secondary in Hollywood and most other places, so The Hunger Games is actually refreshing in this regard. In concept, it isn’t perfect — it should be three, and if it was three, it should be four — but it seems to be making better use of its forced structure better than something like The Hobbit, which succeeds mostly in teasing. The second film introduces a secondary villain to the secondary villain (the latter of which, the orc general, I assumed was dead in the first movie) and doesn’t even kill him off. The Desolation of Smaug I thought was better than Unexpected Journey, but neither are as effective as the original movies.
I know, for reasons other than merely structure, but the way The Hobbit differs from The Hunger Games is in how story is being stretched across the films, and the gulfs between them. Because The Hunger Games books had discrete beginning and endings (I’ve heard that the first book ends really abruptly), they were better suited to the structure they have, which until this year, was 1:1. Time will tell how it’ll fare, if the final two movies will feel like one movie split up, or two movies that are part of a broader whole, which just so happens to have perfect quadrilogy structure.