An Unexpected Journey: Book Length vs. Movie Length in Adapted Franchises

Overthinking It strikes again, with a lesson for all of us who write for the visual media. (Um, you know, like not just films but also TV.) And wait’ll you see the neato graphs!

The-Hobbit-Movieby Mark Lee

I know I’m late to this party, but I finally got around to seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey after hearing much belly-aching over how the story of a single book is split into three separate movies: it seems like a blatant cash grab by the studios, a cynical move that put franchise movie economics ahead of things like storytelling and pacing.

After seeing the movie, I can definitely sympathize with these complaints. It felt slow at times, particularly during the multiple expository scenes in the first half and the interminably long action sequence in the second half. Most importantly, I felt like the story didn’t advance far enough to justify taking up an entire movie on its own, especially compared to the Lord of the Rings movies.

So me being me, I decided to put this issue into quantitative terms. Specifically, I wanted to compare the length of the Hobbit movie to that of the source text, and run the same analysis for the three Lord of the Rings movies.

For movie length, I simply used the run time for the theatrical version of the movie as listed on IMDB. For book length, I chose to go with word count rather than page count, since there’s so much variability when it comes to the number of words that get squeezed onto a single book page.

Before I hit you with the graphs, I should mention the obvious caveat, which is that a long word count of a book does not necessarily translate to more story elements that need to be crammed into a movie. Also, it’s been a while since I’ve read the various works of J.R.R. Tolkein, so I can’t speak authoritatively to the density (or lack thereof) of plot in those books.

All this is to say that word count is an imperfect proxy for the amount of plot-related content in a book that might need to get translated to a movie.

OK, enough caveats. Let’s see the numbers, or more specifically, my key metric for comparing movies: the number of word in the book divided by the number of seconds in the movie. In other words, words per second of movie. The idea is that a movie like The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey will have a small number of words per second of movie, since it’s only adapting part of a short book into a rather long movie.


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