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More Is (Not) Better

There is the rare movie that can extend to behemoth lengths without losing power or charm, but the key word in this statement is “rare”.
| Jan 16, 2019 | 4 comments |

There is a moment in The Last Jedi that evokes the famous Battle of Hoth: the pursued, outnumbered rebels, in the temporary shelter of their fortress; the gleaming, mechanized army of the New Order; the battle lines drawn across the snow. You recognize the battle about to be commenced, and you can’t help but feel a measure of amazement that not only is the movie still going on, it evidently intends to go on for at least another half hour.

Excessive running times are one of the annoyances of modern movies. They’re a particular hardship in bad movies, of course, where (to paraphrase the great C.S. Lewis) length of minutes is only length of misery. But they dampen good movies, too, stirring up restlessness just when the story is rousing itself to its climax. There is the rare movie that can extend to behemoth lengths without losing power or charm, but the key word in this statement is rare.

The length of movies is constrained by the inherent nature of movies. Movies, first created exclusively for theaters, are designed to be experienced in one sitting; in the theater it is impossible to stop the show and come back later, and even in the home it tends to spoil the effect. Now, human beings can only stay seated for so long. The time that they want to stay seated is even less. Movies that run on too long will end up competing with various biological impulses pinging in the brain: move, get up, stretch, think about dinner, you’re hungry, you’re thirsty, you know where the bathroom is in this place? This is not a battle that movies easily win.

Permissiveness toward movie lengths creates two negative dynamics, one in the creators and one in the audience. Creators are freed to bigger and more ambitious projects, but they are also freed to self-indulgence and lax workmanship. If you are forced to cut, you cut the worst, and if you are allowed to expand, you expand to the worst. It takes only a little experience of movies to know that audiences get more below-par scenes than we do gems from extended running times. Think of those disappointing trips through the bonus features, where you watched the missing scene and then quietly reflected to yourself, “So that’s why it was cut.”

Long movies create a different dynamic within the audience. They often lower the audience’s tolerance; a two-and-a-half hour movie must work harder to justify itself than a movie that ends well short of two hours. Certain types of missteps, and even disappointments, are magnified. If you found the action sequences repetitive, if the dialogue rambled, if you thought that side-quest to the casino enragingly pointless, and the movie was 40 minutes longer than it was required to be – couldn’t they have cut it?

A popular justification of long movies calls it giving the audience its money’s worth. Yet quality, and not length, makes the show worth the price. It is a well-publicized truth, all childish measurements aside, that more is not always better. And so a request to the creators, if they will have it: When you find yourself able to extend a film well past the two-hour mark, consider carefully: Should you?

Shannon McDermott is the author of the fantasy novel The Valley of Decision, as well as the futuristic The Last Heir and the Sons of Tryas series. To learn more about her and her work, visit her website, ShannonMcDermott.com.

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Autumn Grayson

It really depends on the movie and the story telling style people use. Sometimes short movies force people to rush, and limits characterization and mood setting to the extent that it’s harder to care about the movie. Some book adaptations would probably benefit from being longer.

But, a lot of movies lately have been guilty of just cramming in too many story lines, characters, actions scenes, etc regardless of their length, and it gets boring. So filmmakers should probably examine what kinds of content they try to put in these longer films.

One thing I’ll say is that a lot of TV shows tend to come out better than movies partly because they are long enough that people can take the time to tell the story right.

Brennan S. McPherson

Funny. I just met with a producer yesterday to talk over a script I wrote for a second producer (also in on the meeting). We were told we need to cut the script from 118 pages (118 minutes, roughly) to 105 pages (105 minutes, a full thirteen minutes shorter). I’m not an idiot, and agreed it needs to happen, but it’s a painful, extremely time-consuming, and mind-bending task (I didn’t include anything I thought unnecessary in the script to begin with, because scripts are very different from novels–it’s much more difficult to cut 10% of a well-crafted script). In other words, if not for this producer above me calling the shots, I don’t think I would ever have even attempted to cut it to 105 pages. But it will certainly be much stronger because of it.

To Autumn’s point, the TV shows turn out better, I think, because each episode must tell its own self-contained story in 60 minutes or less. 90 minutes is plenty time to tell a very deep story, with very deep characterization. Look what the film UP did with zero dialogue in the opening sequence alone. I think the problem is exactly as you state in this article, Shannon. We don’t have strong-handed people commanding us to do away with our self-indulgence as story-tellers. And we’re not self-aware enough to even realize it’s self-indulgence.

I felt Peter Jackson’s King Kong, along with The Hobbit films, suffered terribly from too much laxity on the producer’s part. They gave Peter too much latitude to do stuff that didn’t matter to the core story.

Autumn Grayson

Maybe. I do think it depends a lot on the story, though. With TV episodes, each one tells a complete story in the sense that they are supposed to have a beginning, middle and end, but the ENTIRE story isn’t over at that point. Shows like, say, Breaking Bad, Fate Zero or Death Note are so much stronger for having their character arcs span a whole series rather than a couple hours. Maybe those three shows could have been good if told in a short movie, but that would have meant cropping out most of what made these shows compelling. There were two flashback episodes in Fate Zero that were excellent and could have stood on their own as an amazing movie, but the reason they worked was because they took two episodes to discuss the important parts of Kiritsugu’s childhood, rather than tell the entire story of Fate Zero.

Maybe, where movies tend to fall short, is what part of the story people try to cram in to those two hours. Adapting an entire book (or even half the book) can be detrimental for movies at times, but maybe making a movie to instead show a character’s backstory, or one important arc from a book, is a better route.

Maybe the issue isn’t actually necessarily length, though, but how much each scene, etc is utilized. Everything should count and be used to enhance the plot and characters in multiple ways, regardless of how long or short the story is.

Brennan S. McPherson

I think your last point is basically hitting it right. What makes a story feel substantive is change. If there’s no significant change, it feels worthless. A good scene in any tv show has its own self-contained plot. A good episode of any tv show has its own self-contained plot. A good season of that same television show will have its own season-long self-contained plot. And the total series as a whole will have its own series-long self-contained plot. If a TV show doesn’t work on all those levels, it feels like it falls short. Same thing in a film. These days, television attracts much better writers with better budgets to support those writers. That’s a big reason for the divide in writing quality.