A couple of weekends ago, I rewatched the Hobbit trilogy. It’s weird that it takes longer to watch the movies than to read the book they’re based on. They took a fairly simple book that was written to read to a kid at bedtime and turned it into a bloated epic. It’s pretty obvious the parts in the movies that came directly from the book. They tend to have a warmth and wit and are on a “human” scale (using the term loosely for this story). It made me think about epic vs. intimate in fiction. I think sometimes when writers or filmmakers go overboard in trying to make things exciting by making them epic, it comes back around to being dull. I kept checking the clock while watching these movies, and usually during the biggest, most “epic” scenes.
I think a lot of that comes down to something I’ve heard said about the news, that two lives lost is a tragedy, and two thousand is a statistic. Seeing one character we care about in a reasonable amount of peril against a foe they have a chance of fighting against can be gripping, but seeing thousands of faceless CGI characters we’ve never “met” in a massive battle is boring.
I had a similar problem with the overkill in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. There were so many cases when our heroes would be overwhelmed by swarms of orcs, and those scenes got kind of ridiculous. It was hard to believe that they could survive those odds without major plot armor. The scene would end up being the hero fighting about six stuntman orcs while dozens of CGI orcs swarmed around. I guess all the bonus extraneous orcs were meant to make the scene exciting, but it had the opposite effect on me. If they’d kept it to the few stuntman orcs, it would have made for a more engaging scene.
I think one way that the Rings of Power series worked for me was that the fights all had reasonable odds. It wasn’t a mass of CGI characters. It was mostly characters we knew fighting a realistic size opponent. We saw more of the one-on-one fighting in a way that seemed like either side had a chance of winning, without the need for plot armor and with skills that fit what we knew about the characters.
I’m in no danger of going too epic because that kind of mass battle doesn’t really interest me, but looking at things this way made me more aware of what interests me. I’m far more engaged by character interactions than I am by battles, and if you want me really engaged, make me care about the people. A few weeks ago, I had to pace the living room during an episode of Andor (to switch franchises) because I was so anxious about what would happen to the characters in a big heist/fight scene. I cared about those people, and the focus was on the characters we knew instead of them trying to make everything massive (it turned out that they actually had some other plans, but COVID restrictions meant they couldn’t do a big crowd scene, and so they wrote around their limitations in a way that made the story work better).
If you make me care, you don’t need all the epic bells and whistles to engage me. The makers of The Hobbit movies wasted a lot of money on CGI when they had strong enough characters (and actors) to keep us involved with something on a smaller scale.