In 1979, Italo Calvino described a world where the reader is on the search for a book that is never finished. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is written in the second person, putting the reader in the role of the protagonist. The reader begins reading a novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, but finds that the novel was misprinted, and suddenly stops after 10-12 pages. The reader then goes on a search for a complete edition of the novel, never finding the complete novel. Instead, the reader finds other novels, of various genres, that have also been misprinted so that there is always only a first chapter of the book. The reader character and his love interest start looking for conspiracy theories – oppressive governments, corrupt publishing houses, etc – to explain why they can only find the first chapter of these books. This leaves both the reader and the reader character in perpetual states of frustration and anticipation.
In 2014, we have entered the world of Italo Calvino, where the big budget movies are perpetually divided into first chapters of whatever they are, regardless of theme, character, style, or plot. This is a year containing two novels that have been chopped into separate movies, and many movies that exist as mere setup for other movies within its universe. The latter series of movies requires that you’re locked into the universe in order to fully engage with whatever individual movie you’re happening to see.
The first movie to participate in dividing a novel into a separate films was, technically, The Lord of the Rings. The original novel of Lord of the Rings was released as three separate volumes, none of which were complete novels unto themselves. Each of the three volumes, however, were lengthy and meaty, creating an blanket world with many moving parts that all combined into one epic story. All of the volumes were novel length – ranging from 300-430 pages each) – combining into a single 1000+ page novel. Since the novel was divided into three sections, it made sense to divide the movie series into three sections, after all there was more than enough meat for all to feast on. Like the novels, none of the Lord of the Rings movies stand on their own as a complete story. But, running them together, they form a great, epic, 9 or 12 hour film (whether you watch theatrical or expanded editions).
The next film to participate in dividing a single story into multiple movies was Quentin Tarantino with Kill Bill. The first of the Kill Bill movies begins Beatrix’s search for vengeance. However, the movie nakedly ends with only a few targets dispensed, and none of the back story has been explained. It takes Kill Bill – Vol 2 to finish the story of vengeance, and also give us the back story. Because Tarantino was weaving a linear story with many origin story digressions, Kill Bill felt like it deserved the screentime – 4 hour 07 minutes – for Tarantino to build the tale of how everything came to be. When watching Vol 1, it felt like a cash grab, and even Tarantino knew that it was going to feel like a cash grab and went on the defensive, saying that he asked Weinstein if it felt complete enough to be a movie on its own.
After Kill Bill, it took another 7 years before the phenomenon would truly take flight.
Both Harry Potter and Twilight had their final books divided into two volumes. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, a 700+ page children’s novel, was the seventh in a series of books that created a worldwide fanaticism, ensuring a box office return for each film adaptation. Still, each successive Harry Potter novel became increasingly dense and complicated, leaving fewer and fewer plot points that could be left on the cutting room floor for efficient adaptations. The complex world of Harry Potter almost demanded that the Deathly Hallows be two movies in order to fully wrap up all of the plot points, without feeling like a rushed unfinished work.
Twilight‘s final entry, Breaking Dawn, was also divided up into two films. Unlike the hugely mythic world of Harry Potter, the world of Twilight was annoyingly simplistic and boring. Stephanie Meyer would frequently hint at plans that are happening in a larger underground vampire world, but she would always bring it back to the trials and tribulations of Bella Swan, thus ensuring the audience rarely cared about these far vaster more interesting things that happened. When Breaking Dawn Part 1 came out, it was the the first time people realized that a cash grab was happening. Almost nothing happens in Breaking Dawn Part 1. Sure, there are some occasional vampire things, and Bella gets preggers and gives birth, but much of the screen time is given over to brooding, moreso than usual for a Twilight film. Suddenly, the two films felt bloated and like halves of a movie that shouldn’t have been halved.
The same year that Breaking Dawn Part 2 was released, The Hunger Games and The Hobbit started their journey into incomplete storytelling.
The Hobbit is a short children’s novel prologue to the more epic and adult Lord of the Rings. The story is the origin of the Lord of the Rings epic, but otherwise feels like a separate entity unto itself. Sure it shared characters and objects, but the story of The Hobbit is a complete and conclusive story on its own. It isn’t a prologue that is dependent on the Lord of the Rings to bring closure to the novel. Nor is Lord of the Rings dependent on the story of The Hobbit to be a full novel. They just build onto each other to form a larger world.
The Hobbit, however, is a short streamlined bullet train from start to finish. It’s a short, speedy, novel almost boils down to a series of action sequences and pauses strung together to form a coherent story. It’s breezy and lightweight. However, this slim children’s novel has been divided into three separate 3-hour movies. This novel takes about 4 hours to read, and now takes 9 hours to watch as a movie series, normally not the way to go, especially with attention spans. The Hobbit became a symbol of bloat and excess, embodying the derisive term cash grab. Each volume of The Hobbit is incomplete, but they also don’t tell enough of a story to justify the division of the movies. Part 1 had a slow start, and then a slow middle, and even the action sequences in the end felt excessive and bloated. Part 2 had a lot of filler material added in to tie The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings movies, yet it adds nothing to The Hobbit itself. The methods used to bloat The Hobbit would be used by Marvel.
More along the lines of Twilight and Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games is a multi-novel series that builds onto itself. Ultimately, each novel of The Hunger Games feels like single acts in a 3-act story. Although the first two novels of The Hunger Games have enough structure to be novels on their own, the third, Mockingjay, is much more formless and dependent on the first two novels to justify its existence. Ironically, Mockingjay is also the most packed with plot development, and also the only one of the three books to be divided into two movies. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 feels exactly like the title. It feels like the first half of a third act of a series. Mockingjay – Part 1 a big-screen episode of a miniseries.
The Hobbit and Mockingjay are also the movies where the financial choice to divide the books into separate movies severely neuters the impact of their respective source materials. The Hobbit, originally a slim breezy read, is now a slow and plodding march to boredom. Mockingjay suffers even more. With Mockingjay, Susanne Collins was making political points about the nature of war, rebellion, propaganda, and alliances. By dividing Mockingjay into two parts, the story of the first movie becomes as inane as Katniss eventually became. As Mockingjay continues, Katniss becomes more of a pawn than a rebel. She is increasingly worried about Peeta vs Gale, even as thousands of people die around her. For her, it’s all Peeta Peeta Peeta, and her focus on One vs All becomes a source of conflict. By dividing Mockingjay into two parts, the political points set up in the first movie are lost to the new plot of Peeta Peeta Peeta. Thousands of people die? It’s all about Peeta in the end of this one. It severely neuters the impact of the novel by making it into a half movie.
This phenomenon isn’t just relegated to literary adaptation. This half-story phenomenon is invading any movie that is destined to be something bigger than itself.
Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is all about creating a series of interconnected films that form one large and overbearing story. Ultimately, the story is 21 movies long (2 short of an American television series), and divided among a variety of different superhero movies. In order to not make the movies feel so serialized, they are each given different heroes and different titles, but ultimately they all build onto each other. Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, is a movie that is all about set up. It’s an origin story that tells you little about the characters. It forms the characters, drops hints at their back story, and has them move an element from one place to another. But, ultimately, Guardians of the Galaxy is just a section of a story. I liken it to buying a forearm in a non-customizable robot. It’s an essential piece if you really like the robot, but ultimately it is just one section that doesn’t stand on its own.
The main problem with Guardians of the Galaxy is that, even within its own world, its story is incomplete. From the beginning of Guardians of the Galaxy, they raise the question of who is Star-Lord’s father, but never get around to answering it. They raise the question of what happened to Drax’s family, and will his vengeance be sated, also unanswered. They raise the question of Gamora’s daddy issues and family, but never get around to finishing those topics. They raise the question of Rocket Raccoon’s creator, but never come to terms with that. The element that everybody desires is never destroyed, and is locked up waiting to be stolen again. Ronan is merely a minion to Thanos, and thus Thanos’ minion is defeated…but what about Thanos? Nothing is resolved, and you have to be watching all of the 20 other movies in the MCU, and Agents of SHIELD television show, for the movie to pay off.
In my memory, the first movie series that participated in these shenanigans was Star Wars, whose Episode 5 (really part 2 of a trilogy) was half of a movie that ended on a down note. Later, and prominently, Back to the Future, mirrored the format of Star Wars. Both series resembled The Hunger Games novels in format The first installments were stand-alone movies with a cheeky send-off. The second installments were movies that depended on Part 1 in order to feel complete, but still had enough meat on their bones to feel like complete movies. The third installments, in turn, depended on parts 1 and 2, but were still full movies that could almost stand on their own. Star Wars had different productions for each of its sequels, while Back to the Future had parts 2 and 3 in the same production.
Closer to the MCU style cash grab, Star Trek 2, 3, and 4 contained one over-arching story. But, the Star Trek movies were unique in that The Wrath of Khan felt like a whole movie though it depended on The Search for Spock, and together they formed a cohesive unit. However, they were not dependent on The Voyage Home, nor was The Voyage Home dependent on them for its story.
The now-naked cash grab of Hollywood, and the resulting features that require multiple admissions (especially at $10-15 a pop), is an ugly and gross result of the system. It makes the audience feel complicit in giving money to people for products that don’t matter. There has been a backlash. The only movie to crack the $300m mark so far this year (we’re already in November) has been Guardians of the Galaxy, which had a stand-alone title. Each of the other movies in the top 10 have either been sequels or had tie ins to commercial products (22 Jump Street, Godzilla, Maleficent, and The LEGO Movie). If Hollywood is going to treat us as living wallets, it’s no wonder that we’re starting to close the purse.
I am not discussing Atlas Shrugged because nobody should be discussing that stupid series.