Peter Jackson's catching flak for making three bladder-busting Hobbit movies from one short book. The criticism seems absurd: like bashing a hybrid car for driving further on less fuel. Surely we should be praising Peter Jackson, for finding more gems in Tolkien than are obvious to the naked eye. He's even been criticised for changing the tone: as if Tolkien's book was 1960s TV Batman with Adam West, and Peter Jackson decided to make The Dark Knight. The statistical website 538 even criticises Jackson for turning one sentence in the book into a two minute sequence. But how is this bad? Who's to say Tolkien got it right? Surely you could argue instead that Tolkien missed an opportunity: by imagining in his head two minutes of dynamic action, and McNuggeting it onto the page in one flaccid blurt. Maybe Tolkien would be more of a page-turner if his writing did include more action sequences. Is The Matrix bad because it takes a moment that should take a quarter-second -- the flight of a bullet -- and turns it into 30 seconds? If less is more, if a synopsis is snobperior to a re-enactment, you might as well say we don't need 1200 pages of War and Peace, because the title says it all.
Ultimately 538 gives The Hobbit trilogy the award for stretching source material, getting 2 minutes from each page of book. Well, whether you see this as value, or a filibuster, The Hobbit isn't the winner. It isn't even the winner this week.
Exodus: Gods and Kings, starring Christian Bale as Moses, weighs in at 150 minutes. The source material is Exodus, the third book in The Bible (various authors, out of copyright, fantasy, adult themes.) Exodus is only 25 pages (in the paperback Bible I found on Amazon.) Granted, it's Bible font, so it's printed like the business end of an eye chart, but that still makes six minutes of movie for every page: a triple Hobbit. Or perhaps a Hobbit Centipede.
How about Bond, James Bond? Maybe if he didn't introduce himself that way, the films would be shorter. For Your Eyes Only is 50-odd pages of short story by Ian Fleming, while the 1981 movie (Roger Moore, Carole Bouquet, Mr Bean-style car chase with a Citroen 2CV) is 127 minutes. That's more than the Hobbit ratio of two minutes to one. Octopussy (1983, second-to-last Roger Moore, Maud Adams eponymously octopricious) is 131 minutes, versus 33 pages of short story. That's four minutes per page -- a double Hobbit -- and arguably only the title is drawn from the original text. When the title, only the title, Mr Bond, is the entire inspiration, forget how many minutes you get from each page: that's 131 minutes from one word. That's lots. That's a better ratio than The Lego Movie being inspired just by, well, Lego.
A View to a Kill (1985, Roger Moore's final Bond, Christopher Walken as the baddie) gets 131 minutes from 31 pages of short story: Double Hobbit. Another Double Hobbit is Quantum of Solace, the second Daniel Craig movie: 106 minutes, from a 24 page short story. Quite a quantity of quanta.
Maybe you think Bond, by demand of volume, is a separate category. Then how about Philip K Dick? Steven Spielberg's Tom Cruise movie Minority Report (2002) gets 145 minutes from 32 pages of short story, nearly five to one. Not quite Exodus, but close. (And Spielberg, remember, won Best Picture for a three-hour-plus movie based on just a list of names.) Philip K Dick's short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale is 18 pages. The Arnold Schwarzenegger adaptation Total Recall (1990) turned it into 113 minutes. That's six minutes per page of Philip K Dick, for Full Triple Hobbit, and equi-Exodus. In fact, extra-Exodus because, unlike the Bible, Philip K Dick isn't printed in squint font.
Pirates of the Caribbean originated as a 3-minute ride at Disneyland. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) is somehow 135 minutes, yielding a 40-to-one ratio. That's a peak-hour busload of Hobbits. Add to that three sequels (Dead Man's Chest (2006, 145 mins), At World's End (2007, 168 mins), and On Stranger Tides (2011, 137 mins) and you get a grand total of 585 Pirate movie minutes -- nearly ten hours -- from one original theme park attraction, where lining up in a maze (not counting parking) is longer than the actual ride. And another sequel is in production. Yet, do we hear fanboys complain about the filmmakers' lack of fidelity to the duration of the original animatronic boat ride? Do we hear fanboys complain they want the movies to be more repetitive, and to stop adding new events that aren't in the ride?
But wait, there's more. (Fittingly.) Spike Jonze took Where The Wild Things Are, and reverse-distilled 48 pages of paintings by Maurice Sendak, into 109 minutes of movie. That's more than the Hobbit ratio. And Sendak's words are few, and sparse -- almost Eastwoodian -- so really, the ratio is even bigger. Likewise, fairy tales like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty are Little Golden Books (at most 32 pages), yet the movies run 90 minutes, for a 3 to one ratio. We could call that 1.5 Hobbits, or a Samwise Gamgee after lunch. And only a Grinch would watch a kids movie and say: "But that musical number wasn't in the book!!!" (The Tom Hanks/Emma Thompson film Saving Mr Banks wrestles with this, in Walt Disney's personal struggle to adapt Mary Poppins over the author's objections.)
Speaking of songs: Convoy (1978), starring Kris Kristofferson as the truck driver known as Rubber Duck, adapted a 1975 song by CW McCall (duration 3 mins 49 secs) into 106 minutes. Minutes-wise, that's 30 to one -- 15 Hobbits, a complete rugby team. But the lyrics fit on one page, so that's actually a ratio of 106, or 53 Hobbits. Yet in the movie, the truckers keep rolling, and never even worry about running out of gas.
Philosophically, though, who's even to say which is longer, the movie or the book? Surely it depends how fast you read. If I hand you the book at the start of a movie session, would you be finished reading by the time I come out? Only one way to find out. When the first Lord of the Rings movie came out, I bought Tolkien's The Hobbit, as a patriotic duty. That's 12 or 13 years ago. A mere 300 pages. And the truth is, I've made it further through the movies.
The pitfall is a fanboy desire for the one, true adaptation. How good was Matt Damon's The Bourne Identity? Awesome, right? I defy you to attempt the book. In fact, good luck watching the Richard Chamberlain miniseries, which would have been closer to the original. People often mention that Shakespeare adapted other people's plays. Were his plays true to the originals? Nobody asks; nobody cares. Shakespeare blasted the others offstage. If anyone does wonder about the earlier plays, it's an academic, and then, only because Shakespeare did such a good job. Ditto Tolkien. From now on, it'll be thanks to the movies if fantasy-lovers seek out JRR Tolkien -- instead of that other guy with RR in his name.
(PS If my numbers are out, blame Wikipedia, Amazon or IMDb. I'm not at a bookshelf. I'm on a beach in Thailand. But this seemed important.)