My family loves The Lord of the Rings.
See “Ten Resources for Enjoying Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.” For Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (resource 7), I write,
This is one of the few cases where Jenni and I think that the films are better than the books. We probably just lost all of our literary credibility (not that I had much of it). We find Tolkien’s writing style often tedious.
Paul Munson and Joshua Farris Drake. Art and Music: A Student’s Guide. Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition. Wheaton: Crossway, 2014.
Munson and Drake take a little over four pages to critically analyze the scene from Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring in which Arwen and Frodo flee on horseback to the ford.
Here’s what Munson and Drake think (pp. 77–81):
A FLIGHT FROM MEANING: PETER JACKSON’S FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, “FLIGHT TO THE FORD”
Without a contrasting example from our popular culture, readers may be left to assume that the kind of articulate visual design to be found in the images above is to be found in the same density in popular culture. In order to be fair, we have chosen as our contrasting example a highly regarded scene from Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring. The film is the first of a trilogy that is among the most cherished expressions of art in the lives of many Christians and non-Christians alike. We choose film, not still art, because popular culture does not normally use still images for artistic expression. Our example scene describes the flight of Arwen from the Ring-wraiths, with Frodo in her arms.
The first thing to notice about this scene is the rate at which cameras change. Excepting one eleven-second-long shot at the opening, the longest we are ever given to contemplate anything we see in this scene, before we are given a completely different view, is five seconds. On average, we are given two seconds. No one can get a good look at anything in two seconds. But two seconds is plenty of time to look at something for the sake merely of acknowledging its presence. A quick glimpse in a rearview mirror is all one ever needs. So we flash from one horse’s face to another one’s hooves, then back to Arwen, then to Frodo, then to an overall view, then back to horses’ faces again, literally in the time it takes to read this sentence. Yes, this does announce the plot to us—it is a horse race—but it also forbids us to look at anything beyond the plot, since we are never given more than a few seconds to look.
The next thing to notice is that it wouldn’t matter if we were given more than two seconds, because what little we do see in the scene is not very meaningful. Often it is a blur of tree branches or close-up shots of implausible horses’ heads. Whatever we see clearly is gratuitously exaggerated. The wraiths’ horses foam at the bit and open their mouths as if they planned on eating Arwen. Their bridles are irrational, being neither horse armor nor a simple snaffle bridle, but they make the horses fit expectations of Hollywood bad guys. Burglars are to wear balaclavas and wraiths’ horses are, we suppose, to wear black face masks. They turn their heads from side to side and even back at the riders, as if being pulled up by the reins, though pulling up a horse in such a gallop would cause it to roll. But the reality of a horse chase is not exciting enough. It has to be enhanced.
A close-up of a wraith’s hand opens above Frodo’s head with all the menacing gesture of a children’s pantomime. The frightening aspect of the wraiths has been conformed to the look of 1980s horror films. Tolkien himself describes wraiths as invisible and most fearful when unrobed. [Note 1: J. R. R. Tolkien, Unfinished Tales (New York: Ballantine, 1988), 358.] Their black robes are necessary only to allow them to be seen by others. But postmoderns are not menaced by invisibility; they are comforted by it. The formlessness and void doesn’t frighten them, but only trick-or-treat specters dressed in black, flapping rags, wearing reptilian armor. But none of this matters much because we are never invited to look at these wraiths or their horses.
As Arwen and the wraiths exit the forest and enter the clearing, we flash up to an aerial view to see that the wraiths have formed an inverted V around Arwen. This is to heighten the sense that she will soon be surrounded by her pursuers, though it is not clear why the rider in the rear cannot catch up to his colleagues and, therefore, to their prey. The imminence of doom must never wane. Any slack in the action may wake the viewers, like stopping in traffic may wake the baby in the car seat.
After this the course of the horse race is a little muddled due to faster flipping between cameras. We don’t know how we have found ourselves suddenly back into woods, but we have. And this involves jumping over obstacles and some dressage. Wraiths appear first on this side and then the next, like bogies in a haunted house. Finally Arwen enters a wide, shallow stream, which the wraiths are unwilling to cross. This gives opportunity for Arwen to stop and challenge the wraiths to come into the stream. The camera surges forward when she says, in the intonation of melodrama, “If you want him, come and claim him.” (“Claim,” because it creates slant alliteration and therefore seems fancy, not because it makes sense.) She is neither sweating nor panting. Thanks to this close-up, we have another two whole seconds to look at the actress’s beautiful face—made all the more attractive, according to popular fancy, by the mild cut on her right cheek.
Then, in a synchronized gesture, the wraiths draw their swords and wave them in the air. This is supposed to be frightening. But had the trance-inducing soundtrack not suspended the audience’s natural affections, the gesture would seem preposterous because it is as choreographed as synchronized swimming. It mimics Hollywood battle scenes, not the manifest reality of battle—elven or human. Throughout, poor Frodo has been hanging his head and goggling as convincingly as a little boy who is trying to feign sick in order to skip school. In Tolkien’s version, it is Frodo himself who is the rider. It is he who commands the wraiths to turn back, with an evocation of Elbereth and Lúthien the Fair. [Note 2: J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (London: HarperCollins, 1997), 209.] Jackson has placed Arwen as the rider, we must assume, because the idea of a pretty heroine standing off against a pack of Ring-wraiths plays to the popular interest in women wielding swords.
Arwen’s hair is now blown by a gentle, unbroken wind. This, along with the gentle panting that has suddenly come upon her, is meant, one supposes, to make her especially attractive. She then begins speaking Elvish, which takes on a strange digital echo so that we know that she is casting a charm. With lowered face, she looks penetratingly into the camera, but we don’t know why. Does the charm have something to do with me? If it weren’t for the incongruity of the moment, we would call it an alluring look. [Note 3: It seems remarkably similar to the look the actress presents in the release poster of her first big hit, Stealing Beauty, though there, she wears it and little else, leaving no doubt as to its meaning.] Thanks to another two-second screen shot, we are alerted to the fact that the stream is swelling. Then, another glimpse tells us that a torrent is coming downstream. The wraiths are then washed up, and Arwen and Frodo are saved.
Whatever one can say about such a scene, one must say that it is calculated. The multiplicity of cameras, the elaborate system of special effects, and all the long hours of editing prove that the final shot is exactly what Jackson wanted from the scene. But what is it that he wanted? We learn almost nothing of horses, of the characters, or of even fear itself. We learn nothing about the landscape and little of the nature of the Ring-wraiths (who speak intelligibly at the ford in Tolkien’s novel). We learn nothing except to be excited because a chase is going on. Much of the scene can be justified only because, by constant motion, it forces the viewer never to stop watching, just like flashing road signs attract attention. It causes us to forget that we are in a movie theater, that we have other things we could be doing with our two hours, that we have a last name.
Key to the success of ugly leisure is that it keeps those who participate in it in the dark about how little it is they get for their time invested. But we could read the corresponding passage in the book three times over in the time that it takes Jackson to convey his horse race and have a great deal more for our time. Consider one paragraph from Tolkien’s original by comparison:
Fear now filled all Frodo’s mind. He thought no longer of his sword. No cry came from him. He shut his eyes and clung to the horse’s mane. The wind whistled in his ears, and the bells upon the harness rang wild and shrill. A breath of deadly cold pierced him like a spear, as with a last spurt, like a flash of white fire, the elf-horse speeding as if on wings, passed right before the face of the foremost Rider. [Note 4: Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring, 208.]
Notice how many of the senses are touched. We feel the horse hair (and do so with our own intellects, rather than having them commandeered from without). We hear the wind, here described to be as musical as a whistle. That combines with the sound of the bells in the horse’s harness. We have the touch of deadly cold and then the heat of white fire. We see and feel more in this one paragraph than in the whole scene from the film, and yet it is film that is the visual medium. This is not to say that there might not be something worthwhile in the film, but that we spend badly our hours of leisure on such a thing when we could be enjoying innumerable better things, three of which have been described above.
Related: Popular and High Culture