Ever since it was announced that Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit would be split into three parts rather than its initially planned two parts, there has been speculation as to how long each film will run and what story elements will be a part of each. Thanks to Empire Magazine (via Coming Soon.), we have a good idea how long the first installment, An Unexpected Journey, will run.
“It’s looking like it’s going to be about ten minutes shorter than Fellowship was,” said Jackson. “So it’s going to be officially our shortest Middle-earth yet. I mean, Fellowship was just under three hours and this is about 2 hours 40 minutes at the moment.”
(Note that this figure is probably before the final credits and some not-quite-finished visual effects shots have been added in, so add a few more minutes onto that figure.)
That’s a lot of time for only one-third of a rather short novel. But let’s take a look and see what there is Jackson can include in this first installment. (Warning: From here on out we will be dealing with story points that will be considered spoilerish by those who have not read The Hobbit and some of Tolkien’s additional writings on Middle-Earth.)
My suspicion is that the first film will only take us from the start of Bilbo’s adventures with the dwarves, through their passage under the Misty Mountains, during which Bilbo acquires his magic ring from Gollum, and end around where the company is attacked by the wargs when they enter the Mirkwood forest. This hunch is based on nothing more than an examination of the marketing materials we’ve seen so far and which images that have seemed to disappeared from the trailers and behind-the-scenes videos following the announcement of the third film. This point does fall at around page 98 of The Hobbit, a 272 page book. That is roughly just a little over a third of the way through, so in that respect the break in the storyline does line up.
But how can Jackson and company extend barely 100 pages into almost three hours of cinematic material? I would think that there are a few things that would play out on film longer than it takes to mention on the page. We know from behind-the-scenes footage that there will be a sequence involving young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) strolling through the Hobbiton marketplace, probably establishing his life as a typical, non-adventure prone hobbit. The songs that the dwarves sing during their dinner party with Bilbo at the beginning of the film easily could take more time to present on screen than it takes to read. Additionally, we know that the films will employ a flashback structure, with Old Bilbo (Ian Holm) telling his nephew Frodo (Elisha Wood) the story of how he found his magic ring.
But these examples will only add a few minutes at most to the run time. There also needs to be some major chunks of plot added to make up the difference. Jackson has stated that they are pulling material from various other things Tolkien has written about events in Middle Earth at the time of The Hobbit’s story to expand the narrative of the films as well as to help provide stronger links to the Lord Of The Rings films. Most likely, he will be drawing from the timeline found in Appendix B “The Tale Of Years” found in The Return Of The King and the essay “The Quest For Erebor” found in Unfinished Tales Of Numenor And Middle Earth.
Amongst this material is a storyline detailing how Gandalf came into possession of the map and key to the Lonely Mountain that motivates the dwarves’ quest. I would guess that some of this will be shown in flashback, probably during the aforementioned dinner party. Another flashback that we may or may not get would deal with the history of animosity between the dwarves and the goblins. This backstory, featuring such events as the Battle of Azanulbizar, plays into the some of the interactions between the dwarves and the goblins in the book and may be mentioned in some form or another in the film.
But happening concurrent with the main plot of the book is the story of what Gandalf gets up to when he slips away from Bilbo and the company of dwarves at various points during their journey. We know from Appendix B and “The Quest For Erebor,” that Gandalf, along with Saruman the White, Galadriel, Elrond, Radagast the Brown and others, drove Sauron, who was going by the pseudonym of The Necromancer at the time, out of his fortress of Dol Guldur in southern Mirkwood. We’ve seen short glimpses of some of this already, specifically Radagast himself, Gandalf exploring some ruins, possibly Dol Guldur and Gandalf and Galadriel conferring. There is a lot of meat to this story here, though the assault on Dol Guldur happens at a point after where I believe the first movie ends, so we won’t see the culmination of this until the second movie next year. For the first film, we will see a meeting amongst these powerful characters as they debate about whether or not they should attack the necromancer’s stronghold. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is where we begin to see hints of the villain we know that Saruman will be by the time of The Lord Of The Rings.
Of course the question is how much of this new material will unbalance the film, taking away focus from the adventures of our titular character Bilbo? That danger is there and we will see how well Jackson handles it when The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens on December 14.