It's not that I think Jackson's movies are bad. The Lord of the Rings was a lot of fun, and as a fan of the books I enjoyed seeing some of my favourite scenes acted out on the big screen. The action scenes were a bit bombastic and over-long for my tastes, but I know that's what people want to see, and a completely faithful film adaptation of a 1,500 page epic packed to the gills with history, physical descriptions of landscapes, and arcane lore would not fare all that well at the box office.
But The Hobbit is different. It's not supposed to be a big story. The Lord of the Rings is a long, sprawling, episodic narrative. It doesn't just deserve multiple films; it requires them. The Hobbit, meanwhile, is a fable. It's light, playful, and filled with a child-like sense of discovery and wonder.
Most importantly, it contains only one narrative arc.
The Hobbit has a single protagonist, the eponymous hobbit Bilbo Baggins, and the entirety of the book belongs to him. Characters support and oppose him, bully him and bolster him, walk with him for a while and leave to live their own lives outside the confines of the text, but the story remains Bilbo's. We get a few short asides where other characters are given the spotlight, but these are brief expository scenes used to ferry the story along, not separate narratives equipped with their own trajectories. They don't become new stories. They fill the main story in.
All of this is to say that The Hobbit doesn't need three movies. It shouldn't even need two. A single film could do it easily, at that film needn't be longer than two hours.
Jackson's first film is almost three.
This worries me, and because my blog is supposed to be about scientific research, I'm going to use some numbers to explain why.
By the Numbers: A Mathematical Proof of Excess
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has a total running time of 169 minutes. Judging by how Jackson handled The Lord of the Rings series, we can probably assume that the following two movies will be the same length, if not longer.
169 minutes X 3 movies = a total running time of 507 minutes (8 hours 27 minutes). The first edition of The Hobbit spans 310 pages.
507 minutes / 310 pages = 1.64 minutes of film for each page of the book.
The average person can read approximately 300 words per minute. At 95,022 words long, a typical adult could read The Hobbit cover to cover in 5 hours and 17 minutes. That means watching the films back to back would actually take the average person three hours longer than reading the book.
If efficiency is your aim, The Lord of the Rings films are a much better strategy. The series clocks in at 558 minutes (178, 179 and 201 minutes for Fellowship, Two Towers, and ROTK, respectively) versus 1,571 pages in the books' respective first editions.
558 minutes / 1,571 pages = 0.35 minutes/page (extended edition numbers: 683 minutes / 1,571 pages = 0.43 minutes/page)
With a total word count of 455,125, the books take roughly 1820.5 minutes-- or just over 30 hours-- to read. Compared to the book, even the extended editions of the movies (683 minutes, or 11 and a half hours) seem speedy.
Of course, I'm drawing subjective conclusions from objective data. The numbers prove that The Hobbit contains more footage per word of text than did The Lord of the Rings. What they can't prove is whether or not this is a bad thing. What's more, I'm aware that the films will draw on other source material, namely The Silmarillion, in order to flesh out the story.
My question is why? Why dedicate so many hours of film to a single children's book? Why bring in a bunch of subplots when Tolkien didn't consider them relevant enough to the story to include them in the first place? Sure, it'll be nice to learn a bit more about the Necromancer ("Who is this guy?" I remember thinking at fourteen. "Surely he'll appear at some point." But nope.), but beyond that, I just don't see the point.
The Hobbit is a wonderful story as it is. It's quick and breezy and fun, a hero's journey with a lush and complex world skirting about its edges. The Lord of the Rings takes its time examining that world in detail. The Hobbit simply tromps through it. That's what I love about it.
I love The Lord of the Rings too, but for different reasons. The two stories have different tones, styles, and strategies for telling their stories. A director should play to each book's strengths, not shoehorn a previously successful formula into source material where it doesn't fit.
And the numbers show that Jackson is attempting to weave a wall-sized tapestry with what amounts to maybe a towel's worth of thread. It's lovely thread, but there simply isn't enough of it. Don't dilute it with outside fibers. Let the story be.
Bonus: Here's the running time/page length ratio for a few other sci-fi and fantasy novels and their film adaptations
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (released in film as Blade Runner):
117 minutes (1982 release) / 210 pages = 0.55 minutes per page (approx. 30 seconds)
101 minutes / 413 pages = 0.24 minutes per page (approx. 15 seconds)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:
276 minutes (combined running time of both films) / 759 pages (US first edition) = 0.36 minutes per page (approx. 20 seconds)
2001: A Space Odyssey:
141 minutes / 221 pages = 0.63 minutes per page (approx. 35 seconds)
137 minutes / 412 pages = 0.33 minutes per page (approx. 20 seconds)