That The Two Towers, the weakest of the LotR movies, is one of the most critically lauded films of the last ten years and that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, as of writing this piece, is certified rotten by the “Top Critics” on Rotten Tomatoes is a tragic miscarriage of filmic justice. An Unexpected Journey is not only the best Tolkien adaptation to date, but it’s also one of the most dauntless adaptations in film history. If you pored over the reviews for The Hobbit, pounding your keyboard in impotent rage like I did, you’d have noticed a pattern to them. To wit: “I don’t like Tolkien. I liked Jackson’s LotR movies. An Unexpected Journey is too long.” Let’s get mathy for a second and take the last point first.
The Hobbit is about 96,000 words, which is on the shorter side for a novel (for context, Don Quixote has about half a million words, and A Game of Thrones has about 300,000). Despite this snarky hotshot’s spurious claims, normal reading speed is about 240 WPM. My highly sophisticated calculations tell us that a normal reader will finish The Hobbit in about six-and-a-half hours, then. Jackson’s first installment of his Hobbit trilogy is two-and-a-half hours long. Assuming the other two follow suit, that’s seven-and-a-half total, except it’s not just The Hobbit Jackson is adapting, it’s parts of Tolkien’s woefully under-read The Silmarillion as well, sections of which are artfully woven into An Unexpected Journey. If we simply look at this as a question of hours spent per unit of story experienced, then Jackson is tracking pretty darn close so far.
When people complain in general that “the book is better than the movie” one of the most oft-cited reasons is that too much is necessarily left out of film’s truncated time limit. Now I’m no Tolkien fanatic, but I’m familiar enough with LotR to know that, despite their impressive running time, this is the case in spades with them. Tolkien was trained as a philologist, and his prose style is meant to mimic the curiously detailed aspect of the ancient texts he studied and the way in which we often receive them through the dusty lens of multiple translations and politically motivated edits. Practically all of the faux-historiography, meticulously sculpted in the novels, is gone in the adaptations. The movies are still good, don’t get me wrong, but I think of them as kind of the Cliff’s Notes version of the novels. Good if you need to write a term paper, but a far cry from the real thing.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, on the other hand, is amazingly, somehow, very much The Hobbit, and it’s precisely because of its length, which the New York Times called “mercenary,” that’s it’s capable of being so. The question isn’t, then, “Why did The Hobbit need to be three movies,” it’s “Why isn’t LotR nine movies?”
The other advantage An Unexpected Journey has over it’s more dour older brothers is that its source material syncs up much better with Jackson’s goofy sensibilities. Dead Alive and Heavenly Creatures, both very different films from one another, are united in their bizarre sense of humor, and that’s what makes them truly special. This type of humor was shoehorned into parts of the LotR in an effort to bring some levity to the sturm und drang, I suppose, but it always feels forced when someone cracks wise about Gimli’s beard. The Hobbit, however, is the perfect platform for Jackson’s predilection for barmy sight gags, and the the foamy feeling of An Unexpected Journey only makes the famous meeting between Bilbo and Gollum all the more riveting, as it’s in stark juxtaposition to everything else.
Much has been made about the supposed short attention spans of my generation relative to the Boomers, for example, except I actually think it’s the other way around. My generation might binge on three seasons of The Wire over a weekend, staring at the screen with the steely resolve of a bird of prey for hours on end. To those of us who’ve cut our teeth that way, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is exactly what it should be: child’s play.