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.
Seriously, almost an hour passes before he exits that door.
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:
-- Chapter one's description of hobbits' "deep, fruity laughs" is the best explanation I've seen for the tickle party that wrapped up The Return of the King.
-- Tolkien tells us what to make of one of the two dwarven musical numbers that Jackson includes in the film: "Pretty fair nonsense I daresay you think it." I daresay I think no such thing, sir!
-- The first chapter took me just over half an hour. The movie, to its credit, starts the first chapter in about half that time.
-- The fairy-tale feel of the troll encounter makes much more sense on the page rather than in a film whose heroes are routinely decapitating monsters.
-- One place where Jackson beats Tolkien: In the book, the company crashes at Elrond's Rivendell B&B for fourteen full days.
-- One place where Tolkien beats Jackson: The author admits that "there is little to tell about their stay" with the elves and instead just gets on with things.
-- 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."
-- Tolkien writes of Elrond, "His part in Bilbo's tale is a small one, though important, as you will see, if we ever get to the end of it." We will, in 2014!
-- Eventually, the adventurers are ambushed in a cave. Tolkien writes, "Out jumped the goblins before you could say 'rocks and blocks.'" Then the goblins capture the heroes, Tolkien tells us, before you could say "tinder and flint." I can attest that in the movie it takes a little longer than that. There is time to recite some Tennyson, if you prefer to feel some magnificence.
-- Tolkien accuses goblins of having gone on to invent the machine gun and the A-bomb.
-- When Gandalf magics some goblins, Tolkien writes "The yells and yammering, croaking, jibbering and jabbering; howls, growls and curses; shrieking and skriking, that followed were beyond description." In Jackson, the goblin sounds are pretty great, and there's even a Wilhelm scream, which I bet Tolkien had in the appendices somewhere.
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 ...
You could do worse than following Alan Scherstuhl [@studiesincrap] on the Twitter thing.