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Studios: Stop Splitting Movies in Half

The Hunger Games are well written and well directed movies, and considerably stronger than most of the teen friendly nonsense pumped out by studios these days. Critics have praised the movies for their plots, quick world-building, and empowering female protagonist. There’s a problem though, with how the series is being presented; in particular, how the final addition to the franchise – Mockingjay, which is released this week – is being released in two parts. The movie’s full and fairly clumsy title – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 – lets us know this is yet another divided movie. Popularised with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the notion of splitting movies into sections is becoming standard within Hollywood, and it’s becoming problematic for audiences. This is not a case of a secondary narrative following a first in a separate feature, and nothing like a traditional sequel – these movies take one story and split it in two, with ‘creative’ logic which can’t help but feel cynical. As studios continue to push this trend on audiences, it makes sense to examine the problems this causes.kill bill This idea first appeared in the early 2000s, when Tarantino split his Kill Bill into two volumes. Tarantino had made an epic samurai spaghetti western which was a little too long – the studio wouldn’t release a five hour movie for good reason and instead of making brutal cuts, Tarantino split his structure film into two distinct sections, a move which was considered unusual and experimental at the time. It worked for Kill Bill, as editing meant each section felt like an individual movie, with its own narrative agenda and distinct style; Vol 1 became the Japanese, anime-samurai action flick, whilst Vol 2 became the gritty spaghetti western movie with the characters and motivation. But Kill Bill isn’t’ representative of the current chopping trend – Tarantino had enough material in Kill Bill to warrant the split, and used the split to create two distinct and satisfying movies – though Kill Bill may have inspired Harry Potter to follow suit years later. Had Kill Bill not been released, the dividing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows into Parts 1 and 2 would have seemed even more jarring for audiences – Kill Bill provided the groundwork.killbill3 Warner Brothers faced a problem in the late 2000s – they were running out of Harry Potter books, which meant they were running out of Harry Potter movies to make. The cash cow which had supported the studio for a decade was about to die. And so some executive at Warner Bros had the genius idea of splitting the last book, the Deathly Hallows, in two, adding another film to the franchise and an eighth and final push on the money. From a business point of view, the decision was brilliant. Though actors and crew would need paying twice, the second movie would be considerably cheaper to make, since all the sets, props and costumes would have already been made for the first half. Warner Bros had the chance to make double their money on one picture. Splitting the films was more or less risk free too, since by this point, the franchise was critic proof, and there was no way people would miss the final Harry Potter movie. Only now, they’d have to go twice. Part 1 would also serve as an extended trailer for Part 2, turning the franchise into its own marketing machine.5It was a financial decision, though cynically, dressed up as a creative one. The pretence offered to the movie going public was that a two parter would give the adaptation room to breathe, and filmmakers would be able to cover everything in the book without making cuts. In theory, the idea is that a longer movie – two combined – will create a more developed, balanced and superior final product, one really for the fans. This approach takes advantage of fans who want their adaptations as direct as possible, with no changes. Whenever a property has an established and passionate fanbase – Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, Star Wars etc – people are going to already have ideas in their head about what they want, and these ideas, coming from people with little knowledge of film as a medium, tend to be lifted directly from the text. Throughout the Potter run, there were constant complaints (some justified, some silly) of things being cut out, and the Deathly Hallows divide seemed to finally address this. In a clever piece of marketing, the move seemed motivated to please fans.4The problem is that cinema shouldn’t have to constrain itself to literal adaptations; it’s a different medium and the notion of covering everything is lazy. A great adaptation – Blade Runner, No Country for Old Men, The Silence of the Lambs – should capture the feel of the material, the atmosphere, but not be afraid to make alterations to fit the space. The best Harry Potter movie, the Prisoner of Azkaban, is the one which plays loosest with the source material, yet it’s the one which comes closest to capturing the magic of books. Books, by their nature, have all the time in the world to tell a story – cinema as a medium is more condensed. The push for including everything aligns cinema more with television, and the ‘binge watching’ culture inspired by Netflix; people who consume movies in marathons. But cinema isn’t television, and part of the artform’s appeal is brevity; to be able to build engagement with a plot and characters within a short space of time and bring those elements to a close quickly. In cinema, the writer only has a brief window to hook the audience and make them care, which forces the writer to be more creative. There’s a danger than these double movies will just lead to sloppy characterisation and pacing problems.2

That said, the Deathly Hallows movies actually worked artistically. Director Yates didn’t have much to work with – Rowling’s book, especially the first half in the woods, is a bit of a dry slog, and Yates used cinema to enchance the story, focusing things on the young cast, whilst strengthening the action and tension and adding in some beautiful cinematography. The second half is really an extended climax, another trend of the over-stuffed modern blockbuster and your mileage for this sort of thing may vary. As each big event film is released – mainly those which play to an existing fanbase, the superhero movies, anything adapted from a popular story, anything nostalgic or based on an 80s property – there’s a need to outdo what which came before, to be longer and bigger. It’s an approach invented by George Lucas; notice how each Star Wars climax gets more complex. In A New Hope, Luke destroys the Death Star. The Empire Strikes Back has Luke fighting Vader, and Leia escaping. Return of the Jedi has Luke and Vader, a spaceship battle, and the Rebels and Ewoks. A Phantom Menace has a huge field battle, a Jedi fight, Padme infiltrating the palace and a huge space fight. Notice also, with the exception of Empire, which has a character core to its climax, that each of those climaxes is a little weaker than the one before it, as over-saturation means less focus on one particular part of the action, and less emotional investment on the part of the audience. By the time we reach The Phantom Menace, there’s just too much to comprehend. And these thoughts apply to the split narrative, in which the second half has started being used exclusively for a long climax. You can argue that Harry Potter deserved a big send off after a decade, and that cinema hadn’t ever attempted anything like the Harry Potter adaptations before. Regardless, the elongation approach and padded climax hasn’t been successful in any movie since. starwars2 The most noticeable first offender is Twilight, and this is where the real problems began. Twilight was a bad book series, turned into a bad film series, but one which inexplicably made a ton of money. Lionsgate, like Warner Brothers, feared that they would soon run out of books, and so split Breaking Dawn into two separate movies. The difference here was that the pretence of creativity was dropped entirely, because to argue that Breaking Dawn needed to be told in two movies is laughable – there just isn’t the material there. As such, instead of making one bad movie, Lionsgate made two really bad ones, in which barely anything happens. Divergent, another terrible YA series, is getting the same split treatment, and it’s happened to The Hunger Games too. Mockingjay, in terms of page count, is basically the same size as the second Hunger Games, and this leads to issues of structure. The Hunger Games was written as a trilogy, with a beginning, middle, and end, and splitting this up ruins the flow. We get our beginning, our middle, and then a weird half ending, with a forced climax, before the proper ending. It doesn’t flow, and the narrative struggles under the weird pacing. Using Star Wars as an example again, the approach would be to split Return of the Jedi when Vader captures Luke. Try to imagine how disjointed that would make the series feel; neither half would stand up as its own movie. As story structure is ingrained into audiences at a young age, there’s a risk they’ll begin turning against these kinds of movies.3

Take Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit. Ultimately, The Hobbit is the worst example of movie splitting, as Jackson took a small children’s novel and turned it into a nine-hour sprawling epic. The approach not only completely misses the tone, style and atmosphere of the book, it makes for lazy filmmaking. Needless plots are added in to pad the story. Scenes seem to last ten minutes longer than they should, and fight sequences go on forever. Your mileage for Jackson’s style will vary, but it goes without saying that a two hour version of The Hobbit would have made for a much leaner, and far superior, cinema experience. There’s simply no reason for The Hobbit to be adapted into three movies. These movies have barely made a dent in public consciousness, especially when compared to the Lord of the Rings trilogy a few years back, which became a massive cultural phenomenon. Ask most people about the Hobbit and they’ll tell you the movies are too long and that nothing really happens in them. This explains why the newest movie has been renamed The Battle of the Five Armies, as opposed to the original title, There and Back Again – the new title is clearly trying to motivate audiences who may have lost interest, selling them on the action this time.1But the Hobbit still makes a lot of money, and that gives studios a thumbs up to keep doing this. It’s just all so cynical. Financial decisions disguised as creative ones which take advantage of fans. It’s not that all of these movies are bad as such – there’s been some positive reviews of Mockinjay – but the principle is awful, and splitting movies breeds a sense of laziness which doesn’t bode well for future blockbusters. These films take advantage of die-hard fans who love the material, and you wonder where the line will be drawn. Will Marvel decide to split the third Avengers into two? At what point do movies basically become TV shows? Eventually, it’ll probably become too much, and over-saturation will turn the audiences away. Remember when 3D was the next big thing in cinema?6

I’d love to hear thoughts in the comments below – do this annoy anyone else as much as me?

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10 thoughts on “Studios: Stop Splitting Movies in Half

  1. This was such a great read! It does seem like a blatant grab for cash, particularly in the case of the Hobbit films, where the book is so skinny. I’m sure the argument is made that fans want to see more of the world of the film, but the addition of all the filler is just shameless.

    • Thanks! Glad you enjoyed the post. The hobbit is probably the worst offender. I get what they’re going for but can’t help but feel a single film would have been stronger, and captured the style of the book more

  2. It’s just a ploy for more money. Once Hollywood notices that they have a cash-cow on their hands, they’ll milk it for all it’s worth. It’s a shame really, but it seems like it’s going to be happening for a much longer time. Good post, Carl!

    • Thanks for the comment! I know, it just annoys me. I saw Mockingjay last night and couldn’t help but feel it would be stronger as one film. I’ve heard a lot of people saying this sort of thing (especially about the Hobbit) so maybe audiences are turning against these movies. That said if they’re still making money who knows how long studios will drag this out for!

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  4. What a well-written post! I thoroughly agree with you in every regard. Really interesting that you established Kill Bill as the foundation for this movie-splitting trend — Tarantino’s style is so utterly different from the YA/children’s novels to which this destructive (and lucrative) logic has been applied, that I would never have thought to connect them.

    I thought that Mockingjay Part 1 was an improvement over Catching Fire — mostly, I suspect, because I find Donald Sutherland’s depiction of President Snow completely unbelievable, and his scenes in Mockingjay seem both shorter and fewer. However, I 100% agree that a single film would have been much more compelling.

    And finally, that maddening Hobbit series. I’ve paid to see both films, and I’ll pay to see the third one when it comes out, but really… I am aware that I’ve been wrangled three times over to see one story! I think Peter Jackson is a great director when he’s attempting to do something unusual (Heavenly Creatures) or an homage (LOTR), but sometimes he’s given too much leeway and his movies turn out overwrought and over-CGI’d (The Frighteners, Hobbit).

    • Thanks for the comment and kind words!

      Yeah, I’d say Kill Bill was the point where studios realised they could do this, though it didn’t really start the trend so much as lay down the foundations. I remember when Kill Bill came out, people were confused that it was in two parts. Tarantino is one of the few directors who seems free from his studio, I can’t imagine anyone else being able to get away with a double-movie (imagine if the first one failed) but once he’d put the idea out there, other studios could later follow suit. I’d say without Kill Bill, it would have been harder to get split Harry Potter off the ground.

      I enjoyed Mockingjay in the way I would a television show, but felt the padding was very clear throughout. I’m sure Part 2 will be much better as it’ll hold the bulk of the story. It’s just a shame because I like the Hunger Games movies, and having a solid trilogy would have been good.

      Ha, yeah I’ve paid to see both first Hobbits (the 2nd mainly just to see Smaug) but I think I’m done and won’t bother with the third. Mainly because I can almost literally picture the movie in my head without ever having seen it (an hour long battle scene etc). I get that Jackson likes his excess and for some people, that’s great, but not really for me!

      Thanks!

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  6. I don’t really see why people got it in their heads that any story, of any size and any complexity, needs to be compressed into a nice 90-120 minutes in the first place. It’s an utterly artificial constraint.

    And so what if the book was meant to be a trilogy? You don’t sit down and read an entire book in one go. You read a bit at a time over several days or weeks. Why should it be expected that we should sit down and watch the entire story in each book in one go?

    • Books are a different medium to film. You’re able to go in and out at your own speed. Films tend to need pacing and structure to work, hence why you fit them into 90 or 120 minutes. Otherwise you end up with something like Mockingjay, which comes across both over stuffed but also empty. A trilogy especially needs a beginning middle and end structure.

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