Is ‘The Hobbit’ Better Told in 11 Minutes or 11 Hours?

By  · Published on December 15th, 2013

This week’s Short Starts column was already going to be different by focusing on the first film for a particular story’s adaptation rather than for a director or actor. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit’s first time on screen was as a short film in 1966 from the team of producer William L. Snyder and director Gene Deitch (Popeye the Sailor). I wouldn’t exactly call it an animated film any more than I’d call a Ken Burns documentary animated. It’s more of a slide show of illustrations, some of them zoomed in on or panned across for some visual stimulation, plus an occasional spot of psychedelic effects. The short was kind of a throwaway work (an “ashcan” production), similar to Roger Corman’s 1994 Fantastic Four film in that it was only made, and in such half-assed fashion, to retain rights to the property.

Simply pointing to this curiosity is not enough, though, especially because it was already included on a list of Hobbit adaptations here at FSR last week. But I still want to address it because it’s so fascinating that the same story can be told in about 11 minutes, in the case of the ’66 version, or closer to 11 hours, as could be the case for Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy (currently the three films are on track to run closer to 9 hours even after the extended releases come out, but down the line maybe a Blu-ray special edition will put it near 11, a la the LOTR trilogy). Both are able to adequately communicate the tale of Bilbo Baggins helping in the quest to kill an evil dragon and reclaim the Arkenstone. Of course, one may be criticized for being too “slight” while the other for its “bloat.”

Technically, just about any story can be done in 11 minutes or 11 hours. If a movie has a short synopsis, there’s your short film version. Just have someone read it over a handful of necessary stills. For a lot of people, the plot is the only thing that matters, so that should be sufficient. On the other hand, if a story takes place in at least 11 hours, it can be depicted in that amount of real time. Some stories set in less time can be stretched, too, whether with slow motion or a lot of simultaneously occurring action. Keep in mind I’m not saying you’ll like it, but it’s something that is possible. The Hobbit, in following a journey taking longer than a year, could be told in close to 10,000 hours. That’s more time than has been spent on daily soap operas that have existed for more than 50 years (only because their episodes weren’t always an hour long). So when you think about the length of Jackson’s trilogy, think relatively about how this is really just a drop in a bucket of what could be.

That’s a ridiculous argument in defense of what Jackson is doing with Tolkien’s 310-page children’s book, but I also find it ridiculous when critics complain about movies like these having too many scenes. That’s more of a matter of whether there’s too many scenes you don’t like in relation to those you do like. Everyone is loving the barrel escape in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, but is it necessary for the story? Not at all. In fact, it made me think of the river sequence in Crichton’s Jurassic Park that didn’t make it from page to screen. If every part of the movie were that thrilling, would it still feel like there’s too much? Even if so, would you care since you’re entertained? That is the only point of these movies, isn’t it? They’re not delivering any profound statements. They’re just telling a story of a group going to get a jewel from the clutches of a monster.

While any story can be stretched out, it’s those involving MacGuffins that are most easily extended or not. Because there’s nothing necessary beyond “guy wants thing; guy gets thing.” Everything else is just character development and obstacles to the guy getting the thing, the latter of which can simply be time. Walking can drive a MacGuffin plot because it’s moving toward the thing. Stopping can drive a MacGuffin plot because it’s another interruption keeping the guy from the thing, and that might bring tension if the thing has to be got in a certain amount of time. One of the favored elements of Jackson’s Middle-earth films is his world-building, how everything in these adaptations feels real, connected and consistent, allowing for a billion scenes or stories to be imagined taking place there. Who doesn’t want to just watch everything going on everywhere in this world? People who don’t care to watch anything at all, I’d think.

To me, that’s what fantasy and adventure stories are for, those fatty pieces along the way in an odyssey, the episodic means through which we’re introduced to different locations, creatures and brief action arcs. They don’t even have to connect. I don’t care if Beorn the bear man winds up returning in the climax of There and Back Again. I don’t care that the giant hawks in An Unexpected Journey seem to solely exist to be a random cavalry bringing the characters out of one set piece and off to another. Maybe something as simply plotted in its grandest sense as The Hobbit would be better as a TV serial. Complaints about the length of The Hobbit remind me of the line in Stand By Me where Gordie says, “Wagon Train’s a really cool show, but did you notice they never get anywhere?” Well, yeah, because once they get somewhere the show is over.

Some of the issue is that to stretch a story like this you have to add in filler, and for the Tolkien purists that is a no-no. Not that adding a female love interest to Jackson’s trilogy is necessarily to pad the running time. The ’66 Hobbit also added a princess as a love interest (among some other weird changes, such as not having all the dwarves, renaming Smaug “Slag” and pronouncing Gollum as “Gullooooom”). God forbid someone has an imagination and uses it for artistic license to create a wholly separate work. I often wonder why those kinds of complainers even bother watching movies at all.

It’s interesting that Jackson adds to his already long Tolkien adaptations when they get to DVD and Blu-ray, because these stories are perfect for watching via home media formats. They don’t have to feel long if you watch them with breaks and at your leisure. And they don’t have to be too bloated if you can jump past scenes you find more extraneous or more unlikable than others. You can even choose your own adventure version so it’s only 11 minutes, to your own abridged liking.

Kind of like how you could have skipped most or all these more than 11-hundred words to answer the 11-word question in the headline.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.