Talking Tolkien. With so many Hollywood blockbusters misfiring, Rakesh Malik reckons the root of the problem lies in the way they fail to pay attention to the Hero's Journey, as two very different Middle Earth experiences show.
For the big studios, the standard operating procedure when their movies fail is to spend more money on the next blockbuster. Amazon took it a step further by censoring reviews for The Rings of Power to hide the fact that hardly anyone liked it from the few people who had not seen the reviews on YouTube or IndieWire.
It's not just Amazon, either. Instead of learning from their mistakes, the studios are doubling down on them and then blaming the audiences for not liking their movies. The rest of us can use these movies like experiments in a science lab and learn something from them.
At the heart of many of the studios' blunders is the Hero's Journey. Anyone who has studied storytelling has heard about the Hero's Journey regardless of what medium they focus on, but clearly the big studios skipped that class entirely.
Let's look at how the studios are getting this core aspect of storytelling so far wrong, so that we can learn from their mistakes even if they continue refusing to do so.
The concept of the Hero's Journey
The Hero's Journey is quite simple: it is the journey the hero undertakes to go from the beginning of the story to the end of the story. That journey can be literal, as in a quest story, and it can be philosophical or metaphorical, as in a coming-of-age story.
Obstacles on that journey are critical to creating an engaging story. Taking a stroll around a scenic lake in a national park is a relaxing experience in person, but it makes for a dull story. A trek to an alpine lake in a national park that involves hunkering down to weather a sudden storm makes for a much more engaging story.
To make the story engaging, the protagonist needs to be relatable. Whether the hero is a superhero or an ordinary person, that means having some positive traits along with flaws. Walter White in Breaking Bad is a classic example of an ordinary character who is strong enough to drive five seasons.
The hero needs opposition, an obstacle of some kind, and the motivation to overcome the obstacle. Walter White is struggling to provide for his family on his meager salary as a chemistry teacher in a public school, and on top of that, the medical bills that his cancer treatment entails, which are gradually burying his finances. Nearly anyone not among the financial elite has been there at one time or another. Because of this, we can sympathize with him when he gives in and applies his knowledge of chemistry to making methamphetamines to pay his bills and provide for his family.
Overcoming the obstacle must also lead to a change in the protagonist; merely changing locations is not enough. Walter White, for example, learns how to deal with drug dealers, while in another franchise entirely, Sarah Conner, the waitress next door, ends up finishing off the Terminator. You get the picture (and, in the next movie, it is her son who is the focus of the journey).
Getting the journey wrong in Middle Earth
Let's use some recent Tolkien-inspired content to illustrate this: The Rings of Power and Peter Jackson's core Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Even with a billion-dollar budget, a literary source with an enormous fan base, and following up a spectacularly successful epic trilogy, Amazon managed one of the most spectacular failures in TV history with The Rings of Power, a failure so extensive that only 45% of viewers watched the first season in its entirety.
To my mind, Amazon's rendition of its main character, Galadriel, is the primary reason for this. Instead of Cate Blanchett's portrayal as the beloved leader of her people in Peter Jackson's movies, Amazon's Galadriel simply starts to be too powerful. Early in the series, when the band she leads faces a massive troll that her compatriots are struggling with, she slays the troll with a single cut of her sword, effectively slaying the suspense for her for the rest of the series.
Sadly, that was the high point. It goes downhill from there, as not only does Galadriel undertake the most ridiculous stunts, like jumping off of her ship on the way to Valinor to swim across the ocean back to Middle Earth. Amazon further compounds this narrative problem by having Galadriel treat everyone she meets like they are beneath her. Having no relatable challenges before her means she is exactly the same at the end of the season as she was at the beginning.
The billion dollars that Amazon spent on the series shows in its incredible production value, but with a hero like that, it never had a chance.
Getting the journey right in Middle Earth
While the Ringbearer is ostensibly the primary hero of the Lord of the Rings, during the story, Frodo mentions to Samwise that Sam is the real hero of the story. This has a lot of merit because Sam has such a compelling character arc. He begins as a timid, subservient servant, eager only to please and always looking to Frodo for direction. In Shelob's lair, however, Sam is the one to take up the Light of Elendil and Sting, drives Shelob away by wounding her with Sting, and then rescues Frodo from the orcs who have taken him captive. His efforts to rescue Frodo had the orcs believing that he was an Elven warrior, quite a transformation from the mild-mannered character we meet in the Shire at the saga's beginning.
All the other hobbits follow a similar sort of arc.
The Hero's Journey is as fundamental a part of storytelling as the adage, “Show, don't tell.” Those of us who have studied storytelling have learned it, and in theory, so have the professional screenwriters, yet they seem to be throwing both of these rules out when writing big-budget movies. While a lot of this is likely due to the influence of the bean counters and executives forcing their opinions on the writers and the crew, it's still leading to enormous losses for the studios.
Don't follow the studios' examples and abandon the fundamentals of storytelling, especially now that the importance of making television and movies that engage and fascinate has never been more critical.