I went to the Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies with my family today. In spite of all of the bad things I heard about it, the largest complaint being the 40+ minute battle of 5 armies, I enjoyed it. In fact, I think that the battle was done really pretty well, considering more than half the movie was centered around that one event. The question, I suppose, is what did I like about it? First off, I’m looking at the movie as a story in the same way I think about a novel. What I liked was that the action was broken up by other less intense events, yes some of that was contrived and thoroughly unnecessary from the standpoint of plot (Every scene containing Alfred the assistant to the master of Lake Town could have been removed with no impact to the story), however those breaks in the action were essential for the story-telling part. They kept the intensity in check to prevent the viewer from getting burned out on all the action. (This seems to have been Alfred’s sole purpose in the movie)
I am a firm believer that if you’ve got a long action sequence in any story there needs to be a break from whatever that action was – really this applies to any sort of intense situation in a story. Your characters, and reader,, need a bit of a breather. A moment where things aren’t really okay, but everyone can stop and take a breath before the action/intensity begins to rise again. I’ve read some books where this is not done well (in my opinion) and I found them difficult to enjoy. It seems to me that some critics might bang-on about those breaks in the action as unnecessary diversions, however you’ve got to keep the audience from becoming burned out. The audience is, after all, a huge part of the story-telling experience. The barrel escape scene from the last hobbit movie is a great example of action that hasn’t been broken well enough. I think it really mucked-up the story-telling. It was long, and didn’t contain any breaks from the action. The director’s attempt to do this was though humor, and that can work, but it felt out of place in the context. By the end of that barrel scene, I had become soured story overall because the scene had just seemed to become absurd after a while. If it had been shorter, or at least broken up better, I likely wouldn’t have had formed that opinion.
I feel like the book that sticks out in my mind as having tackled this nearly perfectly was Jurassic Park. There were parts so intense that I had to put the book down for a few minutes, but the next chapter almost always started with a minute to catch your breath before the action began intensifying again. It made the book gripping to the end without burning me out, as so often happens for me when the characters can’t stop long enough to take a breath.
I think my point here is that if you break up your intense action properly, you really can get away with a lot, and I think make your action much more intense, without experiencing audience burnout. Anyhow, this is how I prefer to read, and that’s my two cents.