December 20, 2013 7:10 pm

The Hobbit: why stop at three?

‘Suffice to say that at around eight hours in total, it is not only Smaug who will be desolate by the end’
An illustration of 'The Hobbit' as Happy Meal toys©Lucas Varela

We shall spend this Boxing Day as we spent the last one, watching The Hobbit in a chilly cinema with only a packet of Revels and an instant coffee for solace.

Boxing Day is the girl’s birthday (you can imagine the delight of the midwife when we called at 2am) and by tradition she gets to choose a movie. This obviously leaves us somewhat at the mercy of the Christmas family releases. Last year, therefore, she chose The Hobbit and this year it is likely she will do the same. It is early days but next year is looking fairly predictable too, when the three-part saga built around a 260-page novel reaches its less-than-thrilling climax.

What is particularly galling about the trilogy is the middle film, which is the one we are condemned to enjoy this year. At the end of the first we left our heroes – a hobbit, a wizard, some dwarves, the stars of I’m a Celebrity and a handful of Scottish Nationalists – still in danger and some way short of their goal. The second film will end with our heroes in even greater danger and still some way short of their goal, but nearer to it than they were at the end of the first. In the intervening hours of part two they will have journeyed through the Valley of Get On With It, past the Empire of Ennui and across the River of Yet More Bloody Trolls. The same thing happened with The Lord of the Rings but that saga did at least have the excuse that the original book was more than 9,000 pages long.

Patently, there are many who are happy to luxuriate in the butt-numbingly protracted trek through Mirkwood – but then presumably there are people who enjoy a slow-moving excursion up the M6. Suffice to say that at around eight hours in total, it is not only Smaug who will be desolate by the end.

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Robert Shrimsley

Of course, no one is forcing us to go to these films – well apart from the girl, obviously. It is just that the rest of the family, like Bilbo, feel impelled to embark on this interminable journey. Naturally, I have argued that this film is made for the fast-forward function and suggested that we would be far better off staying put in the shire with some friends, our DVDs and several boxes of Mr Kipling’s, but to no avail. A sense of adventure has enchanted the family and pulls us towards the picture house.

What frustrates more than the tedium of an afternoon of unresolved battles is the increasing use of multipart movies to maximise profits. Seven Harry Potter movies were not enough for the Gollums of Tinseltown, nor four Twilight films. Both had their final episode split in two to pull in an extra wad of cash, leaving movie-goers with a wholly unsatisfactory penultimate episode. The Hunger Games is also due to get the same treatment, moving from written trilogy to film quartet. Were The Wind in the Willows to be made today, part one would doubtless end with the wretched toad being carted off to jail, leaving room for a sequel that culminates in a 35-minute battle for Toad Hall. Part two could be built out a little so the stoats, weasels and ferrets are aided by CGI river trolls and a CompareTheMarket meerkat, with a hot female otter introduced as a love interest for the water rat.

There will always be a role for series and serials. Some of our literary classics began life as instalments in the periodicals of the day. But they were written that way; most of the above-mentioned books were already multipart sagas, whose author determined the logical break points. More pertinently perhaps, if film producers are going to split novels, why shouldn’t the writers do it themselves? Who would not want the extra payday from an eighth Harry Potter or a fifth Twilight?

And why split only the final novel: why settle for a mere quartet when an eight-part movie saga could be had? We need to sweat this franchise, baby. Then, when even these possibilities have been exhausted, perhaps our heroes could join together in a new series. Katniss, Bella, Harry and Bilbo; the new Justice League of Middle Earth – coming to a Christmas near you.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com; Twitter: @robertshrimsley

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