This post is completely off topic, but something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently.  What determines the length of novels and films?  Novels are usually around 200 to 500 pages, and films are usually around 2 hours.  I understand that the length of films is somewhat constrained by the desire of theaters to run two showings after dinner, but I don’t think that’s a complete explanation.  The same is true for “art films.”  Even art films based on novels, despite the fact that an ordinary novel would take 5 to 10 hours to show on film, especially at the pace of art films.

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I’ve generally enjoyed “mega-novels” more than novels of ordinary length.  I just finished “1Q84,” which is now my favorite Murakami book.  In recent years I also read and greatly enjoyed mega-novels like 2666, The Man Without Qualities, and Lord of the Rings.  I still haven’t read many of the longer classics (War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, In Search of Lost Time, etc) but am told these are also outstanding novels.  Why aren’t there more long novels?  The only disappointing long novel that I ever finished was Phillip Pullman’s Golden Compass trilogy, and even that was pretty good until the third volume.

Maybe I’m attracted to books that allow me to escape into other realities.  It took me so long to finish 1Q84 that by the end I felt like I was partly inside Murakami’s imaginary world.  So much so that for days afterward I didn’t want to start a new novel, didn’t want to “break the spell.”  Does that mean long novels are trying to do something different?  I.e. short stories are incidents, novels are stories, and mega-novels are entire worlds.  Since most people have read Lord of the Rings, the easiest way to explain that difference would be to compare LOTR to The Hobbit, which is a much less “immersive” experience.

Most of the very long films I’ve seen are also excellent.  Indeed when films are lengthened, the extended version is often better (LOTR parts 1 and 2, The Godfather, etc.)  Only occasionally is it worse (Apocalypse Now.)  I once watched a 4 hour French film called La Belle Noiseuse, which was surprisingly engrossing, despite not having much plot.  Later I saw a two hour condensed version of the film, and it was rather boring, seeming to drag on forever.  Colin Marshall expresses a similar view, even without having seen the shorter version:

I submit to you that, while some stories are indeed best told in 90- to 120-ish-minutes, most others, by pure logic of probability “” are not. I submit that some material is only cinematically realizable in 61 minutes, or in 773 minutes, or, indeed, in 237 minutes. La Belle Noiseuse “” also available in a 125-minute cut called La Belle Noiseuse: Divertimento which is by all accounts nothing more than a two-hour trailer for The Real Deal “” wouldn’t have worked if substantially shorter, nor would it have worked if substantially longer.

Next month I hope to see the highly-praised film Satantango when it shows at Harvard.  It takes place in a dreary Eastern European village full of rain and mud, with long tracking shots where almost nothing happens.  How could such a “boring” film be that good?  Simple, it’s 7 hours and 15 minutes long.  At that length I’m expecting the greatest film of all time.

And Susan Sontag, who saw it 15 times, seems to agree.  She called it:

Devastating, enthralling for every minute of its seven hours. I’d be glad to see it every year for the rest of my life.

She had much better taste, so I suspect once will be enough for me.



32 Responses to “Satantango”

  1. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    12. February 2012 at 16:36

    Sumner and I must share some ancestor somewhere along the line. Reading Sumner is like reading myself (except on economics, where Sumner is smarter).

    For a long novel, I recently found The Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas to be enchanting. I agree that long novels draw one into an alternative world.

    But I stand in awe of anyone who can spend seven hours watching a single film. Actually, while I can enjoy a long novel, when I watch a long, long movie I often feel, “I have my own life to lead. I do not need to live vicariously through others.”

    Susan Sontag may have 100 hours of free time. Do I? That’s a couple thousand dollars.

    But in reading a novel or excellent history on long airplane flights (I fly to Thailand a lot) or a hour before sleeping, I feel I am relaxing as is my due after a day or work, and living, not just watching the work of others.

    So at long last, I may differ in one small regard from Sumner. He likes really, really long movies. I do not. I am beginning to feel like an individual again.

  2. Gravatar of Dan S Dan S
    12. February 2012 at 17:08

    I hate to be “that” guy, but as long as we’re talking about very long but awesome and immersive novels……..A Game of Thrones.

    And that’s all I have to say about that (Forrest Gump accent).

  3. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    12. February 2012 at 17:09

    two birds one stone.

    best mega-novelist AND you learn libertarian techno future with a strong dose of monetary policy

  4. Gravatar of Bogdan Bogdan
    12. February 2012 at 17:38

    What determines the length of a novel? In the case of good novels (and maybe films) it’s something not very different from insuring adequate NGDP level expectations : the lenght is just a “policy instrument”, since most good big novels plots or storylines have usually been sketched before in a short story, a policy instrument to create a credible alternative, i.e. a more “real” in a scholastic sense, world that can rival, overshadow, rebuild, maybe even replace (think about the impact of Victor Hugo’s “Misérables”) the world known most of the time or, stated differently, the way people see the world known most of the time. So why aren’t too many good long novels? It’s probably not that easy to create many credible possible worlds with adequate NGDP level expectations. 🙂

  5. Gravatar of Rajat Rajat
    12. February 2012 at 18:46

    Scott, I have really enjoyed the hitherto longer Murakamis like Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. But the reviews of 1Q84 turned me off and I’m not sure whether your post in praise of longer films and books has served to reverse or reinforce my decision…

  6. Gravatar of Cassander Cassander
    12. February 2012 at 19:35

    I imagine the amount of time the average person can sit comfortably in one place while drinking an extra large coke is also a limiting factor.

  7. Gravatar of StatsGuy StatsGuy
    12. February 2012 at 19:47

    I’m sorry you had to endure Pullman. If you’d asked, I’d have warned you.

    Game of Thrones is terrible. The prose is excellent, indeed it’s so good you almost forget that the plot is horrific (or, nearly, nonexistent). If you like learning about characters just to watch them killed off, I suggest you just read the history of the War of the Roses. It’s better, shorter, and you actually learn something somewhat relevant to reality.

    You will enjoy Neil Stephenson, but you really only need to read Snow Crash. It is his best, and most defining, work – although I haven’t read his latest stuff. Cryptonomicon is an echo of Snow Crash, an attempt to create a “real” piece of art, and thus a diminished work. OK, not great. Snow Crash should be on the top of your reading list.

    If you want a long piece of historical fiction, I strongly suggest Exodus. Exodus is what Ayn Rand would have written if a) she actually could write and b) she actually lived in reality.

    I haven’t read any fiction in years – I will try Murakamis.

  8. Gravatar of StatsGuy StatsGuy
    12. February 2012 at 19:52

    Also, if you want more futuristic libertarian sci fi multi-volume alternate worlds, try Gordon R Dickson’s work.

  9. Gravatar of D R D R
    12. February 2012 at 20:09

    I very much enjoy Stephenson, despite his sometimes flawed perspective on economics. Heck, Cryptonomicon is almost comically bad at times.

    Cryptonomicon is kind of a warm-up to the Baroque Cycle, which is really quite fantastic. I strongly suspect, however, that after the success of Snow Crash that his editors lost a fair bit of control and hence his later works are somewhat… well, lets say you can get an e-book, or a bad back.

    I don’t know if my saying that Stephenson’s economics is suspect will encourage Scott to read him, or if my saying that Stephenson’s work is enjoyable will dissuade him. In either case, I’m taking credit.

  10. Gravatar of libfree libfree
    12. February 2012 at 20:30

    @statsguy finally someone who sees the Game of Thrones for the horrific plot. Martin must have skipped econ 101 or just missed all the relevant topics. People mostly collaborate rather than constantly back stab.

    @Scott it’s a matter of attention span. You are probably an outlier (like myself) and you have greater attention span. Most people can’t watch a movie for longer than two hours. You don’t read a book in one sitting often so the attention span is longer but you still have a limited amount of time you can concentrate on one subject matter. My guess is that economists can immerse themselves in a unique world with different rules longer than average.

  11. Gravatar of CA CA
    12. February 2012 at 22:06

    Anna Karenina is better than War and Peace. I’ve read them both.

  12. Gravatar of J.V. Dubois J.V. Dubois
    13. February 2012 at 02:30

    You hit the nail, this is exactly a difference. Reading a good saga means you are completely kidnapped into alternative reality. The experience is som much stronger then reading a short novel (or a blog)

    And since you endorse fantasy (and Sci-Fi), I will give some tips:

    1. The Song of Ice and Fire Saga: it was mentioned before, but I found this saga as one of the best pieces I have ever read in my life. This is in my opinion a MUST read as much as LOTR as it is one of the best (and I think it IS the best) of the genre.

    2. War Against the Chtorr: a Sci-Fi saga by David Gerrold describing an alien invasion on Earth. However this is not your regular “War of the Worlds” clash, rather it is very original and breathtaking description of how such thing could look like.

    3. The Wheel of Time Saga: this is one of the Fantasy classics. Incredibly long saga very similar to LOTR, yet quite different. However read carefully, where regular novels have weak chapters, this saga has whole weak books. If you can read fast and if you are not easily discouraged, I recommend it.

    4. The Malazan Book of the Fallen: this is the definition of the Saga. Ten 1000+ pages of text with hundreds (no kidding) characters and very original setting. VERY hard reading, the reader is thrown in the middle of the world without any explanation, author introduces new characters in a steady pace well into the saga and that can be extremely frustrating. However I do not doubt that this will fit your autistic mind very well.

    And just to conclude, there are novel series that are so surpased by a single piece that they will simply not catch you again. An example is excellent sci-fi novell “Ender’s Game” that was incredible, the sequels not that much.

  13. Gravatar of Alex Alex
    13. February 2012 at 04:44

    It’s a fairly regular occurrence that a book is longer than the author expected, and there has to be a negotiation with the publisher over whether it will be cut down, or split into volumes. An extreme example is Katharine Kerr’s Deverry cycle, which was intended to be one volume, and ended up as fifteen.

    Here is an article by Charlie Stross on the determining factors:

  14. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    13. February 2012 at 06:12

    Ben, Glad to hear you aren’t a clone of me. 🙂

    Thanks for the tips, Dan and Morgan.

    Bogdan, Interestingly, 1Q84 originally ended after the second part. The third was added later–showing how arbitrary length really is.

    Rajat, I like the Wind-Up Bird Chronicles as well. I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t like 1Q84, most of the major papers gave it rave reviews, check out these reviews:

    Cassander–yes maybe that’s it.

    Statsguy, I almost never read anything with a political theme–the only exception I can think of is some of Conrad’s novels. You couldn’t pay me enough to read a “libertarian” novel. I once did a post on why art and economics don’t mix.

    I rarely read sci-fi, although after I read LOTR in my mid-40s I decided to try some other sci-fi and fantasy. I started the Diamond Age but couldn’t finish it. I actually thought the first parts of the Pullman epic were entertaining, but then lost interest. It seems to me that LOTR is a sort of one of a kind deal. I liked sci-fi when I was young, but haven’t kept up with it.

    DR, Thanks for the warning.

    libfree, Good points.

    CA, Thanks for the tip, that was my plan anyway.

    J.V. Dubois, Thanks but I’m actually not a big fan of sci-fi (with a few exception like H.G. Wells and H.P. Lovecraft.)

    Alex, Thanks for that article.

  15. Gravatar of bob bob
    13. February 2012 at 06:39

    Given that there is pressure to control length by the distribution industry, what we get is that, for the most part, extra length is a signal of quality. Even the most incompetent exec will not green light a 3 hour version of Dude, Where Is My Car?.

    Make the average length longer and you just move the goalposts.

  16. Gravatar of mbk mbk
    13. February 2012 at 07:26

    Scott, nice to hear you’re into Murakami. I liked A wild Sheep Chase FWIW… though I didn’t try any of his others after that because it looked like they were constructed in a similar vein.

  17. Gravatar of ChacoKevy ChacoKevy
    13. February 2012 at 07:32

    @Ben – I agree, Monte Cristo was enjoyable. I wish I spoke French so I could read the original text. Reading the two Don Quijote books in Spanish was equal parts rewarding/infuriating.
    However, I will admit to developing something of an impatience with the “epic” titles. I don’t enjoy, so much, where the main narrative takes a break to delve into “story within a story” chapters or other metafictional elements. Monte Cristo did this, and the second book of Quijote REALLY did this. From most people I speak to on this, I find myself pretty much alone.

  18. Gravatar of SG SG
    13. February 2012 at 07:38

    I agree that physical limitations (the need to eat or use the bathroom) justify limiting movies to a length of 3 hours or less, at least those that are shown in theaters. I also agree with Benjamin that the costs of long movies get prohibitive (babysitting, opportunity cost).

    But there are notable exceptions, like Gone With the Wind, though I guess you really don’t see that kind of show in modern theaters.

    TV miniseries also provide an alternative medium for stories that take longer to tell on the screen. I’m thinking of Pride and Prejudice, but lots of documentaries are aired this way too.

  19. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    13. February 2012 at 09:38

    It used to be common for ‘big’ movies to have an intermission. Lawrence of Arabia, For Whom the Bell Tolls, for instance.

  20. Gravatar of Vivian Darkbloom Vivian Darkbloom
    13. February 2012 at 10:14

    According to an interview of Tyler Cowen, apparently a different rule applies to writings about economics:

    “What has the experience told you about the future of book publishing and, more generally, about the future of charging readers for an online version of the written word?

    Mr. Cowen: That is correct, it is only an e-book and it’s about 15,000 words long. That’s about how long many of the early economics pamphlets were in the seventeenth century and I think it matches up to a natural human attention span. Most books I read should be shorter than they are.”

    I think he’s right that people generally have a shorter attention span for books on economics than they do on general interest topics. I also think he’s right that academic writing, and in particular, writing on economic topics, tends to be verbose. For example, I found that “This Time is Different” contained valuable insights, but the book was poorly written and extremely repetitive. That’s what happens when one writes a book to advocate a particular theme: that theme gets repeated over and over again each time a new bit of evidence is introduced.

    We can, perhaps, make an exception for epic novels and films where the subject matter is life itself, but I would not necessarily sign on to the argument that “longer is better”, per se. Joyce’s “Ulysses” approaches epic length. Even though it was structurally loosely based on Homer’s “epic” tale, it covers only 24 hours in the life of Buck Mulligan. And, Homer’s original is not particularly long. Here, “epic” refers more to subject matter than length. And, it is debatable whether Ulysses is “better” than Joyce’s short story “The Dead”. And, Ada is definitely inferior to Lolita or Pale Fire, if I must say so myself.

  21. Gravatar of JLonsdale JLonsdale
    13. February 2012 at 10:15

    Well movies are a certain length because of logistical considerations. When they can be expanded they end up as TV shows.

    People have mentioned Game of Thrones, but the way it is really relevant to your thoughts here is that one long novel, the first book in the series, was turned into a a full season of television on HBO. When a movie looks like it could be 7 hours long then given the current institutions it is more viable to create it as a mini-series or TV show in the first place.

    There have actually been a lot of TV shows with long running plots recently and many people attribute this change as one of the main causes of why the quality of the best shows on TV has increased compared to the best shows 10 or 20 years ago.

  22. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    13. February 2012 at 11:06

    Tolkien, in the preface to LOTR, highlights one flaw: it’s too short.

    “Why aren’t there more long novels?”

    There are plenty of really good long novels, novels that immerse you into their world, you’re just not reading them. You’re reading other things.

    You could follow Tyler C and read Pynchon – V and GR are plenty long. Or follow Brad D and the other commenters and read n-part fantasy things. Maybe those are good long novels.

    There are quite a few really good (and long) TV adaptations of novels, but IIRC you can’t watch DVD’s, you must go to the cinema. To me that’s a shame, because if you can watch those DVD’s, that’s a lot of great stuff. And then there’s The Wire….

    Most good novels as you say need a lot of screen time to be done well. There’s the idea that weak or okay novels can make great films, as in (supposedly) The Godfather, because the director doesn’t really need to be faithful to a weak or okay novel anyway.

    An interesting case is Barry Lyndon, where Kubrick ignored Thackeray and treated it like a bad novel – did his own thing, very successfully, of course.

    My final note is that it sounds like you can only watch things once. What’s up with that? If Satantango is as good as Sontag says, it should, like any other great film, only get better on repeat viewings.

  23. Gravatar of edeast edeast
    13. February 2012 at 18:38

    I haven’t read stephenson’s future stuff, (like Statsguy) but I liked Anathem, and read one of the baroque cycle and would like to finish the others(historical fiction), but his stuff is kind of … cool ideas wrapped in movie plot. I read Anna Karenina at the same time as Anathem and it was way more memorable/easier to get through. But months later I get more mileage out stephenson’s acknowledgements. spoilers.

  24. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    14. February 2012 at 17:10

    bob, Good point.

    mbk, Yes, that’s a good one, but I think there are even better ones.

    SG, Good point.

    Patrick, Yes, I remember intermissions very well. Now even the 4 hour films don’t have one.

    Vivian, Those are good points. I agree with your discussion of the relative merits of various stories by Joyce and Nabakov, although I’m certainly no expert.

    And I agree that economics books should be shorter (although I’m about to violate that rule.)

    JLonsdale, I don’t watch TV, so I missed that angle. I don’t even watch movies on TV.

    anon/portly, Sure, there are lots of long novels, but it seems percentage-wise they are very much in the minority. But perhaps it reflect my reading taste, my choice of authors.

    No, I do often see movies several times, my last comment was a sort of joke.

    People used to tell me you must watch such and such TV show, and I’d usually be disappointed. But keep in mind I usually dislike most of the films nominated for best picture, so my taste is a bit offbeat. I also don’t like the way films look on TV. As an analogy, suppose an opera buff was told “why don’t you just save money and watch the opera on TV?”

  25. Gravatar of Rob Rob
    14. February 2012 at 18:12

    For the ADD sufferers among us, every year usually in May the Boston Center for the Arts puts on “the Boston Theater Marathon,” which is generally 50, ten minute plays. The plays run all day – you can duck in and out at leisure – and many pack a very powerful punch. I personally found it unusually interesting.

  26. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    14. February 2012 at 23:59

    “Sure, there are lots of long novels, but it seems percentage-wise they are very much in the minority. But perhaps it reflect my reading taste, my choice of authors.”

    Hmmm, you’d like to read more long novels, but the authors you like don’t write long novels. That seems like a problem without a solution, or maybe you’re treating an endogenous variable as exogenous. In any case, I’d recommend exploring older, pre WW2 or 19th century novels.

    After all, who was it who came up with the theory about modern music that all the good styles have been taken? If that’s true wrt the last 3 or 4 decades of popular music, it’s gotta be way more true of the last 3 or 4 centuries of the novel. (Read Kundera’s _Testaments Betrayed_ for more on this topic).

    To the extent there are good modern novels, they’re hard to find amongst the dross. Then again, I’m thinking of trying one of these sci-fi/fantasy things that so many bloggers and blog-commenters extol, maybe if I can find one recommended by both Delong and Statsguy I will.

    “People used to tell me you must watch such and such TV show, and I’d usually be disappointed. But keep in mind I usually dislike most of the films nominated for best picture, so my taste is a bit offbeat.”

    Yeah, but most of the films nominated are very poor! Even worse are the ones that win! Pretty much since AAIP and AAE won back-to-back in `50 and `51, the drought has been pretty severe. That would be only the last 75% of the sound era. Maybe I am overstating things, but only slightly.

    I can’t recommend any regular-run one-hour American TV shows, except maybe Rockford or Perry Mason, but I do think HBO, the BBC and various furners have done some very good limited-run TV things. I think you can argue that two famous directors did their best work on TV – Fanny & Alexander, Berlin Alexanderplatz. Maybe F&A is watchable in the theater at 312 minutes, but BA, I saw it in the theater twice, back when that was the only option, and holy cow, it’s a lot nicer to watch something that long on DVD. The Kingdom was fine – I mean to watch it again, this time perhaps more perceptively – on DVD – after the recent TMI rave. Even some of the weaker BBC costume things are still pretty okay – with such solid source material, and a nation full of character actors, it’s hard to screw them up completely. And if you don’t like the better BBC things like The Pallisers or I, Claudius, well, hmmm.

  27. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    15. February 2012 at 09:15

    “I also don’t like the way films look on TV. As an analogy, suppose an opera buff was told ‘why don’t you just save money and watch the opera on TV?'”

    Well, you already know all the flaws in this argument. For the typical opera buff who listens to recordings, expense can certainly be an issue, but even more the problem is “availability of titles.” For film buffs isn’t this problem just as bad?

    Anyway opera in the theater is substantially different, because it’s a live performance with human beings and a live orchestra. Films on the other hand are reproduced on a screen, whether in the theater or at home. AFAIK many film buffs enjoy the at-home experience as much or nearly as much or even *more* than the theater experience. I saw The Kingdom in a crowded, uncomfortable Seattle Film Festival venue back in the 90’s – I think I would have enjoyed it much more in its intended small-screen format.

    I’m not saying you’re wrong; your preferences are your preferences. There are opera buffs I’m sure who never listen to recordings.

    With your retirement plans and giant hoard of cash (do we know too much about our bloggers? I say no), maybe you should start collecting films in 35mm. No doubt many SoCal properties come equipped with viewing facilities. (Maybe work and blog, make that blog and work an extra year or two).

  28. Gravatar of Bill Mill Bill Mill
    15. February 2012 at 10:28

    I second the suggestions for Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina, Gravity’s Rainbow and the Baroque Cycle, and add “The War of the End of the World” by Mario Vargas Llosa. I’ll probably take you up on 1Q84 (thanks).

    I also highly recommend giving The Wire a shot; it is wonderful and epic. By far the best thing I’ve ever seen on TV.

    You motivated me to make a histogram of the length of all the books I’ve rated five stars:

    It shows that I prefer mostly normal length novels, though probably considering the dearth of longer books, I seem much more likely to rate it highly if it’s long.

  29. Gravatar of edeast edeast
    16. February 2012 at 10:21

    Also I’ve only read bits of “house of leaves” back in high school(which I think is fitting for a post-modern/ergodic? book), and it was pretty fascinating(technical term for blew my mind). But that is the mind of a teenager, so don’t expect much.

  30. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    16. February 2012 at 11:18

    Rob, Thanks for the tip.

    anon/portly, I actually did read Testiments Betrayed, but I have a very bad memory, and don’t recall it very well.

    I saw The Kingdom pt. 1 at the theatre, and loved it. Part two was just ok.

    I don’t currently get HBO, so I miss that stuff.

    Not sure why I prefer films at the theatre, it just seems more visually impressive. I’m most drawn to films where the primary appeal is visual, not good dialogue. Your mention of 35mm films reminds me that I also don’t like digital–another way I am a reactionary. And I dislike 3D.

    Bill, That’s a good list–but is Macbeth really 272 pages?

    edeast, Thanks for the tip.

  31. Gravatar of Bill Mill Bill Mill
    19. February 2012 at 10:16

    > is Macbeth really 272 pages?

    I just went with the number of pages that Amazon reports, surely that’s a heavily annotated version.

  32. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    20. February 2012 at 17:43

    Bill, Yeah, That probably explains it.

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