EXPERT SERIES: Watching "The Lord of the Rings" - Again - Writersstore.com
Sometimes I like to see a movie twice; once to watch the movie, and once to watch the audience. You can learn a lot from watching the audience, how involved they are, how restless, how they breathe, when they lean over to talk to each other, when they don't understand something.
I saw The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring once early in the movie's run, in a packed house, and concentrated on watching the movie. Watching movies is an uneasy process for me, since I am observing with a lot of agendas most movie-goers don't have. I am watching professionally, both as a writer judging a fellow of the craft and as a worker in the film industry who needs to keep up on trends and be able to debate points with colleagues and bosses. Every movie becomes a tool or a weapon whose success or failure you use to prove your point and defend the movie you want to make. Every movie is evidence. I also watch with the eye of a teacher and lecturer and have to keep track of plot points and running times and earmark potential clips to illustrate ideas I talk about. To top it off, I'm scanning every movie for points of correspondence with my theories about the Hero's Journey and the archetypes that I see pervading everything. I'm especially interested in things that seem to contradict, plot elements or editing choices that defy either my perceived patterns or Hollywood's unwritten but standardized code of story development.
The Fellowship of the Ring is so loaded with Hero's Journey 'evidence' that I don't need to dwell there. Suffice it to say that reading the books as a teenager was one of my first experiences of modern-day myth-making, showing me how a writer could revive the potency of mythic patterns. When I was trying to work out and systematize those patterns for myself in my twenties and thirties, The Lord of the Rings was a major source of orientation, providing vivid examples of the heroic way stations, such as the selection of the hero in the Ordinary World, the Call to Adventure, the fateful meeting with a Mentor, and so on. It's all there, big and obvious, in fact so obvious that it must have been a worry for the filmmakers. Because everyone from George Lucas to He-Man, Master of the Universe to Dungeons and Dragons has been feasting all these years on the archetypal imagery in LOTR, mining its icons of demons and dwarfs and wizards with pointy hats, wouldn't it seem, well, a little old hat?
Looks like it's going to hit $300 million in its first run, so I guess not. Timing is everything, and they may have been lucky to come along at a time when the world imagination is bruised by reality and desperately seems to need the Tiger Balm of myth to ease its pain. I like to think the movie would have worked at any time because there was a commitment, in the books and in the faithful adaptation, to giving depth and dimension to the archetypes that have been turned into clichés by other hands.
What was interesting was how the movie seems to challenge some of the unwritten rules of Hollywood development. These are truisms that everyone quickly learns and, most of the time, they are true and useful, but like any convention they can stultify creativity. There will always be an embattled borderline between common sense and artistic risk-taking.
It's hard to imagine The Fellowship of the Ring surviving a conventional Hollywood development meeting. For one thing, it doesn't have a happy ending' and, in fact, leaves matters unresolved in a way that is quite risky. The filmmakers are gambling that people are willing to wait two years to resolve an overall dramatic question: Will Frodo resist temptation and survive Orc attacks to fulfill his mission? It's more radical than the story links that Lucas plants in the Star Wars movies, like Darth Vader surviving the Death Star battle or Luke Skywalker getting a wink from Princess Leia that lets you know there'll be a sequel. Lucas ends each movie on an upbeat, celebratory note, evoking a sense of community or group spirit. By contrast, at the end of Fellowship, the heroic team is scattered and grieving, the principal hero isolated and uncertain. Not the sort of thing that reassures movie executives. I can hear the dialogue in the story meeting: "The characters keep talking about this place Mordor for 125 pages, and you're telling me we don't even get there until the third movie?!"
Another element that would have provoked vigorous objections in a story meeting is the fact that there are two of everything. What I noticed on the first viewing was how polarized this story is, how shot through with duality, pairing and twinning. It's not only split into the two obvious camps of good and evil, but further polarized into pairs and twins at every level, the ultimate buddy picture. There are two pairs of Hobbit adventurers, two lanky-haired human warrior nobles, two white-bearded wizards, two races of monstrous Orc warriors, two otherworldly women and two elaborate sets depicting shimmering Elvish dreamworlds. Even the taciturn elf Legolas and the sputtering dwarf Gimli make a Mutt and Jeff pairing of opposites.
All this doubling would probably be the first thing the execs would want to change. "Hm. We have two of everything. Why don't we combine the two human warriors into one guy? And just have one girl. And one monster. And one set."
Thankfully the development of The Lord of the Rings went on mostly outside the Hollywood arena, for doubling and twinning have their value. Ask Buñuel, ask Hitchcock. In movies like That Obscure Object of Desire or Strangers on a Train, they used doppelgangers to give resonance and a sense of life's mystery to their works. Polarization and doubling are great engines of conflict, allowing the audience to experience contrasting reactions by different characters to the same situation and tugging on conflicting drives and desires within each person viewing the story.
Hollywood's cookie-cutter narrative conventions don't apply when a film has a broader vision. The fellowship of artists and craftspeople bringing forth this version of The Lord of the Rings are working, like Lucas in the Star Wars movies, on an epic canvas. An epic is a series of adventures linked together by a single great struggle or quest, some unanswered question weaving many threads of narrative into a coherent tapestry that will bear being told over a long period of time. Repetition, doubling, twinning, echoing and mirroring are the instruments of epic, bringing out the music and magic power of names and probing the mysteries of identity. Hollywood thinking may say the doubling is redundant, but an epic marches to a different heartbeat.
The episodes or chapters of an epic like The Lord of the Rings may not require the usual neatly wrapped, but often sterile, resolution of Hollywood conventional thinking. The filmmakers are signaling the audience that it's going to be a long ride with a bigger vision than a single blockbuster Friday night opening.
Wait; doesn't this long-term storytelling fly in the face of the famous short attention span of modern audiences? Don't they want instant gratification? Maybe the impatient choppiness of current entertainment and the breathless pace of technology have generated a desire for something to countervail, something patient and deep, something willing to work in you over a long time, something to link the parts of your life. It will take three Christmas seasons to unfold the full epic of Lord of the Rings and with Star Wars, most of our lifetimes. Audiences, young and old, are saying "That's OK. We like that once in awhile." There's something reassuring about the artist who thinks we're going to live long enough to enjoy all this story in the post 9/11 world.
The repetition, the doubling and the long strands of interconnected narrative all mean something. They say that life is a series of cycles, and that we will likely meet the same kinds of archetypal guardians, opponents and allies at various stages along the way. But the nature of the conflicts changes as you age and grow over the span of an epic. Reading The Lord of the Rings in my 20s, I was inspired by its idealism, but also terrified by its vision of middle life and old age as a patient, plodding struggle against the mundane grinding of evil. Seeing the movie meant something else to me from my current perspective, around the corner of age fifty, reminding me that the raw intensity of youthful dreams still has purity and power. At the same time, I felt the death of comrades in the movie keenly, for comrades have started to fall around me, and I looked to the story for the courage to continue the struggle without them.
Like any good mythic cycle, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings keeps drawing parallels appropriate to every time and place. In creating the story, Tolkien was reacting to the hammer blows of industrial revolution and world war on his beloved English countryside. In the 1950s, the books seemed like a prediction of the uneasy struggles of the Cold War, and in later decades, strangely reflected both the trippy odysseys of many hippies and the harrowing battle experience of grunts in Vietnam. Today, the first installment of the movie version resonates with the titanic, polarizing struggle against terrorism and, like the events of September 11, invites consideration of what's human, heroic and evil in our fellow man. The image of the Twin Towers shadows the movie (and all movies for awhile) like a ghost, forcefully brought to mind by the looming presence of Saruman's dark tower, a true axis of evil. Eerily, Tolkien titled the second book in his trilogy The Two Towers, providing the title for the next movie episode that will come out this December.
My first viewing of The Fellowship of the Ring had another impact on me, quite a physical one. It gave me a complete spinal adjustment; so bone-shakingly righteous was the battle against the monsters in the depths of Moria Mines. I actually felt my vertebrae snapping into alignment, making eight bucks admission seem like a bargain compared to a session with the chiropractor. It was the most physical catharsis I've had in the movies in years.
I depend a lot on bodily reactions to evaluate a movie or a script. My mentor, popularizer of myth Joseph Campbell, used to say the archetypes, symbols and narrative patterns of myth operate on the organs of the body, triggering physiological reactions. When I had to evaluate a great many scripts as part of the studio assembly line, I depended on my body to tell me whether the thing was any good or not. My criterion became "It must stimulate two organs of my body to get a positive recommendation" and when I reported verbally to executives on scripts I'd read, I would describe its physical effect on me--it made my blood run cold, it made my heart pound, I choked up, I laughed out loud, etc.
So, hoping for another spinal crack, I came back a second time later in the run of the movie, but, instead of a lumbar release, I got to see how the movie was playing for young American manhood. This was my viewing to watch the audience.
The theatre was empty but for me and a scattering of young males, who reflected the ethnic diversity of Los Angeles, prime cannon fodder for the war against terrorism. I sensed they were either just out of the military or thinking about signing up; there was a certain professionalism about their running critique of the movie.
Since it was just us guys in the theatre, they felt free to loosen up and react loudly and enthusiastically; in short, they were a good audience. It's as close as I can get in L.A. to the conviviality and involvement of a pre-Giuliani 42nd Street grind house where the audience talked back to Clint Eastwood and Sly Stallone.
With warrior eyes, the eyes of young men who had survived the streets of L.A., my audience rated the weapons and tactics of the little band of brothers on the screen. The Elf Legolas, looking like a slender surfer dude, got top marks for his awesome archery, handling his bow like a machine gun and even flinging an arrow bare-handed in a pinch. A good man to have on your squad. They gave Boromir his props for the way he went down fighting impossible odds, like Roland in the pass of Roncesvalles or the doomed Rangers in Mogadishu.
My fellow movie-goers weren't just hooting and hollering through the battles, however. They were struck to respectful silence by the spell of Elvish magic and the ethereal radiance of the two Elf women, Arwen and Galadriel, portraits of idealized womanhood such as Henry V's knights would paint on the inner surface of their shields. When the gallant Arwen defied the Ringwraiths at the river crossing, the young could-be warriors in the darkened theatre had to furtively dab the corners of their eyes. Tears fell again as Samwise Gamgee grieved over his comrades' capture and death and the utter failure of his mission. The characters of fantasy didn't seem so distant from the lives and emotions of these young men, who might soon be facing opponents no less dangerous than those on the screen.
Clearly, the revival of Tolkien's mythic creation in this time of terrorism was serving the purpose the myths have always served, to present role models and ideals, to give signal lessons in tragedy and triumph, to give orientation and anchorage in the stormy seas of life. It's also a pretty good manual of close combat at the squad level. My audience might have been escaping into a fantasy, but they also were drinking up this stuff with an eye on reality, looking for ways to carry themselves in battle and on the street.
The Lord of the Rings speaks of vast conflict and shattering polarization, but tells us there is power too in unity, and that behind the masks of dualism we are one. People of good will can band together like the heroes of the tale, putting aside differences in common cause, trying to make the world a little better despite immense forces to the contrary. Against darkness and apparent evil, we have the shield of fellowship and the comfort of unity and community.
As the legend says, "One Ring to rule them all and in the darkness bind them." We were certainly bound in the darkness, me and that afternoon's audience for the first chapter of The Lord of the Rings, fellow travelers on a long journey together, seeking meaning for our shadowed world in the mirror of a myth, just as humans have always done.
Christopher Vogler is the author of The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, and as one of Hollywood's top story consultants has worked on many beloved film projects as consultant. As an expert on mythology and Hollywood's narrative patterns, Vogler has consulted on projects for IBM, website and game design companies, Fortune 500 companies and major film and TV studios, and was named Outstanding Screenwriting Teacher by the UCLA Extension Writers Program.
Most recently, he wrote the animated feature Jester Till for Munich Animation Studios and was executive producer of P.S. Your Cat Is Dead, co-written and directed by Steve Guttenberg from the hit Broadway play by James Kirkwood. He is also president of Storytech Consulting Services and can be reached for consultation at firstname.lastname@example.org.