Journalists are not supposed to tell their stories in chronological order. We're supposed to start with the most interesting detail, and later explain how it came about.
So, I hope you'll forgive me for telling this tale in the order in which it happened, as background to how I became Australia's greatest geek on the subject of director Peter Jackson's movie The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and why I can advise you on appropriate viewing behaviour.
I'm attending a 2pm session of The Hobbit in 3D, but at 2.20pm the curtains still have not opened and the audience (200 people) is getting antsy. A spotty youth enters the cinema and says: ''Ladies and gentlemen, we are having some technical difficulties. We should be able to start the movie in about 10 minutes, and when we do we will go straight to feature. We won't show any of the ads.''
Audience cheers. Ten minutes later a young woman enters the cinema and says: ''Ladies and gentlemen. We would like to apologise. We will be unable to show you The Hobbit in 3D today. We can only show you the 2D version.'' Audience groans.
Somehow the projector has shed an entire dimension. But while there is none of the third dimension, there is more than enough of the fourth.
Three hours later, as the end credits start to roll, the lights go up and the young woman returns with this announcement: "We will give everybody a refund on their ticket and a complimentary pass to any movie in this complex." Plus we can keep the glasses. Audience cheers and starts discussing whether they should see The Hobbit again or use the pass for Les Miserables. It's a PR coup for Hoyts.
The next day, I use my pass to attend the 10.30am session of The Hobbit in 3D. There are only 22 people in the cinema. Curtains open promptly, and over the next 28 minutes we are shown five trailers, two of which are for the same movie (Zero Dark Thirty), and 22 ads, which are very loud, presumably to enable a rush of relief when the movie proves to be slightly softer.
Driving back from the multiplex, I drop in on my local video store and tell the man on the desk: ''I've just been to see The Hobbit …'' He interrupts: ''… And you want to compare it with The Lord of the Rings?'' Yes. ''The extended director's cut?'' I guess so. ''In Blu-ray?'' Yes. ''That's the only way to see it! Have a good time.''
The Fellowship of the Ring box set contains five discs, but to my relief only two of them involve the actual movie, now stretched to four hours. I spent the past week watching it, and also the extended director's cuts of The Two Towers and The Return of the King. Based on 17 hours of research, here are my answers to your questions …
Is 3D better than 2D? Every good story deserves embellishment, Frodo says, and Peter Jackson obviously agrees. But for me, this particular form of 3D diminishes rather than embellishes the story. Some scenes look like episodes of South Park, with flat cardboard figures moving about two metres in front of a flat cardboard landscape. And it's too dark. In 2D the hobbit hole has a warm glow, while in 3D it has a stark sharpness. The extra dimension was essential to Avatar, and helpful in Hugo, but with The Hobbit it's an annoyance.
Is The Hobbit more entertaining than The Fellowship of the Ring? Fellowship had emotional complexity, from the joy of the opening party to the despair of Gandalf's fall into shadow, from the romance of Aragorn and Arwen to the agony of Frodo's stabbing.
The Hobbit has only humour and suspense, plus a brief moment of male bonding. To add emotional depth, Jackson should have seriously wounded a couple of the dwarves. It's absurd that every character goes through battles and avalanches without even a scratch. Perhaps Jackson was seeking to appeal to a younger audience, but he leaves adult viewers unsatisfied. (If you're looking for emotional manipulation, try Les Miserables.)
So, should I just wait for the DVD? No, see The Hobbit in a crowded cinema. It's delightful to hear the buzz as the kids realise Gollum is about to appear, and to join the laughter at actor Martin Freeman's double takes.
What's the pop-culture reference this time? In Fellowship, Gimli shouts ''Nobody tosses a dwarf!'' In Two Towers, Legolas uses his shield as a skateboard. They fit the context, but deliver a bonus chuckle. In The Hobbit, we get the MasterChef trolls, debating whether the flavour of spit-roasted dwarf would be improved with a touch of sage. You don't need to look too closely to identify Matt, George and Gary.
How many times do we hear the line ''I think we're safe now'', only to have something worse happen? I lost count. But it has become Peter Jackson's signature trope, just as George Lucas is identified with ''I've got a bad feeling about this''.
Will The Hobbit be as popular as the original trilogy? As you can see from the list in the box above, the three Rings films are among the 10 biggest moneymakers of all time in Australia (they're also among Australia's 20 top-selling DVDs of all time). Fellowship sold 5 million tickets in 2001, when the average admission price was $9. The Hobbit will need to make $80 million to match it.
First foolish prediction for 2013 That's not going to happen. Not even close.
For more detail on what's worth seeing these holidays, see smh.com.au/opinion/blog/the-tribal-mind.
The best Australian box office
1. Avatar (2010) $115.6 million
2. Titanic (1997) $57.6m
3. The Avengers (2012) $53.3m
4. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011) $52.6m
5. Shrek 2 (2004) $50.4m
6. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) $49.4m
7. Crocodile Dundee (1986) $47.7m
8. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) $47.4m
9. The Dark Knight (2008) $46.1m
10. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) $45.6m