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Yes, Virginia, The Hobbit IS Long Enough for Three Movies

I am still amazed at the ill logic people resort to when throwing down the gauntlet at Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy.  I am on record as trashing the second movie and barely acknowledging the third, so I feel like I have earned my spurs in this charade of film criticism that has dominated many fannish and armchair critic discussions.  But I will summarize my feelings again just so we’re clear on where I stand: I LOVED the first movie, HATED the second one, and prefer the third to the second.

I never expected “The Hobbit” trilogy to be anything but a massive cinematic spectacle that raked in cash by the wain-load, and that it was.  But I was pleasantly surprised by the well-made first film in the trilogy.  How they could pull that off while derailing the story with the remaining two films remains a mystery to me, despite the recent disclosure from the Blu-ray edition that Peter was basically making it all up as he went along.  It’s great that we who were disappointed in the trilogy found some solace in that confession, but it’s terrible that people are using it to shore up the nonsense proposition that The Hobbit is too short a story to be worth translating into three movies.

There is no such thing as a story that is too short to be a movie.  Many movies are pitched on the basis of 2-3 sentences.  Following the pitch, if you’ve succeeded in piquing a decision-maker’s interest, you get to write a synopsis.  That usually comes down to 1-3 pages of text.  After the synopsis you might get to write a film treatment, which breaks down the story scene-by-scene in prose format (but there is usually at least one intermediate step where you map out the scenes before writing the treatment).

Some of the biggest movies in history have covered events that spanned several years of character growth, dialogue, travel, and wars (such as “Gone With the Wind”).  Some movies have focused on a single day (such as “The Longest Day”), even just a few hours (like “Phone Booth”).  And yet some people want me to believe that The Hobbit doesn’t tell enough story to be covered in 3 movies.  To that I say, BALDERDASH.  You could devote 30 movies to telling all the stories in The Hobbit and not one of those movies’ quality — NOT ONE — would depend on the length of the original book.

The length of the original story is irrelevant.  What matters is what goes into the movie.  You would have loved a 2-hour retelling of “Riddles in the Dark” if it had been done well.  The same story can be retold in just a few minutes of film time or in several films.  We have watched whole armies move across Europe in the space of 90 minutes and agonized with small squads of Rangers looking for a single private in 120 minutes.  Not once have I ever seen anyone complain that “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland) was too long even though it barely used a handful of chapters from The Merry of Adventures of Robin Hood (Howard Pyle, 1883).

I am no fan of Shakespearean productions.  They are all too long for me but that doesn’t make any of them bad or Shakespeare a terrible writer.  It just means I don’t enjoy the productions.  I didn’t enjoy the last two “Hobbit” films but other people liked them better than the first (which was the most faithful to the book of the three, and yet the wild party scene at Bag End seems to be the most egregious sin according to some).

You can’t please everyone but judging the quality of a movie by the length of the story from which it was taken is like complaining that a football game ran too long because your time machine was stuck in reverse.  You keep seeing the opening plays over and over again, but really there is no such thing as a time machine (as far as we know) and therefore your complaint is based on an illusion.

The illusion of “shortness” in The Hobbit is one that should have been better addressed by Tolkien experts, scholars, and armchair experts.  We stood idly by while film critics and Internet hacks jumped all over the movies by claiming there was too much padding.  I have addressed the padding issue before.  I was unable to find any evidence of padding in terms of making the story longer than the book given that so many details from the book were left out of the movies.

Rather, what we were handed was a lot of substitution, and if you’re going to complain about a film adaptation I think you have a valid point to raise there.  Andre Norton was so appalled at what was done to her Beastmaster book when a movie starring Marc Singer was made in 1982 that she had her name pulled from the credits.  When I suffered through “The Beastmaster” in the theater that year I remember saying to my friends as we left, “Andre Norton has a book called The Beastmaster but I don’t think this movie has anything to do with it.”  A man standing next to us said, “They borrowed the name and that was about it.”  Only years later did people close to Andre confirm to me that she had indeed sold the film rights and was horrified at what had been done to her story.  And the fact that the tiger died from the dye job didn’t please her, either.

You have a lot of good reasons to be dissatisfied with “The Hobbit”.  To hear Peter Jackson tell it on video, I got the impression it wasn’t his favorite production, either.  Maybe he could have done a more satisfying job had he worked on the films from the beginning.  Guillermo del Toro’s departure from the project certainly put everyone in a bad spot.  But the movies were nonetheless a financial success and I suspect that if the film industry wanted Peter to make a third trilogy based on material in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit he could do it to great financial success.

There is more than enough material in the books to support a dozen new trilogies, either covering events already covered in the movies (in greater detail) or covering details left out of the movies.  In fact, fan filmography shows us just how creative story-tellers can be.  “The Hunt for Gollum” is hardly more than a footnote in the book but it’s a 40-minute fan film.  No one seems to have complained very loudly about that kind of extrapolation.  And then I read these complaints about The Hobbit being too short for three films.

HAH!  Methinks thou dost protest too much.

“Born of Hope” is another fan-made film — running to over an hour — that has evoked much praise and little complaint or criticism in my experience.  I liked it even though I could have picked it apart with scathing declarations of non-canonicity.  It’s not, in my opinion, the best possible extrapolation of a tale Tolkien only told briefly but it works and it represents a genuine love of story and character.  It also conveys that sense of Tolkien’s work being carried on by other hands and minds (although I don’t think he meant what most people believe he meant).

Story-telling thrives when the same tale is told and retold by different people.  You occasionally get some bad tellings, and some people are better at telling certain stories than others.  We may feel someone other than Peter Jackson could have told the story better (or not) but it doesn’t really matter.  Eventually these stories will be retold again.  After all, “The Hobbit” has been dramatized many, many times on radio, television, and stage.  And “The Lord of the Rings” has been adapted to film more than once.

I can’t think of a good LoTR adaptation that I love above all else but I don’t want the film industry to stop trying NOW.  Not if we can do better.  There were things I loved about Peter’s LoTR and things I hated.  That’s all a bit above my personal likes and dislikes, though, as Sam might say, because what’s done is done and I can’t change it.  The movies go on with or without me.  They do not hinge on my good or bad opinion.

But what does hinge on my opinion is any argument I compose for or against a movie and I am NOT going to base an argument on an opinion that a movie is too long or short because of the story from which it was sourced.  I know better.  Most of the people voicing this complaint should know better, too.  I know quite a few college-educated people (who had to sit through the same kinds of literary classes I did) who have argued that the movies are bloated with padding because the story was too short for three films.

Sorry, friends, but that fish won’t swim.

The book is long enough for 3 movies.  Whether the three movies that were made were good enough to do justice to the book has nothing to do with the length of the story.  You would be hard-pressed to explain The Hobbit in three sentences.  “Little furry-footed guy accompanies 13 dwarves on a long journey to recover their stolen treasure from an evil dragon” sums up the basic plot but it leaves out many details.  And it doesn’t give away the ending.  And it doesn’t explain who’s who or why any of all that should matter to the audience.

I loved the dinner party.  It was the best of all the scenes filmed in Middle-earth, with the possible exception of Bilbo’s farewell speech.  I miss Bombadil, of course.  He is vital to the story in ways you can’t get hard-nosed fans to admit even though you have to rip apart a lot of sub-plots (exactly as Peter did) in order to take Bombadil out of the story.

The fact of the matter is that someone else would have told the story differently.  We know that for a fact because Peter said they virtually tossed out everything Guillermo del Toro had done in preparation and started over, so had del Toro been able to finish the project we would indeed have seen a very different set of “Hobbit” movies.  I reserve judgment on whether they would have been better, but they would have been neither too long nor too short.

There is no too long or too short when it comes to a film adaptation of a story.  All films are adaptations of stories.  It would be fantastic if people would stop raising this red herring and flopping it in our faces because, frankly, it stinks like a rotten old fish when it comes to making a logical point.

If you wish to spend the next 50 years trashing “The Hobbit”, do so, but please, please, please stop saying that the book is too short for three films.  That simply isn’t true.  I’ll offer the compromising view that it’s too short for three unsatisfying movies, but that is as far as I go down that treacherous path.

About the Author: Michael Martinez
Michael Martinez is a graduate of Kennesaw State University and author of Parma Endorion: Essays on Middle-earth, Visualizing Middle-earth, Understanding Middle-earth: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth, and Mindfaring through Middle-earth.