We’ve all heard the saying, ‘If at first you don’t succeed – try, try again.’ This concept seems to imply that success only comes after much trial and error. But what happens after the hard-won success?
Once a person achieves great success, what next?
I’m a lifelong fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing. My oldest brother read The Hobbit to me when I was very small, and the story left such an impression on me, I decided to be a writer myself someday. A few years later I read The Lord of the Rings, and I still think that trilogy is the greatest work of fiction ever written.
So when Peter Jackson adapted the trilogy for the big screen, I looked forward to it with a mix of excitement and dread. Movie adaptations often fall well short of the books they are based on –I’ve seen very few that I can honestly say were as good as the book – and even less that were actually better.
Knowing that, I was completely blown away when I saw The Fellowship of the Ring. Everything about the first film was so well constructed and cast, I felt like Jackson had somehow got inside my head and recreated the story exactly as I’d imagined it so many years before. The Two Towers and The Return of the King were equally impressive. The few weak spots in Tolkien’s books were left out of the films, and the result was an epic of filmmaking that did justice to the original written work.
More years passed, and I watched with interest as rumors grew around the possibility of Jackson adapting The Hobbit as well. Knowing that the story was considerably less complex than The Lord of the Rings, I was startled to hear that it was going to be split into three films as well – but I was still excited to see it. Surely Jackson’s stunning success with the trilogy would translate into equal success with its prequel, right?
The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey ended up as a bloated, incongruous mess that was easily two times longer than the source material could reasonably support. The action sequences were so cartoonish, they were almost laughable when compared to the grand scope of the sequences in The Lord of the Rings.
The excellent casting could not salvage the mindless, directionless screenplay; and the creative license the writers and directors took with Bilbo’s character and his role in the adventure only made it worse. I came away from the theater thinking one thing.
Jackson showed such phenomenal dedication and grasp of the books with his first three Tolkien adaptations, and produced one of the most successful film franchises ever as a result. So why did such success serve as a prelude to such failure?
Many will disagree with me that The Hobbit was a failure at all, but I think it would be apparent to most that it is such an obvious contrast to The Lord of the Rings that they are not even in the same class. I think that no small part of the result was owing to the addition of Guillermo del Toro to the production team. del Toro brought experience from cinematic gems such as the Hellboy movies – no wonder The Hobbit looked cartoonish.
Since del Toro wrote the screenplay, much of the blame for the mess of The Hobbit could be laid at his feet, but he didn’t work alone. Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Phillippa Boyens (the same team responsible for The Lord of the Rings) shared the screenplay and writing duties – so del Toro is off the hook for at least 75% of the mess.
Which means that 100% of the team that wrote, produced and directed one of the best film adaptations of a novel of all time, are also 75% of the team that wrote, directed and produced one of the worst. It can’t be all del Toro’s fault.
So what’s the point of such criticism?
Trust me, it’s not to bring down any of the creators of The Hobbit. I’m no fan of del Toro’s work, but I am a fan of Jackson, Walsh and Boyens. I wanted them to succeed at this movie. I’ve loved the story since before I could read it myself, so getting it right on film was something I really would have liked.
The point, then, is not so much to criticize and heap blame as it is to treat this as a case study – to ask the question, ‘how could such success reverse itself so dramatically?’
I think part of the answer may lie in a trait that is often a by-product of success.
Excessive pride or self confidence, resulting from past achievement.
Hubris tells a person: You’ve done this before – there’s no way you can mess it up.
Or it says: You’re great at this, so you’ll be great at something new, too.
Reality tells us something entirely different.
The reality is that each new success requires us to work just as hard (if not harder) than the one before. An amazing success at one venture is great, but if we treat a new venture, or even the continuation of the successful one, as though it requires no effort, we’ve already failed.
The other part of the answer?
Doing Too Much.
Not knowing when to stop is almost as bad as not starting. If Michelangelo had continued to slap more and more and more paint onto the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel after he was actually finished, the effect might have been less a masterpiece and more like a Pakistani jingle truck. Lots of bells and whistles but no real cohesive theme – and as a result, an assault on the senses rather than a stunning work of art.
Finding the balance between hubris, hard work, confidence and craftsmanship is not easy – regardless of the medium.
As authors, we need to know when to say less in order to engage our readers more.
We need to recognize when our past successes are diluting our drive to produce quality work in the future.
And above all – even if we first succeed – we always need to be willing to try, try again.