Dir. Peter Jackson. Starring Viggo Mortensen, Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen.
The Fellowship of the Ring – Plot
As long as narrative fiction remains, there will always be a need for strong plots. John Gardner has been paraphrased as saying that there are only two plots in literature: “someone goes on a journey” or “a stranger comes to town.” These are obverse and reverse of the same coin, and how crazy one wants to get with coinage is up to the minter. But it’s worth noting that literature loves these types, especially in longer works. In Ulysses, Villette, and The Divine Comedy, people go on journeys. Les Miserables, Absalom, Absalom!, and The Luminaries all feature strangers coming to town. The journey could be essentially local (Dublin) or lengthy and fantastic (Dante). The stranger could be the protagonist (Jean Valjean) or the first domino (Thomas Sutpen). In literature, these plots are often as not obscured by the very prose that moves them; in film, the medium is (cringe) the message.
For movies, it seems especially important to have plots that work, because those that don’t are instantly assailable. It’s hard to think of a recent superhero sequel that, despite good reviews, doesn’t fail utterly at this. Spider-Man 3 is typically given as the perigee of this particular pitfall, in which too many villains do too many things and too many webs are created. Even The Avengers, which everyone loves, has issues on this front; there is never a point – no, not even the 360-degree shot in which all of the superheroes appear together to face the potential conquest of New York, and not even that hyped-up shawarma shindig – when all of the plots in that story become one. The plot in that story begins in pieces and it ends that way as well. Tony Stark’s copyrighted arrogance/brilliance is its own plot, as is Captain America’s duty obsession (because who calls him “Steve,” anyway?), as is Bruce Banner’s drive to control the Hulk. Add in Loki and more Avengers, and there are maybe half a dozen different plots in the film which only pretend to align when someone yells “Interdimensional food fight!” in Midtown.
There are other movies that make similar mistakes which have nothing to do with superheroes, of course. Movies (and television shows) with big-name ensemble casts tend to have this issue. The Big Chill doesn’t need much of a plot, mercifully, because it doesn’t really have one. The death of Kevin Costner is the way to bring everyone together, and there is this awkward pattern of referring back to his suicide as if it has any bearing on what JoBeth Williams and Jeff Goldblum and William Hurt are doing at Kevin Kline’s house anyway. Game of Thrones, novels and television program alike, is so besotted with different plots spinning around that the whole thing barely makes sense. When Ned Stark was executed, all hell broke less in Westeros, and all hell broke loose with the plot as well as it splintered into its contingent parts. There’s nothing wrong with a book which is about everything, but there’s a limit to how well it can be done, I think, even for someone who is as obviously creatively organized as George R.R. Martin. I like polyphony as well as the next guy, but at some point the story is so vast that it stops meaning anything. Martin and the showrunners from Game of Thrones are, in an amusing way, doing Derrida’s work for him. I don’t think that anyone would call A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons Martin’s best work, but at least he recognized that there were too many voices in the chorus for them to all speak in one book; it’s symptomatic of his own inability to control a universe which I’m not sure anyone could unify in terms of plot.
(This doesn’t mean, of course, that a movie with a million characters can’t work. The interweaving of Nashville‘s dozen disparate plots via Barbara Harris’ impromptu solo let you know that the movie has seams somewhere – in all honesty, there’s a cliff between the first tier of the Reeses, Barbara Jean, Haven Hamilton, and everyone else. What makes Nashville impressive is the sense of build-up, that all of these people are not merely meandering around central Tennessee but that something will come of it. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World might focus on more people more seriously than Nashville, but it is an even more brilliantly unified plot: everyone is after the money, and everyone is going to the same place to get there. Ocean’s 11 is an obvious fit here as well.)
The Fellowship of the Ring is aging better than its peers. In 2003, Return of the King won everything at the Oscars, but I think there was already a clear sense that the last hour was a failure of editing when the previous two and two-thirds movies had masterfully managed to slim down some gigantically endowed tomes. (The Two Towers has always been the middle child of this trilogy in a bunch of ways, which may be why I’m drawn to it.) In 2007, AFI managed to claim Fellowship as an American movie (which is about as American as Lawrence of Arabia, ranked #7 in 2007) and ranked it #50 in their “100 Years…100 Movies” 10th Anniversary list. Neither Towers nor Return ranked on the list. To me, the reason why is fairly clear: the plot is simpler, cleaner.
The plot of Lord of the Rings (and particularly in The Fellowship of the Ring) is eminently simple, despite its canal of jargon, zillions of characters, and famous length.
Man Hobbit goes on a journey fits neatly into one of the Gardner plot-starters with, even by the standards of the genre, total ease. The starting location and ending location are set from the very beginning, as are the main characters. If we think of Lord of the Rings as one story told across three films, virtually all of the important characters are introduced before the halfway mark, and the vast majority of those are introduced within the first sixth of the story. With a sprawl this immense, it’s hard not to be impressed with the relative celerity and the succinctness of introduction.
With three hours or more of movie to contend with, it is important that the movie remains taut, especially in the final third. It is deeply impressive that Fellowship of the Ring, which is the shortest of the three movies, manages to compress a few intense sequences into the film almost evenly. When I was first writing this, I was going to say “battle scenes,” but that doesn’t really do it justice. I hold my breath more watching Frodo jump onto the raft and away from the Nazgul than I do when Aragorn is fighting at Weathertop; Frodo’s vision via Galadriel of what will happen if he fails is much more impressive than the Watcher in the Water. There’s a recognition on the part of the filmmakers that, even with a straight-arrow plot, viewer investment still requires things which are just personal.
The Two Towers – Character
Fellowship has the introduction, the drama of the Council of Elrond, “You shall not pass!”, and the dramatic death of Boromir. Return provides the largest battle, the ring-into-lava throwing, and, well, the end of the series. Towers, I think, is too often written off as two hours of mostly meaningless plot development building up to the trilogy’s best battle sequence at Helm’s Deep.
Is it because it requires us to latch onto a new cast of characters? I hope not. Theoden, Eowyn, Faramir, and Smeagol are some of the most compelling characters in the trilogy. Part of the joy of those characters is how marvelously straightforward they are in terms of characterization. Just as the plot of Fellowship is simple, so too are the respective character motivations of the new folks above: preserve Rohan, prove self to all men, prove self to father, and break free of addiction to the Ring.
Is it because so much of the film focuses on women? I’m not even sure that “focuses on” is the right phrase here, because Eowyn and Arwen really do exist to clarify a male character, but I’m afraid that this is much closer to the truth, especially when Helm’s Deep has become the biggest reason that casual viewers watch the film. Fantasy, especially fantasy with weapons, has never been terribly good about representing women (see Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty for pacifist fantasy and World of Warcraft for weaponized), and even when there are good representations, they tend to be submerged under things like “plot resolution” and “she wasn’t the main character.” (Hermione really deserves her own book series.) Men, especially the ones wearing fedoras and passing out business cards with Hitchslaps on them, tend not to be really great at the whole “women are people” bit.
Lord of the Rings is almost entirely devoid of any plot-important romantic subplot. You there in the back can stop sniggering about Frodo and Sam, I’ll wait.
In the quest to destroy the Ring, a Fellowship is created which very well could have been called a Brotherhood: each one of the nine is male. The three most important women in these movies are Eowyn, Arwen, and…Shelob? Rosie Cotton? [UPDATE: It’s Galadriel. My mind went blank while I was writing this. Point still stands, though; if the fourth most important man in this story is like, Gandalf, then Shelob/Rosie Cotton obviously doesn’t stand against that.] The Two Towers spends so much time, especially compared to the other two films, building its female characters into interesting people and enriching the entire scope of the trilogy for it.
The action pivots subtly from Frodo to Aragorn in The Two Towers, and it’s so curious how it happens. Aragorn is the archetypal warrior-king who will reclaim his throne, assuming the world is not cast in darkness or anything like that, and it seems like a great battle like Helm’s Deep, say, should be the reason that the films take up his story at the expense of Frodo’s. But it’s not like that at all, because some time before that battle – in fact, even before the fight with the Warg-riders – the story makes a conscious turn to Aragorn and his past. The most luminous and enduring scenes of any of the three movies have to do with Aragorn’s courtship, which is so weird given the arc of the story, and which becomes so essential to his character, which will determine moments great and small throughout the rest of the films.
Eowyn is obviously smitten with Aragorn. We knew already that Aragorn and Arwen were an item, but we didn’t quite know how in love they were. On the road to Helm’s Deep, a beautiful mountain trail which launched ten thousand pilgrimages to New Zealand, we can’t help but laugh a little at Gimli trying and failing to ride a horse, or at how bad Eowyn’s stew is. The laughter fades. Eowyn keeps looking back at Aragorn like she’s in a very different movie. These are marvelously framed shots. Everyone else, a mass of brown-haired people, moves forward, but there’s Miranda Otto and her wind-driven blonde hair with the sun (“sun”) favoring her profile smiling coyly at Aragorn.
It is not long before we see – in the blue night-tones which come from filming in daylight – Aragorn smoking his pipe. He dreams. Or is it a memory? It could very possibly be both, and it’s scored alongside “Evenstar,” the most ethereal of Howard Shore’s tracks. Aragorn and Arwen are in Rivendell in an early evening light, a soft yellow. He is much cleaner now than he was a scene before. “This is a dream,” he says cautiously. “Then it is a good dream,” Arwen replies. A kiss. And in Elvish (there will be some comments about language and distance later, stay tuned), Arwen and Aragorn talk, and we realize when this is happening; it’s right after the Council of Elrond. It is their last afternoon together, maybe their last afternoon together ever. Aragorn, as he walks his horse, appears lost in thought. Eowyn asks where she is, “the woman who gave you that jewel.” Aragorn’s mind flips back again: a fight with Elrond, succumbing to Elrond’s arguments that Arwen belongs in the Undying Lands, the dawn when Aragorn leaves with the Fellowship and he tries to return her pendant. “It was a gift,” Arwen says. “Keep it.”
It’s a sequence that lasts maybe five minutes. It is the most indelible sequence across three movies and ten hours. We know now why Aragorn is the way he is, thoughtful in quiet moments but decisive in action: in quieter times, he is thinking on Arwen, and in battle he has nothing to lose. The man who should be king carries his entire life – everything he wishes for – in a pendant necklace. When it appears that he’s died, the only thing remaining of him is the “jewel” that Arwen made him take.
The Return of the King – Dialogue
Lord of the Rings is the closest thing that millennials will ever get to Shakespeare in their own lifetimes. People who like Shakespeare tend to talk about how they enjoy the high-stakes (if slightly insane, and we’ll get to that) plots; people who really like Shakespeare tend to get gooey over the language. Lord of the Rings is built on plot (see above) and language alike.
For humans, I think language is something which, until we realize we have to work within it, we don’t think on very much. In the words of Harper Lee, “One does not love breathing.” This is why some of the best pieces of literature have a fabulous way of using language in ways different than the reader is previously accustomed to. Sometimes, it’s in the repetition of curious phrases: it’s hard not to find the phrases “like a flower” or “wan smile” a million times in F. Scott Fitzgerald, and it’s hard not to relish one’s preferred iteration of Jesus’ “I tell you the truth.” Sometimes, it’s an entire prose style which is different and marvelous and strange. (Look under “Faulkner, William.” Or “Ondaatje, Michael.”) Sometimes we cheat as we use the pseudo-archaic. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which doesn’t sound like anything else under the sun, is a prime example:
Danforth: Now we shall touch the bottom of this swamp. TO PROCTOR: Your wife, you say, is an honest woman.
Proctor: In her life, sir, she have never lied. There are them that cannot sing, and them that cannot weep – my wife cannot lie. I have paid much to learn it, sir.
Danforth: And when she put this girl out of your house, she put her out for a harlot?
Proctor: Aye, sir.
Danforth: And knew her for a harlot?
Proctor: Aye, sir, she knew her for a harlot.
Danforth: Good then. TO ABIGAIL: And if she tell me, child, it were for harlotry, may God spread His mercy on you!
Cheever: The girl, the Williams girl, Abigail Williams, sir. She sat to dinner in Reverend Parris’s house tonight, and without word nor warnin’ she falls to the floor. Like a struck beast, he says, and screamed a scream that a bull would weep to hear. And he goes to save her, and, stuck two inches in the flesh of her belly, he draw a needle out. And demandin’ of her how she come to be so stabbed, she – TO PROCTOR NOW – testify it were your wife’s familiar spirit pushed it in.
Miller knew how to play with conjugation to achieve a pleasantly antique feeling: “she have never” or “he draw.” And pronouns are practically arbitrary as well; “there are them” is a personal favorite. People don’t talk like that now; thus, it must have been Long Ago that the words were spoken. The language is so well used that it becomes part of the setting. The language is emphatically 1692 instead of 1953, even if the subjects were roughly identical. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t give a little shoutout to David Milch’s Deadwood as well: some of that is just Milch being Milch, but Milch is every bit the scholar Miller was, and some of that dialogue that is a little too spicy for this blog is just as spot-on “archaic.”
Now, Lord of the Rings. From Fellowship:
Boromir: One does not simply walk into Mordor. Its Black Gates are guarded by more than just Orcs. There is evil there that does not sleep. The Great Eye is ever watchful. It is a barren wasteland, riddled with fire, ash and dust. The very air you breathe is a poisonous fume. Not with ten thousand men could you do this. It is folly!
Théoden: Simbelmynë. Ever has it grown on the tombs of my forebears. Now it shall cover the grave of my son. Alas that these evil days should be mine. The young perish, and the old linger. That I should live to see the last days of my house.
Denethor: You think you are wise, Mithrandir, yet for all your subtleties you have not wisdom. Do you think the eyes of the White Tower are blind? I have seen more than you know. With your left hand you would use me as a shield against Mordor and with your right you would seek to supplant me. I know who rides with Théoden of Rohan. Oh, yes. Word has reached my ears of this Aragorn, son of Arathorn, and I tell you now, I will not bow to this Ranger from the North! Last of a ragged house, long bereft of Lordship.
Gandalf the White: Authority is not given to you to deny the return of the King…Steward!
Denethor: The rule of Gondor is mine! And no other’s!
People in the movie theaters in the early 2000s didn’t talk like that, and we still don’t work with that kind of diction or syntax, and I’m not sure anyone alive today can recall language quite like that. Part of what makes this work is the exotic nature of the proper nouns: “Mithrandir,” “Mordor,” “Theoden of Rohan.” But there’s also something to be said about the rich description within even simple dialogue, as Boromir has in his description of Mordor, and the way that metaphor fills the speech of Denethor. Dialogue becomes place as the strangeness of the language expresses itself as a statement about where and when. As supernatural as the events of the movies are, part of the point is that everyone in them is so human, that there is something recognizable within them. This is especially important in Return, because for huge swaths of the movie we have ditched everyone who doesn’t appear mostly human; the dialogue provides a distance between viewer and text which preserves strangeness even when we’re in Minas Tirith, which simply appears medieval and not nearly fantastic enough for Lord of the Rings. Simultaneously – and this is something that happens to modern Shakespearean viewers as well – the audience is distanced further by the language, which distracts us from the lunacy of the plot. No one would watch a Shakespeare play today if they were allowed to key in on the plot, and to some extent that ridiculous grandiosity informs Lord of the Rings too. Language like this provides a buffer and a reason to exist.
Look back at the Boromir quote, and imagine if it was translated into a more vernacular English:
Boromir: It’s difficult to enter Mordor, because the Black Gates are guarded by more than Orcs. That’s an evil place, and the Great Eye sees everything at all times. It is a desert of fire and ash and dust, and the air itself is poisonous. You couldn’t invade it with ten thousand men: it’s ridiculous!
It’s maybe the second or third most quotable line of dialogue in the whole trilogy, and it would have been so easy to mutilate it into something like the mission brief from Mission: Impossible. (“You shall not pass!” and “I may not be able to carry the Ring, Mr. Frodo, but I can carry you!” are the gold and silver medalists in this event, in case you were wondering.) That’s not to say that there aren’t times when the spoken word is a little bit more ordinary, there are phrases that stand out for being memorable. I am often reminded of Smeagol’s lament, “And we forgot the taste of bread” for its simplicity in phrasing, straightforwardness, and subject. And it’s a rending statement, creating as much pity in the audience as any of the other Smeagol-centric moments.
Other movies – even other movie series, for that matter – can boast some level of excellence in plot, character, and language, or even in all three. What sets Lord of the Rings apart is how the three of those bleed into one another and are yet kept separate, like a woven shawl of many colors. There simply aren’t other movies like these three; as a collection, they stand head-and-shoulders above all other fantasy movies before or since in the same way that 2001 is the great science fiction film. Lord of the Rings contains and controls multitudes that its pretenders and competitors and imitators simply cannot replicate.