The James Clayton Column: Little Hobbits and long movies

The arrival of Peter Jackson's latest Hobbit film leaves James thinking about long movies, and argues that they're not always a bad thing...

If you visit your local cinema today you’ll find that you can watch The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug. If you do by a ticket for the fresh return to Middle-earth your visit to the cinema will be a long one. The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug is a long film.

I fear that I may be understating things, so let me reaffirm that. The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug is a long, long, really long film – 161 minutes, to be precise. Its length is actually quite ironic when you consider that most of the characters are very short. Nevertheless, this movie led by an undersized troupe of Dwarfs and a Hobbit (Bilbo is reckoned to be around 3ft to 3ft 6in, for the record) is an oversized blockbuster and one of the biggest movies of the year. I mean that both in terms of scale, spectacle and – the crucial aspect here – running time.

Let’s run (read: casually stroll, taking our time about it) through some numbers. The Desolation Of Smaug is 161 minutes long which equates to 2 hours and 41 minutes. It’s a sequel to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey which is 2 hours and 49 minutes long. (That’s theatrical release run time. The expanded edition clocks in at 182 minutes and thus crosses the three-hour mark).

The Hobbit trilogy is a prequel to Peter Jackson’s earlier The Lord Of The Rings series and that three-piece amounted to 558 minutes or 9 hours and 18 minutes in total. If you want to consider the expanded editions (and you really should) the sum running time of The Lord Of The Rings cinematic saga is 682 minutes or 11 hours and 22 minutes.

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We haven’t seen The Hobbit: There And Back Again yet and consequently we don’t know how long the grand finale is going to be in both its theatrical and extended special edition incarnation. Even so, from the data we’ve got, we can conclude that a marathon viewing of The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings trilogies together would last longer than the average waking day. By Balin’s beard, that’s a hell of a long time to spend in Middle-earth. By the time you’ve finished you’re probably going to be looking like King Théoden before Gandalf whacks him back to vitality in The Two Towers.

Turn to J.R.R. Tolkien’s source literary masterpieces and you see that, for The Lord Of The Rings at least, the length is justified. The novels add up to a word count of 481,103 words and dominate any bookshelf that they care to rest on (Kindle owners, stop smirking). The Hobbit, however, is an altogether different creature.

Conceived before the Rings epic, Tolkien’s original tale is only (!) 310 pages long amounting to a tally of 95,356 words. It’s a shorter ‘children’s book’ and yet in looking to adapt it for the big screen Peter Jackson and his Fellowship (Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) have contrived to reconfigure one film as two and then, finally, three individual features to form a trilogy.

Restating those vital statistics, the first movie is 169 minutes and the newly-released follow-up is 161 minutes long. Add the unconfirmed runtime of the third and we have the expansion of just over 300 pages to what will eventually be over eight hours of film material over three separate pictures. That’s quite astounding as far as these things go. (Or should that be, go on and on and on?)

Zeroing in on the film series in terms of narrative, we know where The Hobbit is heading. This is a story about a journey to a mountain to reclaim lost Dwarf gold currently possessed by an almighty great greedy dragon. Bilbo Baggins is the ‘burglar’ employed by Thorin Oakenshield and his 12 kin to aid their quest, and Gandalf the wizard and an array of other loose associates will support them on their way. We all have the ultimate objective of the treasure in sight, but the bulk of the narrative is the journey and, as with all stories, that’s where the actual interest lies.

So it was also with The Lord Of The Rings, except the protracted journey(s) of the film adaptations reflected the content of the books with closer symmetry. Place movie and source manuscripts side-by-side and you get a feeling that they are in proportion, which is harder to say for The Hobbit. One mid-sized novel to three films over eight hours in length equals a disproportionate ratio according to my rudimentary mathematical calculations.

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In spite of the findings of my inexpert arithmetic and the incongruence that is the outcome, however, I personally don’t consider The Hobbit‘s length to be ‘a bad thing’ – something “wicked, tricksy, false”. There are downsides to the film’s size and I’ve got minor grievances, but ultimately they don’t mean much in the great scheme of things and are so much trivial Orc quibbling before the immense awesome majesty of Minas Tirith. The Desolation Of Smaug and its predecessor An Unexpected Journey are way too long, but I believe that their conventionally-unreasonable runtimes are actually an essential, appealing feature.

That visit to the cinema to see The Desolation Of Smaug is going to be an event. The runtime adds to the exalted ‘special event’ feel of this movie which is inherent within its identity, by virtue of its Christmas release date and in the nature of the material itself. The film is quite literally ‘a big deal’ and the fact that the actual viewing will absorb a massive chunk of your day gives it an even greater sense of being a momentous occasion.

Allow me to do some more numbercrunching (I know I’m drawing this out but, hey, I’m only following Peter Jackson’s lead) – The Desolation Of Smaug is 161 minutes and if you add 25 minutes of adverts, trailers and gratuitous Kevin Bacon you get a total of 186 minutes – or 3 hours and 6 minutes. If you also factor in the length of the journey to and from the cinema and extras like hanging around in the lobby, getting popcorn and possibly combining the cinema trip with a meal or a sociable drink you end up with something of a grand outing that eats up a significant amount of time.

You could make it a family-and-friends affair, for isn’t that what Christmas is all about? Regardless of the season, I’d say it’s important to have these milestone multiplex events that carry an air of collective social significance about them. We get this in the summer blockbuster season with franchise tentpole releases and The Hobbit is keeping up the tradition established by The Lord Of The Rings trilogy by bringing Middle-earth magic to the bleak midwinter.

I reckon that it’s important to embrace these event movie experiences when they arise amidst the humdrum rolling and rigmarole of regular life. Going to the cinema is an attractive opportunity to immerse yourself in a fantastical world totally distinct from quotidian existence. People need those intermittent moments of mind-altering escapism and these epic stories of special effects spectacle and unreal adventure provide that positive break from mundane reality.

Overlong running times extend that experience and are welcome, because they really allow you to revel in it for even longer. The chance to put aside trivial concerns for an even longer period is a pleasant proposition and, in a way, there’s also a sense that gargantuan movie runtimes replicate some of the joys of reading a novel undisturbed.

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These prolonged pictures also act as a necessary challenge to our modern day attention-deficit disorder. In an age of constant mass distraction, surrendering yourself entirely to a movie for well over two hours is a beneficial ritual that carries rewards. Even if you don’t enjoy the movie and come to proclaim it as one of your personal favourites, you’ll still have made it through an endurance test and come out the stronger.

I felt like that after watching Les Misérables at the cinema earlier this year. 158 minutes of Russell Crowe singing at you in close-up is an intense ordeal, and I figure that emerging out of that movie alive and surviving all its musical misery was something of an achievement. You don’t necessarily need to go to the cinema to feel like an enduring victor though – I got a similar satisfaction having made it all the way through brilliant-but-arduous films like Magnolia (188 minutes), Titanic (194 minutes), Lawrence Of Arabia (227 minutes) and Gone With The Wind (238 minutes) at home.

Of course, more than just a sore backside, square eyes and yearning for a reprieve after so much drawn-out melodrama and despair in period settings, overlong movies give you that aforementioned sense of being at one with something epic. The marathon triumph aside, taking time out for prolonged personal engagement with a large-scale cinematic work is one of the most glorious cultural luxuries you can indulge in.

I say this is a cinemagoer who’s wary of long running times and groans every time I see that a movie lasts longer than two hours. I’d say that 90 minutes is the perfect length for a motion picture but, even so, I wouldn’t want that for The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug.

Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth blockbusters need to be supersized and, indeed, their length is fitting for the material. Fundamentally, The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit are about journeys and the strength of the stories, and the characters is all geared around the quest. The drawing out of the journeys is, thus, the means by which the movies acquire their resonant depth and power.

We also need the length so we can spend as much time as possible in the superbly-realised realms of Middle-earth. Tolkien’s world is one of the richest and most compelling in literature, and Jackson’s cinematic masterworks have gone above and beyond in order to make them so captivatingly visceral.

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Audiences are given space to breathe and explore the wonders of this universe – to really appreciate its stunning sights, marvellous concepts and – most importantly – to spend time with the characters and share in their quests and ordeals. That’s why The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit mean so much and move so many cinemagoers.

These films are something extraordinary, and I personally savour and appreciate any occasion where I’m allowed to venture back into Middle-earth. I could happily spend ages there, and thanks to the long runtimes, that happens every time we go There And Back Again.

James Clayton is of the opinion that devoting over 40 minutes of screen time to a Dwarf tea party (and the washing up that follows) is not a waste of time at all ’cause there ain’t no party like a Dwarf tea party. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

You can read James’ last column here.

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