Monday, May 9, 2011

Flashback: The Lord of the Rings

It's time for another entry in my flashback series. Following in the footsteps of Jurassic Park, here is my other favorite book/movie: The Lord of the Rings. Though this series was not my first introduction to fantasy, it certainly cemented it as a part of my life. I believe my parents first read the books aloud to me when I was about ten, and I'd reread them myself by the time Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring landed in theaters. And even as much as I'd loved those books, seeing the films was absolutely epic. However, as much as I'd like to launch into a diatribe about why The Lord of the Rings should be counted among the greatest books and films of all time, that's not the purpose of this post.

Showing and telling

I am very supportive of book-to-movie adaptations, and generally don't favor one over the other. The key for me is to see the books and movies as completely separate works. It generally frustrates me to hear people complain about things that were changed simply because they were changed. I understand the frustration of seeing one of your favorite scenes cut or a favorite character changed, but often I find that the filmmakers changes do make logical sense. One thing that I find unique about The Lord of the Rings, is that the best moments in the movies are not in the books, while the best moments from the books don't work well, or are not in the movies. The books provide poetic language, songs, and moments like the scouring of the Shire and meeting with Tom Bombadil. The films give Merry and Pippin a firework, let us see Boromir defending the hobbits, and introduce a battle with Warg riders.

A major change from book to film comes in The Two Towers, when the elves arrive to defend Helm's Deep. It's not in the books at all, but including it in the film manages to include a topic that Tolkien covered in the appendices, which is the fact that all of Middle Earth is fighting against Sauron's forces and the stakes are high enough for immortal elves to die to fight him. In a way, this scene in the film becomes the epitome of the writer's mantra, "Show, don't tell." Nothing capture's the elves' sacrifice like the moment when Aragorn sees Haldir die. It's one thing to tell a reader something's happening, but it's far more powerful if you can show it in single moment.

Team story

I mentioned how much I like an ensemble of characters when I talked about Jurassic Park, and to me, The Lord of the Rings is the classic team story. It's even the title of the first book: Fellowship of the Ring. So take that, A-Team, Tolkien beat you to the punch. It's a team that has something for everyone. The wise wizard, brave warriors,
the deadly archer, the stalwart dwarf, loyal friend, reluctant hero, and comic relief. If you can't relate to anyone in Fellowship, then there's Arwen and Eowyn, Theoden and Faramir and a host of other characters. Aragorn was my personal favorite, my brother liked Faramir, I have a friend who swears by Gimli, several others who love Sam, I've met many Legolas fans. The point is, there's a character that will appeal to everyone. Too many stories don't have that. It's a common flaw in the superhero genre: if you don't like Bruce Banner then you won't like The Incredible Hulk. For me, this is important to remember as a writer. I may love my main character and think he or she's totally relatable, but if I think I want to write the next Lord of the Rings, then I probably shouldn't expect readers to grab hold of the same things I do, since a book or movie can't provide the customizable hero of a video game, obviously that doesn't mean imitating the Fellowship, but a group of characters with distinct skills and their own was to shine has yet to hurt a story that I've seen. I find it lacking in Eragon and the biggest strength of The Wheel of Time.

The little heroes

The Lord of the Rings is all about the little hero standing up to the big bad guy. It's a common metaphor that Tolkien made literal with the three-foot-tall hobbit Frodo challenging the tremendous might of the Dark Lord Sauron. It's a story that affirms that no matter how great the obstacle appears, it can be overcome. The image is repeated in each of the books, with Gandalf facing the Balrog, Sam fighting Shelob, and Eowyn challenging the Witch-king. Heroes challenge deadly foes that they themselves don't believe they can defeat, and yet through luck or willpower, they manage to succeed. More than any other story I can think of, Lord of the Rings provides that moment when you--or I at least--want to stand and applaud those unlikely heroes who stand in the face of defeat and say, "You shall not pass," "Let him you filth," "I will kill you if you touch him." They're saying, it doesn't matter how big the foe, they're taking a stand here. So Lord of the Rings is a story that gives us something to believe in. As Aragorn says in the films, "There is always hope."

Epic sequences

The true epic sequences truly belong more the films. Mainly because it's impossible for a book to quite convey the awe of ten thousand Uruk-hai, the sound of hundreds of elven arrows, or the charge of thousands of horses against a dozen oliphants. The books manage it in there own way, though like all books, they do it more by showing character's internal reactions to events, rather than portraying the sweeping scope of the events themselves. Thus, the destruction of Isengard in the books is recounted after the fact by Merry and Pippin, while the film shows the ents ripping down walls and unleashing the flood. Regardless of how it's done, these epic, take-your-breath away moments are to me what fantasy is all about. It's the thing felt I missed in The Game of Thrones series. Fantasy is that larger-than-life world with powerful allies and terrifying foes, and nothing conveys that better than seeing them in action.

Languages and swords

Perhaps the most amazing thing about The Lord of the Rings is the tremendous amount of world-building. In the books, this is exemplified by the many languages Tolkien created and the vast amount of material contained in the appendices. As a kid, I spent hours flipping through those final pages of Return of the King, reading about Aragorn and Arwen, tracing the family trees of various characters, and looking at the chronology of events that told me what happened with every character after the story ended.

The films take a different approach to world building, one that of necessity is visual rather than print-based. Since there's a decent change the average moviegoer wouldn't hear the difference between ten different languages, instead Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop focus on providing each culture with a unique look, from swords and armor to clothing and architecture. It becomes easy to see the difference between the armor of Rohan and Gondor, and easy to identify the elvish buildings of Lothlorian and Rivendell from the dwarvish city of Moria. What been done in both places is the amount of work necessary to make the world of Middle Earth a believable place. Several years ago, I started work on a fantasy story, and had to stop when I realized I hadn't done nearly the world building necessary to tell my story. I didn't know what the cities history was, or what difference there was in the different armies. I'm going to get back to that story soon, and I hope to take a page from Lord of the Rings and create a world that feels complete.

Good vs. Evil

The final thing I love about Lord of the Rings is that establishes a line between good and evil. Although I recently praised Thor for its portrayal of a complex and sympathetic villain, I think the idea that there's no real right and wrong and it all depends on your point of view can be carried to far. The truth is, we still live in a world where there are oppressive dictators and people do bad things without reason. It's not fun to acknowledge that somethings might just be evil, but sometimes maybe sides do need be taken. Lord of the Rings provides these images of evil with the Balrog, Sauron, the Witch-king and Nazgul. It recognizes that these may be fallen heroes, but they have fallen and they have become true villains. Likewise, it shows characters who truly are good, it doesn't suggest that are infallible, but characters like Gandalf, Galadriel, Aragorn and Sam are shown as the best types of heroes who know their own weaknesses and yet are ready to stand against evil however they can.

Of course, the true strength of Lord of the Rings is the fact that it shows the middle ground. Characters like Boromir, Frodo, and most especially Gollum show how fine the line between good and evil, selfishness and selflessness can be. Seeing the ring take hold of a hero like Boromir shows how the possibility of corruption exists for every character. Nevertheless, the only way that works is if the idea of actual good and evil exists. It's possible that that's a philosophical debate for the real world, but once again, I think one of the attractions of epic fantasy is its ability to set up an enemy worth fighting against, and a cause worth dying for.

So there it is, one of my biggest influences and the reason I hesitate to write epic fantasy for fear of being too derivative. But I'm getting past that, and in the mean time, I'm just waiting for The Hobbit

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