The importance of editing in the movies

What happens when the editor doesn’t get to do their job, from The Hobbit, through to Harry Potter?

This piece contains slight spoilers for The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies.

While watching The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies I started noticing the cuts between shots. Ideally you don’t notice the behind the scenes processes during a movie, instead being too involved in the story unfolding. If you are going to notice the editing, then preferably it’d be something impressive (if attention grabbing). This was not, sadly, the case during The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. It felt as if it had been put together in a rush.

There are many aspects that seem underdeveloped, and lack finesse (the giant worms suddenly disappear, as if there could be no further use for them, and the character of Alrid is simply one-note) and some that simply seem to be the best they could do in a short space of time. Consider the scene where the Master of Laketown tries to escape with a boatful of gold. How much more impact would that have had if the reveal had been delayed so we saw the town suffering first, followed by a sudden reveal of their treasure laden boat? That’s 15 seconds of the film that could be used to let Bilbo’s ‘He was my friend’ line linger, rather than be cut off too quickly.

Throughout pathos was cut short, tension dissipated, and Dean Learner appeared to have been put in charge of slow motion. Compared to the extended cut of The Fellowship Of The Ring it seems very lethargic (though in better news, Lord Of The Rings is actually complimented and enhanced extremely well by the Hobbit trilogy). Occasionally, multi-camera studio TV (especially when constrained by time or apathy) would have this problem, with the shots being chosen live, but The Battle Of The Five Armies wasn’t directed by Ron Jones. It simply didn’t seem as well put together as it could have been. There was material that didn’t feel necessary, to put it mildly.

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Ask any bassist: what you don’t play is as important as what you do. For example, 12A certificate films often require the editors to cut away from spurty bits of violence, but they still want to make the audience wince.

Family shows and films can be as terrifying as 18 certificates specifically because of what they don’t show. Edit violence well, and it can still have an impact. If you do it badly you get Liam Neeson hugging people to death in Taken 2. The Hunger Games’ editing allows it to get away with bullets to the head. Even without blood, you can still shock people enough for the Daily Mail to pretend to be upset so they get hits on their website and annoy people on Twitter.

As well as the selection of shots, there’s also the choice of what to film. Obviously there has been a lot of contention over this regarding The Hobbit, but it’s another fantasy behemoth that has been hugely influential over recent cinematic trends: Harry Potter.

Until the final adaptation, each book had been whittled down to a (still long) single movie. For Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows it was deemed impossible to reduce it down to a single movie, which was debated at the time but largely accepted due to it being the in-tents finale of a much loved franchise. Since then, we’ve seen Twilight, The Hunger Games and The Hobbit add an extra film to the expected number. The excuse of it being the best artistic decision is still being debated for the last two.

Of all the Harry Potter films based on a single book, The Order of the Phoenix is the shortest of the six (clocking in at 138 minutes). The book that it’s based on is, at 766 pages, is one of the longest in the series. While audience reaction suggests it’s not the most popular Potter film, I’d argue that it is the one that improved most on the source material, imposing a consistent tone and palette, while successfully excising the extraneous parts of the story.

Appreciating that a Hobbit adaptation has a different task to do than that of the fifth book of a series, the more sprawling and indulgent approach can be great if you’re a fan, but it suggests an air of complacency both in filmmakers and cinema goers. We’ve gone from the relative economy of the Order of the Phoenix adaptation to butter scraped over too much bread.

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It’s not a coincidence that these extra films occur in series with involved narratives where the audience is invested enough to want a pay off, even if it means shelling out to see an extra film. Studios are going to be fine with this. The extra expense involved in making another film is easily recouped even if reviews are lukewarm or downright hostile. We still go to see the things we argue against.

If you’re a studio, why limit yourself when it is obvious that people are willing to indulge your expanded subplots? Why go to the trouble of editing something down when you can release two films and probably make more money? In franchises and series where popularity is almost totally assured, a team’s creative decisions are reinforced by clout and legacy which makes it harder for a story editor to say ‘But we don’t need to do that’.

Genesis of the Daleks is frequently voted and cited as one of the best Doctor Who stories ever, and that came about because Barry Letts said ‘No’ to an unoriginal Terry Nation pitch. A similarly strong voice is needed for editing to be effective.

Doctor Who still has script editors, and indeed former script editor Brian Minchin is now Executive Producer, but there’s an undercurrent of criticism suggesting show-runners Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat need stronger dissenting voices (there are some interesting examples of this in the book The Writers’ Tale). Certainly in the last series of Sherlock, there was a definite reaction against the direction it went in that led to accusations of overindulgence, and the need for an objective voice in the creative process.

Arguably, even the Harry Potter books could’ve done with this. The page count roughly doubles from The Goblet of Fire onwards, though to be fair to JK Rowling it is a lot easier to skim a book than a film, and a lawsuit delayed The Order of the Phoenix (so it’s probably not a coincidence that it’s the longest book).

Editing is not a job that garners as much praise as, say, cinematography or special effects, but it’s vital at every stage of the creative process. It needs time. It doesn’t often get it. Ask the sub-editors on this site.

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When they do their job right, which is most of the time, no one notices.

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