In our latest Library feature, Robert Repici writes about the narrative and thematic force in Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring.
“One Does Not Simply Walk Into Mordor”
Narrative and Thematic Force in Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring
There’s no question that Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is an immensely significant film, from both a cinematic and a cultural standpoint.
It revitalized the fantasy film genre, broke new ground in the production arena, and, in some ways, even paved the way for what might be termed “Millennial Hollywood,” just as Jaws (Spielberg, 1975) and Star Wars (Lucas, 1977) ushered in the age of the so-called “New Hollywood.”
It’s now been more than ten years since the film’s theatrical release in December of 2001. I was a mere freshman in high school at the time, and I vividly recall seeing Fellowship three times at my local movie theater, including on its premiere day. Everyone has that one film that has made a deeply profound impact on their life; this is mine, and it’s a major reason why I teach and study film today.
Indeed, though I must admit that I’ve been a big fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic since the days of my youth (thanks in large part to the old Rankin/Bass cartoon adaptations), Jackson’s Fellowship completely transformed my appreciation for cinematic storytelling, opening my eyes to the wonders and inherent power of the mythic film narrative and, by way of the work of Joseph Campbell, what I later learned to be “The Hero’s Journey.”
On the other end of the spectrum, however, there are those who have critically and methodically challenged the film’s narrative in the many years since its big-screen premiere. A rather perceptive and thought-provoking analysis of Fellowship’s screenplay put forth by Paul Joseph Gulino, for example, functions primarily to contest the film’s storytelling, concluding time and again that the film misses the mark when it comes to creating audience anticipation and cultivating an active viewer experience.
Another contention Gulino continually puts forward is that the film is virtually ensconced in what might be called the realm of convenience and plot predictability, where story events occur simply because the story requires them to. To enhance his argument, Gulino occasionally refers back to the source material and also draws comparisons to David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), emphasizing that both are far more effective in setting/conveying narrative stakes and generating authentic emotional responses from the audience, particularly through the creation of suspense.
On several levels, Gulino’s analysis is both apt and sound, as the narrative of Fellowship does indeed suffer from a sense of simplification and, at times, plot predictability. As Gulino touches upon, such dramatic problems arise right off the bat in the film, thanks to the opening voiceover narration that, in effect, just stacks on exposition.
In my many, many repeat viewings of the film over the years, this is a criticism I’ve grown increasingly cognizant of; not only does the voiceover prologue give us a rather unrestricted range of story knowledge (making us a kind of quasi-omniscient power when weighed against the film’s cast of characters), but, as Gulino points out, it also comes at the expense of surprise and suspense, potent storytelling forces that inherently fortify and intensify the total package of any given drama.
To be fair, though, given the sheer immensity of all the story information presented in the prologue, it proves difficult to champion a better, alternative storytelling route the film could have taken instead. A flashback could be implemented later in the film, of course, but, like opening voiceover narration, it’s a storytelling device typically regarded as undesirable in this day and age.
I also agree with Gulino’s point that the character of Frodo is constructed as a rather weak, arguably even passive protagonist for the bulk of this first film. While one can argue the characterization remains faithful to Tolkien, it doesn’t work particularly well on the screen, something hardly surprising given our deep-seated attachment to (and affection for) the traditional, proactive (Super-)Hero archetype. As such, we may very well find ourselves more drawn to the characters of Gandalf and Aragorn here, characters who fulfill the laudable leadership role.
Despite what might be dubbed weaknesses with the storytelling, however, I think Gulino sells Fellowship’s narrative short in a couple of key areas. For one, when considering the ramifications brought on by the slew of narrative reversals that occur over the course of the film, it cannot be overlooked that several story events function not only to encumber the overarching (hero’s) journey as a way to build and deepen the driving conflict, but also work to intensify the viewing experience and heighten the overall stakes through emotional involvement and investment.
More or less formed on a whim, the objective of the Fellowship is simple: to venture into the dark land of Mordor and destroy the so-called “One Ring” to rid Middle-earth of the evil Lord Sauron for good. The road proves perilous practically right from the get-go, with the Fellowship forced to (literally) change course upon meeting certain obstacles and obstructions. By design, such twists and turns work to dramatically alter the journey while simultaneously taking the narrative down gloomier, exceedingly more harrowing paths, making things much harder for our band of heroes in the process.
Their chosen road, for instance, is blocked by the Saruman character on two separate occasions, the second of which forces the Fellowship into the Mines of Moria, the last route Gandalf wants to take due to a kind of unfathomable danger lurking in the darkness of the deep. Each time events force the Fellowship to make a change in their course, put simply, things become far more perilous, which, in turn, heightens the drama; the scenic route south is supplanted by a risky trek up Caradhras, an Everest-like mountain, and that road is supplanted by the underground darkness of Moria.
The most momentous change the Fellowship endures in the film, however, comes with the ostensible death of Gandalf in the Mines of Moria, a story event that, in both essence and effect, functions as a tremendously powerful and poignant narrative reversal. In what may very well be the most dramatic sequence of the entire film, the game-changing moment unfolds at the proverbial second-act break, when Gandalf, in a desperate attempt to protect the other members of the Fellowship, confronts and subsequently battles the demonic Balrog creature on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, the only eastward exit from the wretched mines.
Wielding the might of sword and staff, Gandalf proves able to propel the dark beast into a seemingly bottomless chasm beneath the bridge, but, just when victory seems to have been achieved, the monster takes advantage of its lengthy fire whip to take the wizard down with him, down into the void.
While Gulino writes that this story event “does not change the nature of the journey in the way the end of a second act typically does” (200), it proves imperative to note that this is indeed a major turning point in the film; after all, up until this point in the quest, Gandalf has essentially served as the tried-and-true leader of the Fellowship, mapping out their road to Mordor, guiding the overall journey, and maneuvering them through or around the many obstacles in their path.
As such, the narrative reversal here functions in large part to compel us, as viewers, to contemplate what the Fellowship will do without the wizard, whether or not they still have any chance of making it to Mordor, let alone achieving their ultimate goal of destroying the One Ring. How will they cope and survive? Where will they go from here? Heck, can the Fellowship even remain intact without Gandalf? These are questions that, in many ways, drive the rest of the narrative, and they certainly work to elicit an emotional response out of the audience, just as Gandalf’s “death” itself has.
On the whole, the fall of Gandalf is a vastly heartrending story event, one with major narrative repercussions and one that profoundly connects us to the other characters via emotional attachment. Yet, interestingly enough, this reversal doesn’t immediately send the protagonists off in a new direction, at least not in the physical sense; Aragorn takes over as de facto leader of the group and leads them to the woods of Lothlorien.
In due course, however, we see the immense ramifications of Gandalf’s “death,” foreshadowed when the Galadriel character comments that the Fellowship is slowly, yet steadily breaking. By the end of the film, this is precisely what occurs (thanks primarily to a horde of new attackers), resulting in further tragedy and uncertainty. Boromir is felled in battle; Merry and Pippin are captured by the enemy; Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli band together in an attempt to save them; and Frodo and Sam continue the main journey to destroy the One Ring. Thus, the nature of the quest dramatically changes once more, with the overarching narrative then splintering into multiple storylines for the two sequel installments, a fragmentation that, all things considered, can be traced back to Gandalf’s “death” in Moria.
Finally, it cannot be emphasized enough that the breaking of the Fellowship itself is one of the most emotionally resonant moments in the film, a resonance brought to a crescendo when Frodo remembers Gandalf’s words of wisdom from earlier in the film: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” Not only does this reminiscence bring about a sense of hope at the end of an otherwise bleak climax, but it also paves the way for a rather satisfying ending to the film in general. It’s not a resolution in the classic sense, but it does provide a seminal sense of resolve.
Paul Joseph Gulino, “The Fellowship of the Ring: The Shotgun Approach,” in Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach (New York: Continuum, 2004), 199-224.
Robert Repici is a writer, educator, and film aficionado hailing from Philadelphia suburbia. An alumnus of Rutgers University (B.A.) and Arizona State University (M.A.S.), his research and writings delve primarily into the realms of narrative theory, film authorship, genre evolution, and pop-cultural superhero stories.