Short Rounds is a biweekly column dedicated to spreading the love of short film. Every other Wednesday we'll curate a number of flicks around a theme, from current film festivals to whatever is in the air. You know you've got the time.
Peter Jackson once directed shorter films. Before the 135-minute The Lovely Bones, the 201-minute director's cut of King Kong and the impossibly long extended version of The Lord of the Rings trilogy there were Heavenly Creatures (99 minutes) and Dead Alive (104 minutes). His first two features, Meet the Feebles and Bad Taste, both clock in around and hour and a half. Now that we find ourselves facing not two but three The Hobbit films, each of which will presumably be well over two hours, one can only wonder how this happened.
Of course, there’s no way we can psychoanalyze Jackson and attempt to figure out why his movies have ballooned so dramatically. Let’s talk about The Hobbit instead. As has been pointed out many times already, the book runs at about 300 pages. The subsequent The Lord of the Rings is usually about 1200 pages, depending on the edition. How is it at all possible that they both need three entire films? The best-known existing adaptation of The Hobbit, 1977’s animated feature directed by Julian Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr., is 77 minutes. If the story can be told in barely over an hour, why is Peter Jackson giving it between six and nine?
It really isn’t that simple. Obviously it is too early to condemn the upcoming trilogy as a disaster, with Jackson forcing every last sentence of the book into his films. Yet that’s what we are all worried about. Adapting a novel to film always means cutting and shrinking, no matter how you do it, and it seems as if Jackson might not be willing to admit that. Not even a gargantuan BBC mini-series can transpose a novel to the screen with 100% accuracy. Does that mean you lose the spirit of the book, and ruin the compelling nature of your narrative? Of course not. As an Exhibit A, here is the 1966 animated adaptation of The Hobbit.
The Hobbit, by Gene Deitch
Now, this is not exactly one of the great classics of animated short cinema. The narration is a bit silly, and the visual style doesn’t quite jump out from the many '60s cartoons that share its whimsical sense of shape and color. However, it does cram the story of The Hobbit down to 12 minutes without making a giant mess. It is forced to move very quickly, but uses that to its advantage and incorporates the speed of the narration into its style. If Jackson has seen this, he knows that on some level it can be done.
This kind of drastic condensation has been around for a very long time. In the early days of cinema, before the feature film was possible, novel adaptations were still produced. The BFI recently restored much of 1903’s Alice in Wonderland, one of the most significant of these turn-of-the-century endeavors. Knowing that complete replication of the novel was impossible in eight minutes, directors Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow focused on some of the book’s most interesting moments. It’s wonderful because of its imagery, creatively representing the rabbit hole and Alice's growing and shrinking. It also serves as a wonderful counterpoint to 1966's The Hobbit, two very different methods of adaptation that both work quite well.
Alice in Wonderland, by Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow
On the one hand, these two shorts show that no adaptation needs to be longer than a handful of minutes, if done correctly. On the other, and more significantly, they make the point that time in an adaptation is incredibly flexible. For every short film adaptation of a novel, there are many more feature length films adapted from short stories. Brokeback Mountain comes to mind, roughly equivalent to E. Annie Proulx’s novella. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, meanwhile, is drastically longer than the original F. Scott Fitzgerald tale that serves as its inspiration. The liberties taken with these works, by both Ang Lee and David Fincher, manipulate their original stories into films that stand on their own. Countless other examples come to mind, from Rear Window to Minority Report.
So where does this leave us with The Hobbit? Let’s go with guarded optimism. The one real concern I have with Jackson’s trilogy is that it will find itself devoted to the source material to a fault. An adaptation is a chance to say something new and interesting, stylistically or thematically. There is such a thing as too faithful. With The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson breathed new life into the intricate and sprawling world of J.R.R. Tolkein with his grand cinematic set pieces and a detailed artistic vision. With the more modest The Hobbit, he may want to try something new. This dilemma reminds me in particular of the work of Aleksandr Petrov, an animator whose adaptations of novellas are somehow both breathtaking and modest.
My Love, by Aleksandr Petrov
My Love, taken from the novel by Ivan Shmelyov, has a simple story. At heart, The Hobbit also has quite a simple story. Admittedly, animators are able to come at adaptation with a very different, and arguably more capable set of tools. Yet Jackson has proved time and again that there are very few visual limitations to either his vision or his ability to work with an enormous budget. The flowing imagery and barebones story structure of Petrov’s shorts could very well offer some inspiration to the upcoming grand trilogy.
Jackson also knows how to have fun in a short format, even though it’s been a while. His first short is unfortunately unavailable online, but there is Forgotten Silver. This clever 53-minute mockumentary aired on New Zealand television back in 1995, though it was initially advertised as entirely factual. It’s hilarious, playful and almost unexpected given what we know now of the epic-prone Kiwi director.
Forgotten Silver, by Peter Jackson