Never-ending stories: from Bond to Galbraith, why is everything so long?

Leaf Arbuthnot
·8-min read
<span>Photograph: Entertainment Pictures/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Entertainment Pictures/Alamy

About halfway through Tenet, the mind-frying Christopher Nolan film, I began to wriggle in my seat. Twenty minutes later, I had to sit on my hands to stop myself digging around for my phone. At 150 minutes, not only was the film long, it felt endless. Nolan isn’t the only one stretching his legs. Other film-makers – and podcasters, authors and playwrights – are increasingly choosing languor and scale over brevity. The last Tarantino film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, pipped Nolan’s by 10 minutes, while the forthcoming Bond instalment – when it finally appears – is set to be the chunkiest ever for 007, at two hours 43 minutes.

Length seems to be in vogue in other genres, too: just feel the thunder from JK Rowling’s latest Galbraith book as it lands on a table. At more than 900 pages, it’s her longest crime novel, about the same extent as Hilary Mantel’s Booker-snubbed doorstopper, The Mirror and the Light.

Mind-frying and time-consuming &#x002026; Tenet.
Mind-frying and time-consuming … Tenet. Photograph: Melinda Sue Gordon/AP

So what’s going on? In an era in which attention spans are shot to pieces, you’d think we’d only be capable of gaping benignly at gifs. But it seems that we long for length – and that we increasingly admire it, associating breadth with intellectual heft.

A rudimentary analysis of the Booker prize suggests a shift. In 1970, the average shortlisted novel had about 248 pages. By 1980, that had ticked up to 294, and by 2000 it was 372 pages. Last year, when the prize was shared by Bernardine Evaristo and Margaret Atwood, the average shortlisted book weighed in at about 530 pages.

Heavyweight literature &#x002026; Hilary Mantel&#x002019;s The Mirror and the Light.
Heavyweight literature … Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. Photograph: Peter Summers/Getty Images

“Sometimes books and films merit length,” Val McDermid, the crime author, says. “But a lot of stuff is quite self-indulgent and needs a serious edit. I’m reluctant to pick up something that’s more than 600 pages if I don’t have a previous relationship with that writer.”

While Penguin reported a spike of people reading expansive classics such as Middlemarch and War and Peace this year, not all stories are best told at length. McDermid suspects that ballooning books are partly a consequence of there being fewer “great editors with the kind of skills to take on a piece of literature and fillet it”. She knows of authors so grand that they simply “will not be edited”, and whose obstinacy is no match for their publishers.

McDermid doesn’t name and shame but I can’t help but think of the latest Phillip Pullman, which would have benefited from some tightening. A power shift seems to be at play: a study last year found that the top 10% of writers in Britain account for about 70% of earnings in the profession, meaning that authors who lay golden eggs are often treated with deference by their publishers, who dare not flash the scissors.

Jem White, of Blackwell’s bookshop in London, says that changes to the way people buy and read books might also be increasing their length. “The advent of e-readers and audiobooks does probably encourage people to engage with longer works,” he says. “Now you don’t have to carry a big brick in your bag.” On the flipside, the last 10 years, he explains, have seen a reinvestment in books as presents and covetable items. In the early 2000s, the orthodoxy was that Kindles would kill off physical books, but that never came to pass. “More recently, it’s become apparent that there absolutely is a market for really nice books, so people are more willing to invest time and money in producing them.”

A Little Life but a big book &#x002026; author Hanya Yanagihara.
A Little Life but a big book … author Hanya Yanagihara. Photograph: Jenny Westerhoff/PA

The skittish way in which we parse information also seems to be driving readers to tales that offer immersion and escape. “So much of what we watch or read now is bite-size,” White says. “It’s 280 characters, an Instagram caption, highlights of a football match. But people like to have something as a constant for a period. A really long novel can provide a thread for three weeks or more.” I liked Hanya Yanagihara’s novel, A Little Life, so much I eked it out, reading 20 pages at a time when it was published in 2015. Eventually, returning to it nightly took on the familiarity of churchgoing.

If publishers have noticed that readers crave an enveloping narrative, the same seems to be happening in other media. Podcasts, especially indie, conversation-based ones, seem to be lengthening. When I began listening to the pop culture podcast The Read five years ago, each episode was a manageable hour. Now they are routinely two hours, and I can’t be bothered.

But length isn’t offputting for everyone. Riley Quinn, host of the irreverent politics podcast Trashfuture, tells me that episodes lasting less than an hour get fewer downloads than longer ones. And, while weekly cinemagoers may despair at having to fidget through yet another bloated biopic, most people in Britain don’t go to the cinema more than three times a year - a figure that’s likely to be even lower in 2020. When people do make it to the cinema, it’s a proper outing, and a bulky running time adds to the sense of occasion.

Adventures in eternity &#x002026; Avengers: Endgame.
Adventures in eternity … Avengers: Endgame. Photograph: Everett Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

Duncan Carson, of the Independent Cinema Office, identifies two types of long film. “There are those made by more mature auteurs, who are mindful of their legacy and are looking to make a definitive statement. For them, the length of the film is one of its aesthetic messages. Then there are the big blockbusters, whose length is partly due to a tying up of loose ends, and where every film in the franchise is trying to outdo what has gone before.” It’s hardly surprising that in the macho world of blockbusters, running time has become yet another way for directors to compete.

Stephen Frears directed The Queen and the BBC series State of the Union, whose episodes last a bold 10 minutes. He feels lucky to have grown up in an era in which “it was thought that films should be 90 minutes long”. “The number of minutes from 90 is a measure of failure,” he tells me. “What’s happened is that films have become sensationalist. The films I grew up with were intelligent.”

While prestige films have often been ostentatiously long (Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia), we do seem to be in an era of unusually drawn-out blockbusters. Avengers: Endgame – the latest in the Marvel cycle – was more than three hours, and analysis by the film data researcher Stephen Follows suggests that top-grossing movies released between 1999 and 2018 increased in length by 9.9%. Many in the industry believe that the 11-hour Lord of the Rings trilogy has a lot to answer for. The advent of streaming also seems to be elasticating the amount of time audiences are willing to give.

“The screen industry has become an auteur’s market,” says James Dingle, governor of British Film Editors. “If you bring in the eyes, execs will compete for your content with offers of more creative freedom.” For many, the length of Scorsese’s The Irishman (three hours and 30 minutes) was not an issue because it could be watched on Netflix in chunks, like a box set.

But the increasing length of films can also be traced to changes in the way they are made and distributed. Mick Audsley, who edited films such as 12 Monkeys and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, tells me that digitisation has overturned norms. “When I started out in the 70s, our mantra was that you had to have a good reason to keep people in the cinema for more than 110 minutes,” he says. “When films were shot on celluloid, every minute counted, and a heavy day of filming would usually yield about half an hour’s worth of footage that we as editors would reduce to two or three minutes. Then the digital camera emerged, and the amount of material we were receiving on a daily basis blew up.”

Traditionally, a film would be cut to size by the director and editor, cramped in a tiny room. But these days, Audsley says, everyone on the production expects to watch what has been filmed on their laptops, almost instantaneously – and they often take a view on what should or shouldn’t be cut.

Filming is also happening before scripts have been shorn. Joe Walker, editor of films including 12 Years a Slave and Widows, says that production is starting before scripts have been given the “maximum liposuction” they need. “And it’s harder to eliminate material once it’s been shot without creating scar tissue,” he adds. “Consequence: bloated durations.”

When films were shot on celluloid, they had to be transported on heavy reels and the longer the film, the more expensive the reels were to handle. Now, most cinemas in Britain use digital projectors and hard drives. While it still suits cinemas to show 90-minute films because they can pack in more viewings, multiplexes can handle lots of screenings. In fact, given that cinemas in Britain make more money from concessions than from ticket sales, three-hour action films can be better for cinemas than svelte arthouse creations, which might not inspire audiences to load up on popcorn.

Maybe it’s time to bring back the intermission. I remember seeing the 1963 film The Leopard when I was 20 in a battered old cinema in Paris. Halfway through, a curtain flumped down, the lights went up and everyone was wafted out of the cinema. I mooned around in the alleyway outside, smoking and talking to strangers about what we’d seen so far. Then a bell rang and we returned to the cave, refreshed and ready for more.