There are legitimate complaints about Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies. When taking on massive works of classic literature like those of J.R.R. Tolkien, filmmakers must take some creative liberties to bring those words to cinematic life. They must also make some difficult decisions on scenes and characters to omit in order to fit their adaptations into an acceptable film length.
The Hobbit has a different problem. It is one book. And it is short when compared to any of the three books that make up the Lord of the Rings saga. Where Jackson made one movie for Fellowship, one movie for Two Towers, and one movie for Return of the King - he has taken a different route for The Hobbit. For the simpler and noticeably shorter story, Jackson has built three individual movies. Now, instead of eliminating bits of literature, he's added stuff to fill out the time. That means you'll see extra characters, dialog, and other amusements in the film versions that were never a part of the book.
Legitimate gripes aside, there is one critique that is wholly invalid. Unfortunately, it's the one I hear the most.
"It ended with a massive cliffhanger."
Of course it does. Spoiler alert - there's a third movie. It comes out next Christmas.
The saddest part of this grievance is that it is uttered by people that enjoyed every other aspect of the film. They thought the special effects were brilliant and that the fight sequences were intense. They found Smaug to be a truly villainous villain. They were cheering for Bilbo and the band of Dwarves. They were horrified by the giant spiders and laughed their way through the barrel rides. In their minds, every aspect of the film was flawless except one. The cliffhanger ending.
This might be a little judgmental on my part, but I truly believe that people who weren't aware that The Desolation of Smaug was the second part in a trilogy are the kind of people who should stop going to movies. They ruin the magic of the theater for the rest of us. And don't even get me started on the people that didn't realize these movies were adapted from a book.
But why is the cliffhanger such a big complaint? Why is the unfinished story so unsettling? Is it because it reminds us that our lives are also unfinished stories?
Let's face the facts of our lives. Until the moment when we draw our final breath, the stories we live are unfinished. Today may or may not be our long dark night of the soul; however we have not yet faced our climatic battles - our final chapters have not been written. In a world as frenzied as ours, each night that ends in sleep is a cliffhanger. What will happen tomorrow? Will today's crisis find resolution or will it blow up completely? Will I overcome my challenges or just give up? Will this be my downfall or the catalyst to my greatest victory.
To find out, tune in next week at the same bat-time, same-bat channel.
This style of ending has been used by television producers and scriptwriters for a very long time. It leaves a hunger for more. The viewer has to return to find out what happened. It's called suspense. And not long ago, that was one of the most effective tricks of the trade. In the days before the internet, a good cliffhanger would leave fans talking for several months. Anyone remember who shot JR?
Even in more recent years, the cliffhanger is been an excellent spark for conversation. LOST, one of my favorite TV series, was the master of the cliffhanger. Season One ends with Walt getting kidnapped and the lights in the mysterious hatch turned on. Who took Walt? What's in the hatch? Season two ends with Jack, Kate, and Sawyer taken captive, betrayed by Michael. How will Jack, Kate, and Sawyer escape? At the end of season three, we find out that Jack and Kate were able to get off the Island and Jack wishes they had never left. How did they get back home? In season four, Ben tells Jack how to return to the island and we find out that the body in the coffin was Locke. Will they get back? How did Locke die? And the biggest cliffhanger of the entire series comes in the season five finale when Juliet admits her love for Sawyer and then sacrifices herself by manually detonating the nuclear bomb. Fade to white.
Consider the spinning top at the end of Inception. Or Captain Jack's death at the end of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Or the brief glimpse of Thanos during the post credits scene of The Avengers. Or Jim and Pam's kiss at the end of The Office's second season.
Done right, the cliffhanger leaves us wanting more. It leaves us wondering what happens next. It brings us back again and again. It leaves us uncomfortable until the unfinished story has been resolved.
The same is true of our lives. We don't live in episodes of Saved by the Bell; the plots of our existence are never wrapped up by the time we lay down to sleep each night. Reality is more like LOST - every answered question creates more unanswered questions. Today is a cliffhanger. Tomorrow, the story continues.
When you go to bed tonight, your story might end like The Desolation of Smaug (spoilers) with you, the hero, asking yourself "What have we done?"
When you go to bed tonight, your story might end like the first hobbit movie, An Unexpected Journey. You've been rescued from peril but you know that you still have a long journey ahead of you.
Your story of today could end in elation of a first kiss, or in heartbreak and failure. It could end with confidence and anticipation, or it could end in doubt and regret. It could have been filled with unexpected plot twists, or deus ex machina. Today is an unfinished story and like all good cliffhangers, I hope that it makes you wonder what happens next. I hope it leaves you wanting more. I hope it brings you back again in the morning. I hope it leaves you uncomfortable enough to make tomorrow a better day.
My story is an unfinished story, and so is yours. A new chapter begins tomorrow. Be brave enough to write it.