With the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Peter Jackson has given the world 174 minutes of imaginative visions never before realized on a movie screen, save for those in Jackson’s previous 12 hours of Middle Earth adventures. It’s not bad; it’s just stubbornly pokey and almost never grand.
As Voice film critic Scott Foundas puts it, during the long first third you “can feel the hair on your feet growing longer.” Or as Frodo might moan, it feels like too little butter spread over too much bread.
That said, there’s no denying that the last hour captures some of the spirit of The Lord of the Rings films, and there is at least one thing new here: Never before in a movie have I seen the cast offered a video-game style side quest. (Gandalf doesn’t yet take up Radagast the Brown’s mission to defeat a necromancer, but maybe he will in movie three, once he’s done some leveling up.)
But during the long, hard sit of the film’s first hour, I couldn’t help but wonder: Did all of this dwarves-at-dinner business really take so long in the book? And by the end, when Bilbo, Gandalf, and the rest are — like Sam and Frodo in two out of three of Jackson’s Middle Earth films– left gazing off at the distant peak they’ve been journeying towards, I felt sure of it. I could have read all this in the time it takes Jackson to show it.
So, I tried it, returning to a book I hadn’t looked at since third grade. The ground rules: I would read for comprehension/enjoyment, not for speed. No skimming of elf songs, no matter how cutesy. And just to be fair, I wouldn’t count the movie’s 16 minute end-credits against its running time. So, the time to beat, by The Hollywood Reporter‘s reckoning: 158 minutes.
Here’s what I noted along the way:
Place where Tolkien and Jackson’s younger self seem to be in total agreement: “Things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome may make a good tale.”
Not long after that, there’s that business with the wolves and the eagles, who in the book actually explain something most film viewers will be wondering: Why in the hell don’t they just fly the heroes the rest of the way? By the time I reached the end of chapter six, where the film stops, just under two and a half hours had passed — I still had 20+ minutes to spare.
I spent that time pondering what it would have been like if earlier movies had so stingily dealt out their adventure stories: If Star Wars ended with Obi-Wan Kenobi saying, “That’s no moon — it’s a space station.”
If Raiders of the Lost Ark closed will Salah shouting, “Indy! I can see the map room!”
Or if Gremlins ended at 11:59 p.m …