Storytelling and Imaginary Worlds

Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy isn’t very fun and that’s largely because it’s a trilogy. Lawrence Dodds claims this unnecessary expansion of a very short novel into a very long, three part film results from giving in to desires of nerds. Dodds’s article is interesting and worth reading, but also rather confused. He makes two claims when he thinks he’s making one, and it’s not clear either is to blame for the turgid storytelling of Jackson’s films.

Here’s Dodds’s first formulation of the problem:

This is what British sci-fi author M. John Harrison called “the clomping foot of nerdism” — and, unfortunately for all of us, it has taken over. In an essay which caused a storm in sci-fi’s teacup back in 2007, Harrison criticised the urge, felt by both authors and fans, to exhaustively catalogue every detail of an unreal world as if it were a real place rather than a literary device.

Nerds like heavily detailed worlds. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was heavily detailed. His novel The Hobbit was not. The former, in Dodd’s opinion, lacked a good story. The latter exemplifies the “spirit of the storyteller.”

But does a world rich in detail get in the way of telling a great story? I’m not so sure. I can think of many examples of wonderful stories set in exceedingly detailed imaginary worlds. Dune, for instance. And let’s not forget that our own world is pretty detailed — “a real place rather than a literary device” — and yet we manage to tell good stories set within it all the time.

The problem with the Hobbit movies isn’t the exhaustive detail. It’s that Jackson can’t seem to figure out what the story is. In fact, most of what’s wrong with the movies isn’t the constant mention of world details. It’s the other stories Jackson piles in and the unnecessary action sequences he “contributes” to Tolkien’s tale.

That nerds like exhaustively detailed worlds isn’t a problem so long as nerds like good stories told in those worlds, too. And they do! Because everyone likes good stories and dislikes bad ones, and people generally agree that Jackson’s Hobbit movies lack something when it comes to storytelling.

Dodds’s goes on to raise another concern about nerd culture, as if it were the same as the first. But it’s not.

What nerds are chasing when they get passionate about canon is a fantasy of purity — the idea that a fictional world could be solely dictated by its own internal consistency and not by real-world demands. But they are forgetting how the original, Biblical canon was formed. Like some humming simulation, fantasy canons can be quickly snuffed out if their owners in the real world decree. Star Wars is changing because the people who own it want JJ Abrams to make a new movie and make them more money. They believe he can’t do that if he’s bound and encumbered on every side by the intricate designs of its previous stewards. That, in the end, is that.

Here he has brought up something weird about (some) nerd culture. It’s the Trekkie profoundly upset by inconsistencies between subsystems in the warp drive between episodes. It’s the tendency of a certain sort of nerd to blur the line between fantasy and reality.

But I’m not sure what this has to do with level of detail or how the two are necessarily linked. Look at cannon debates about old 80s cartoons with only a handful of episodes. Look at bronies.

For certain breed of nerd, system clarity matters more than it does to most. They like the world — or a world — to be comprehensible. It’s why they’re drawn to computers, which are unambiguous. It’s why they embrace utilitarianism, with its algorithmic approach to human morality. It’s why they dig Star Trek’s federation — with its clear rules and uncomplicated dress code — over the messy world outside their door.

But that’s its own issue and has little or nothing to do with the difference between Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.