Things I Learned From… The Hobbit

Tons to do this week, so not much time for blogging, but I just wanted to offer a short observation on The Hobbit (see what I did there? Go on, laugh. Go on. Please…?)

Always end with a bang.

A lot of screenwriters spend a lot of time on the first thirty pages of their script. And so they should: if the first thirty pages aren’t spectacular, the chances of the rest ever getting read are pretty damn poor. But if the first thirty pages are the ones getting all the love and attention at script stage –

Then the last thirty are the pages that should get the attention at the plotting, planning and prepping stage.

If you don’t end with a bang, you don’t really have a movie.

And even if you don’t really have a movie, ending with a bang might save your backside.

The Hobbit is pretty slow and pretty meandering for the first ninety minutes plus. Part of that is down to stretching the story to three movies, part is down to the largely episodic nature of the original material. Neither of those is really an excuse for the movie as delivered, by the way. Adaption is a process of fixing problems, not causing or replicating them. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

Because, despite the languid ramble through the history of Middle Earth, despite the unnecessary rock giants and the heavy-handed attempt to model the structure on The Fellowship Of The Ring, something sent me out of that cinema with a big grin on my face and eager to see it again ASAP.

And that something was the last 45 – 60 minutes.

Ever been to a film or a children’s stage play with a five-year-old? Chances are they’ll be shuffling, muttering and looking in random directions for 90% of the event. But at the end, they’ll insist it was brilliant and they had the best time ever – because the only bits they remember are the two or three scenes that genuinely gripped them. They’ve totally forgotten that they were ever bored, because the experience of the good bits massively outweighs the bad.

Well, adult cinema audiences aren’t that much different. Their mood as they leave the cinema will be largely dictated by the ending. Give them an upbeat ending where the hero comes into his own and triumphs, at least in part; where plot points pay off and surprises are delivered; send them out saying “Wow, wasn’t that final bit brilliant?” and they’ll be happy.

Of course, send them out saying “Wasn’t the whole thing brilliant?”, and then you’ve really got something…

The Evil Mentor

“The best revenge you can have upon your enemy is not to become him.”

Marcus Aurelius, Roman philosopher

 

You’ll read a lot in screenwriting books about mentors, those grave and thoughtful (usually) elderly (usually) men who pop up to set your hero on the right path, bolster their belief in themselves, and even say a few wise things illustrating the theme of the movie.

But why does no one ever talk about that virtually ubiquitous character, the evil mentor?  The character who wants to pull your hero off the right path, warp their mind and poison their heart –  who wants to turn your hero, in short, into a version of themselves.

Ducard in Batman Begins is an evil mentor of the first order.  Arriving when the hero is at his most vulnerable physically and emotionally, he seems to show Bruce Wayne a way forward with his life –  he actually says that Ra’s al Ghul  can “offer you a path”.   And for a while, that path looks good.  Strength, justice, power.  It’s only when the true price of walking that path comes to light that Bruce rebels against it.

Frodo in The Lord Of The Rings has both good and evil mentors in the form of Gollum and Sam –  characters who actually embody the conflict going on inside his mind in physical form, voice the thoughts he’s afraid to acknowledge, and even physically fight one another for control over Frodo’s destiny.

X-Men: First Class seems to be out to set a record for good and evil – or at least morally dubious – mentors.  Sebastian Shaw and Charles Xavier compete for Eric Lensherr’s soul, offering him pain and anger on the one hand, and righteous strength  (“We have it in us to be the better man”) on the other.  Despite Eric’s hatred of Shaw, the mentoring relationship is explicitly acknowledged towards the end of the movie when Eric tells Shaw, in effect,  ‘I am what you made me’.

Charles and Eric mentor the various young mutants they recruit, conflicting in small but steadily increasing ways about how to handle them, and the younger characters eventually have to choose between their conflicting ideologies.  Meanwhile, Eric and Charles offer different socio-political options  (hiding, or ‘out and proud’) to Raven, while Eric and Hank offer her different kinds of love and acceptance – she’s beautiful to Hank only while imitating ‘normal’ humans, but Eric accepts her in her true form, and genuinely finds her beautiful.

Carl Jung said  “To confront a person with their own shadow is to show them their own light”, and the evil mentor is the shadow-version of your hero.  They embody what the hero may become if they don’t find a better path.  They have all your hero’s weaknesses, failings, and dark possibilities, but none of his strengths and moral judgment.

Those psychological and morals strengths – and the experience of seeing what it is they stand to become if they follow that path –  are what’s going to make it possible for your hero to avoid becoming them.

In plot terms, then, the evil mentor gives you a fantastic way to dramatise what’s at stake in your story.  What will happen if Luke Skywalker doesn’t fully master the ways of the Force?  He’ll be overwhelmed by anger and fear, and he’ll turn into Darth Vader – and we can see how bad that would be, because Darth Vader is right there in front of us, choking his lackeys, blowing up planets, and generally being all-round evil.  No confusion about what’s at stake in this story!