As with last time, I’m issuing a *spoiler warning* for these very seminal following films. I’m assuming if you’re reading this you already know the plot points for Lord of the Rings (LOTR), Star Wars, The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean, Back to the Future, Hunger Games, and The Hobbit; but if not, ye be hereforth warned.
So, fresh off our discussion on the differences between a film trilogy and series, we’ll now be discussing what makes a Good, Bad, and Ugly trilogy. And since the definition of what is qualitatively “good” is always open to interpretation, I’ll be defining these three categories by their adherence to three-act structure. So, though many would discount the Star Wars prequels as either qualitatively “blah,” “meh,” and even perhaps “ugh,” it’s still a sound trilogy structurally and probably deserves to be in the Good category of my rather arbitrary distinctions of trilogies.
Except they’re not really that arbitrary since the distinctions come down to the Throughline as well as either the presence or absence of a Cliffhanger.
Since we’ve mentioned throughlines before, I’ll quickly crash-course my way through cliffhangers. Cliffhangers were the outgrowth of old movie serials (which were ironically pretty episodic by modern terms), in which each episode would end on a MAJOR REVEAL or PRECARIOUS SITUATION for the hero. By putting the protagonist into a situation of certain doom, they hoped the audience would turn up next week to see how he survived this impossible situation. Cliffhangers probably deserve their own post at some point, but the easiest rule of thumb is if you could replace that last scene with the words “to be continued…” Because the story's obviously not complete and is therefore meant to be continued later.
And I should probably note that the cliffhanger is neither good nor bad itself; it’s just a writing tool. But it also happens to be the best indicator of a Good, Bad, or Ugly trilogy.
THE GOOD (Lord of the Rings, Star Wars)
While it pains me not to open with my beloved Star Wars, Lord of the Rings* is probably the gold standard in trilogies. And there’s good reason for that, the most obvious being that Tolkien wrote it to be read as a single story. But his publishers balked at a single book over 1,500 pages and 450,000 words, so they broke it up into the three books we know today: The Fellowship of the Rings, The Two Towers, and Return of the King. This interconnectivity was intended by the author from the onset, and the fact that it was meant as a single story can be seen in the fact that these three movies were shot back to back to back.
Remember that last sentence since we’re going to return to it later.
You might also note a lack of a cliffhanger… other than Gandalf literally hanging off a cliff that is. Now some might argue that Gollum’s hints about “her” at the end of The Two Towers could constitute a cliffhanger, but I would argue that it neither is a major reveal since we don’t know what the hell he’s talking about, nor an immediate precarious situation to either Sam or Frodo.
Star Wars (the original three, obviously) is the second gold standard (silver then?) when it comes to trilogies, but is NOT one continuous story like LOTR, which would place it more on the episodic side on our serial to episodic continuum.
Part of this is probably because Lucas hadn’t come up with the entire story/ trilogy when he wrote Star Wars in the first place. So that’s why there’s large breaks in the events between the films (approximately three years), because instead of having one unified vision from the onset (or, you know, a famous book to adapt), Lucas et al were inventing as they went along. As such, each film is more episodic in that it’s a snapshot into the characters at the moment rather than a continuous story.
And, you know, because they filmed each movie with a three-year gap between them. Again, keep this in mind as we discuss…
THE BAD (Pirates of the Caribbean, The Matrix, Back to the Future)
First off, yes I know Pirates is currently four films with a fifth one on the way. But for a while it was a trilogy, and a bad one at that. And like the other two bad trilogies on this list, Pirates exhibits the same sad symptoms of TWO THROUGHLINES and a CLIFFHANGER.
Because all three of these bad trilogies were meant to be stand-alone films, a fact that’s obvious when you look at them structurally:
The original througline for The Matrix was Neo becoming “the one” to save humanity from the machines, a dramatic question that’s pretty damn well answered when he flies off on the end of the first film with his god-like powers. The same is true of Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl with the loving couple reunited and Jack sailing away on that ship he’s been hunting for forever: again, all plot point tied up in a nice little bow.
In Back to the Future everything’s tied up as well, with Marty saving his family and literally returning back to the future. And yes, there is that hint of an ongoing story with the faux-cliffhanger of Doc returning and saying they need to save Marty’s kids, but I think we can all agree that was meant more as a gag rather than a setup for a sequel. And if you don’t believe me, look it up.
But then an odd thing happened to all these stand-alone films with their tied-up plot points; they became huge hits. People loved them, and so the studios would be stupid if they didn’t give the audiences more of what they wanted. And since the model for multiple films consisted of either episodic series like James Bond and horror films like Friday the 13th, they looked to the success of Star Wars and LOTR and decided to make a trilogy out of these three stand-alone films.
Because who doesn't want to be compared to these two trilogies? They're the gold standards for a reason.
It's because of this afterthought transformation from a stand-alone to a trilogy that you see a new and completely different throughline being introduced at the onset of the sequel, one that did not exist in the original film. In The Matrix Reloaded you suddenly have Neo needing to find The Source to stop the machines’ attack on Zion; the throughline that will dominate the next two films. Same with Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest where suddenly new villains The East India Trading Company and Davey Jones are out looking for Jack’s compass to take control of some goddess that wasn’t mentioned in the first film.
And again, this new throughline will dominate the next two films.
Back to the Future II is less egregious in this regard since it did actually stay true to the need to save Marty’s kids in the first film, albeit as a joke. It's also still trying to answer the original dramatic question of "will Marty be able to get back to his own time?" So while this can be forgiven, Back to the Future II still shows the second symptom of the bad trilogy in its cliffhanger ending.
Now think back to the ending of the second film in all three of these trilogies. Did the world “to be continued…” appear on the screen? If not (and honestly, I can’t remember all three but swear it does), they might as well have. Because all three of these sequels were not stand-alone films in the least, rather the first half of a new throughline consisting of two films. The cliffhanger ending for all three of these films is because it’s literally the midpoint in a single story that’s twice as long as a regular movie. And, as we all remember, the midpoint is where there's a reversal. That's why they just sort of end it with the cliffhanger/midpoint reversal rather than completing a true throughline, because they know that if people have invested this much in the series so far, they’re bound to show up to see how it ends.
Also, while they know that audiences may not be satisfied by the cliffhanger ending, they won’t revolt since the next installment in the bad trilogy will be out with a matter of months. Because The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Back to the Future all filmed their final two films BACK TO BACK. Just like LOTR did for all three of its movies.
This presence of the two throughlines coupled with the cliffhanger makes these franchises unnatural trilogies in my mind. They’re not quite episodic series either because they do indeed have a throughline, unlike James Bond or Indiana Jones. But they’re not true, organic trilogies either. So these bad trilogies sort of exist in this gray space like a mule: neither a horse nor a donkey; rather a creature that came about by unnatural human tinkering.
THE UGLY (The Hunger Games, The Hobbit)
Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the first two Hunger Games movies. And yes, again we’re looking at a series of four movies rather than a true trilogy. But the thing is, like LOTR, Hunger Games is based on a book trilogy, which seems like a natural fit for three films.
Unfortunately, Harry Potter: The Deathly Hallows part 1 and 2 happened, and what was originally a single story was divided into two movies because of time constraints. And honestly, it made sense that the studios decided to break that behemoth of a book into two movies. BECAUSE IT WAS MUCH LONGER THAN THE REST OF THE BOOKS!
As you can see from my handy tape measurer, this was not the case for the Hunger Games books. So the decision to turn Mockingjay into two movies was nothing more than a cynical money grab. And not only should the audiences have been angry at such an obvious ploy, the story itself suffered. It was only meant as a single movie in terms of plot points, so to fill out the time they padded the hell out of it, which affected the pacing, not only within the scenes, but the story as a whole. This is why I believe the first two films, the ones staying true to a single book, were both certified “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes, while the last two films were not.
But the ugliest culprit in the crime of cynically padding is The Hobbit. I don’t think anyone believes that the shortest of all of Tolkien’s books (just a little over half the length of Fellowship in fact) needed to be broken into three films for any other reason than money, a decision that makes the studio heads in charge of doing this to Mockingjay look like Mother Teresa. And if Mockingjay was uncompelling due to its padding, The Hobbit was incomprehensible because of it.
I wish I could go into an in-depth takedown of the three Hobbit films, but I honestly don’t remember them in the slightest, which is because they just plain don’t make sense structurally. I know it’s not a perfect comparison, but there’s a study on the memory of chess masters, who could remember the placement of chess pieces significantly better than average people so long as the pieces’ positions made sense within the game. As a screenwriter, I remember movies this way, and that’s why I find it telling that I remember so little of The Hobbit.
BECAUSE IT MADE NO SENSE!
Instead of a structured order of plot points based on how humans have been telling stories since the dawn of time, The Hobbit was more a random smattering of scenes with no logical purpose except to bilk audiences (including me) of their money.
So, with both great pride and shame, I award Peter Jackson the trophies for both the best trilogy ever made, and the ugliest eldritch abomination slouching out of the primordial ooze to devour our souls. I would offer him real, physical trophies, but since he’s been at the helm at two of the most financial successful trilogies of all times, I seriously doubt he’ll show up to pick them up.
Because, say what you will of the quality of the Bad and Ugly trilogies, they still made billions collectively (and in some cases individually). Which sort of undermines my whole argument about the importance of structure now that I think about it.
But on the flip side of that argument, Tolkien and Lucas have both demonstrated that one can make a structurally sound trilogy that is financially successful. And I’ll also point out that Star Wars and Lord of the Rings defined each of their genres for decades to come. Same with all the stand-alone films that inspired the Bad trilogies, while all those afterthought additions fade quickly from memory. As will, God willing, the Ugly trilogies.
So keep that in mind as you’re plotting out your first/ next/ last trilogy. Or just watching any of the above films.
1. I should probably point out that I've never read all the LOTR books, or finished The Hobbit. Because they're boring. Even the 5th grade version of me, who loved fantasy with all his happy heart and soul, thought The Hobbit was about as interesting as drying paint. Or a math problem. Less so, probably.
As such, we're only examining the film versions of Tolkien's works. Because they're objectively awesome.