Tag Archives: The Lord Of The Rings

Of Stories and Hope

I’ve never been a huge fan of tragedies. Don’t get me wrong, I love stories like Othello, Whiplash, and Sicario; but those aren’t the ones I count my favorite stories.

I sometimes joke that I tell hopeful stories because if I want stories of injustice and despair, I can just read the news. I skim headlines and it’s not hard to see Othello and Chinatown being reenacted in current events. There is, of course, a greatness to using tragedy to comment on the human condition and all that. But sometimes, you need more. As a kid bullied at school for being different, I would find solace in fantastical worlds where, well, things were different.

Having just narrowly avoided a deadly encounter with a Nazgûl, Frodo sits amongst the ruins of Osgiliath devoid of hope; the Ring he seeks to destroy has been taking its toll; nothing makes sense anymore, let alone his quest. But Sam, his erstwhile gardener turned companion, rallies the hobbit: “It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered” (The Two Towers, 03:21). When things got bleak and everything seemed lost, the heroes pressed on no matter what. These stories were the ones of importance, “Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why” (03:22).

That’s how I opened my rationale (a thesis of sorts wherein I describe the focus of my four years of study at NYU Gallatin). Which, if you read my blog, recounting a scene from The Lord of The Rings in the first paragraph of my thesis really shouldn’t surprise you. I then go on to yammer on for the next several pages about the importance of stories as a means to define identity and convey truths. And something that stories can convey like no other is hope. They’re where we get to watch good triumph over evil and see hope win. It’s the total catharsis that Aristotle talks about in Poetics, or the ultimate boon of John Campbell. It’s that win, that “we did it!”

So why do those moments work? Why is Frodo and Sam preserving – and eventually overcoming Sauron – so powerful?

We know things by their opposite. Joy means nothing if we don’t know despair. In fiction, the bleaker things seem, the greater the catharsis of victory will be. Heck, Sam says it right there in his monologue, “when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.”  The plot of The Lord of The Rings is a literal journey into darkness, with Frodo and Sam trekking into Mordor while Aragorn and the others face off an overwhelming army. Things couldn’t really look bleaker. There’s a reason Luke Skywalker only destroys the Death Star when it’s about to blow up Yavin IV: it’s the bleakest moment. The Return of The Jedi illustrates it even better; Luke’s decision to throw away his lightsaber and turn down the dark side doesn’t come when Palpatine is taunting him, it comes after he attempted to attack the Emperor and went on to give into his anger during his fight against Darth Vader. Luke’s rejection of evil only comes after we’ve seen him travel down that path, making it all the more powerful.

I think that may be one reason why The Empire Strikes Back stands as arguably the best Star Wars film. We end the movie with Han in carbonite, Luke missing a hand, and the revelation that Vader is Luke’s father. But then Luke gets a new hand, a reformed Lando flies off with Chewbacca to find Han, and we see Luke and Leia standing in the medical bay of a Nebulon-B Frigate that’s just one ship in the Rebel fleet. As bleak as an ending is, there’s hope. We know that this isn’t the end for them, we know they’ll keep going because they’re holding on to something.

I love stories. I really do. I love how they make Sam’s beautiful monologue in The Two Towers feel perfectly natural and earned. I love how these other worlds — because every piece of fiction, no matter how realistic, takes place in another world — show us things about our own. I yearn for stories imbued with hope because, against it all, that’s how I want to see the world: one where hope and love will triumph. There is a time and place for tragedy, but there are days when you need to be reminded that there is good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.

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The Honest Truth

A lot of stories aim to be real. Or as real as you can be while being a, y’know, story. The challenge here, of course, is figuring out what real is.

One interpretation of ‘real’ is realistic. No spaceships, because spaceships are far from commercial right now. No superpowers or superheroes, because those aren’t things. And no magic either. Y’know, realism.

So like Lost in Translation. It’s about two people in Japan, and just about there. There’s no monsters in this Japan; Godzilla’s not here to do its thing this time. It’s a story about people, being lost, and being understood. This isn’t communicated through metaphor or by using fanatical elements to play it up. Everything’s communicated through Bob and Charlotte’s interactions, it all feels real. For these two people out of their element, the mutual feeling of outsiderness brings them together. There’s this sensation that, yeah, you could be one of them. But Lost in Translation is still very romantic — and not in the lovey-dovey kind of way, but that of something being idealized. Tokyo itself is almost magical in Lost in Translation.

‘Realism,’ then, tends to be interpreted as gritty. Compare Game of Thrones to The Lord of The Rings. Despite both being very much fantasy, the former is more ‘realistic.’ In Westeros there’s political machinations, religious bickering, prostitution, and gory violence you don’t come back from. It’s realistic fantasy! It makes for a very different tone and world from Rings, but it works for the story the show is telling.

Mr. Robot also aims for realism. Now, one thing the show does really well is do hacking proper. No one hacks the mainframe by reversing the polarity of the hard drive; all the technobabble is real (which is great, let’s have more of that). Now, Mr. Robot also adds other things of ‘reality.’ There’s the grime of New York City, there are events outside of the characters’ control that sends the plots off the rails, there are these bibs and bobs that are all there to make the show seem more real, seem like an honest portrayal of the world.

Not that it does anything. Look, I wasn’t impressed by Mr. Robot, and I know I’m ragging on it; but for all its attempts to construct a very ‘real’ place, the characters and events don’t resonate. It doesn’t matter how real the world is, if we don’t care for the characters, we don’t care for the story. Even if we’re angry at the characters, that’s still feeling something.

There’s nothing inherently added by including the gritty details of life. Fiction, despite being a well-crafted lie, relies on honesty. The reason something like Star Wars resonates so well is because the characters feel true; Luke’s wanting to be more than a farm boy on Tatooine is something all far too recognizable. Both Thrones and Rings have characters with tangible motivations and responses. We understand Tyrion’s hatred of his family and Boromir’s desire to bring honor to Gondor. Beneath the dragons and Elves there’s an actual honest emotional truth. Lost in Translation is built entirely on that emotional honesty; it’s an exercise in empathy. The stories that really work, work so well because they feel true, even they aren’t.

Postscript, because I absolutely have to mention this:

Hardcore realism can have a role in fiction, minutiae can work. It just has to be incredibly well done. Like in Ulysses, by James Joyce, which has all the ins and outs and dirty humanity of a normal day (plus or minus a little bit of oddness here and there). Ulysses works, though, because of the honesty within it. Bloom is still haunted by the death of his infant son and we, as readers, are invited to try and understand what it’s like to go through your day like that. There’s a verisimilitude to it that lends it the honesty that makes it successful.

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Learning From (Others’) Failure

You can learn a lot about storytelling from taking in great stories. Let The Last of Us teach you about immersive storytelling. Don Quixote effortlessly plays with the characters’ relation to the narrative. Learn how to have a bunch of different character arcs in motion from The Avengers.

Bad stories can also teach you a lot, especially bad movies. I’m not talking so-bad-it’s-good stuff like The Room where the movie fails so hard it creates an entirely new form of entertainment; I’m talking about ones that are just plain bad. Watch Twilight to learn how a passive main character makes for a boring book. If you lose sight of your protagonist’s arc you end up with the muddled mess that are the Hobbit movies. The Big Bang Theory shows you how to write punch-down humor at dated stereotypes.

And then there’s the new Fantastic Four.

Which teaches you how not to tell a story.

There’s a lot wrong with the movie. The grievous mishandling of Sue Storm. The oddly conspicuous absence of Ben and Jonny for chunks of the plot. The total lack of agency from everyone up to and including the protagonist. The utter abandonment of what could have been great themes. The fact that we don’t see the titular four in the same shot until over an hour into the movie. The arbitrariness of the supposedly-emotional beats. But it’s all rooted in a fundamental ignorance of storytelling.

Here’s the thing: Story is king. Yes, it’s a frustratingly patriarchal term (“story is everything” doesn’t sound quite as good), but the sentiment is there: story’s the most important thing. There are vital ingredients for story to ‘happen,’ which Fantastic Four just doesn’t have.

The first, is character.

Duh.

For a story to happen, you need people with goals and fears and all that. The Lord of the Rings would hardly have worked if Frodo’s only characterization was that he was a Hobbit. Conversely, The Insider is so tense because of Wigand’s conflict between doing what’s right on a big scale (whistleblowing the tobacco industry) and keeping his family safe. Both of these devote time to building characters, giving us moments that highlight not just what they’re doing, but what they want and why.

Character down, we need conflict. Say John McLane asks Hans Gruber to let the hostages go and Gruber just says “yes.” There’s no story there. The protagonist needs obstacles in their way to keep the audience engaged and asking “how’re they gonna get past this?” These conflicts also allow chances for characters to show who they are (McLane really cares about his wife) and for them to make interesting choices (McLane chooses to soldier on even when the feds won’t help him). These conflicts, that happen because of character, get us as the audience invested and interested in what happens next. When they payoff comes, it’s earned and catharsis happens.

It’s honestly quite surprising how little character there is in Fantastic Four. No one has much of a goal — Johnny and Sue are literally kind of just there — and when we get hints of one they hardly affect, well, anything — Ben would like to be changed back so he works for the military until he decides he’s okay as he is. Reed’s characterization can be summed up as “very intelligent” and presumed antagonist Victor is “very intelligent and maybe a little anarchistic.” Characterization is never allowed out: nearly every conversation is pure exposition. There’s no banter, no subtext, no verbal conflict (Reed and Victor never disagree while working together, Johnny and Ben say maybe four lines directly to each other), it’s nothing but explanations about what’s going on.

That character is done in such broad strokes may be forgivable, were the characters given anything to do. But they aren’t. There’s never any conflict until Victor reappears and decides to be evil in the final thirty-odd minutes. In fact, Reed — the protagonist — only makes three clear decisions. First he decides to use his teleporter/transporter himself. Second, he decides to escape from the government base. Finally, he decides to fight Victor since, well, they’ve all been sucked into the other world and might as well. Only the first one is earned, and that’s only because we’ve spent the first half of the movie watching Reed work on the damn machine. To call Reed and the others boring is a disservice to boring characters: they do nothing, have no opinion on anything, and hardly react to the plot. He’s as bad as Bella Swan, and he’s the best character the movie has to offer.

We crave for stories. We want narrative to happen, characters to be introduced, conflict to break out, and resolution to give us closure. Fantastic Four does none of that.

Nothing happens.

No one changes.

It just is.

And that is terrible. Don’t do that.

Please.

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But What Does It All Mean?

When The Lord of The Rings was first published, there was a lot of talk about its relation to the second World War. It got to the point that in the foreword to a later edition, Tolkien explicitly said that no, it was not in any way an allegory of World War Two. Tolkien wasn’t a huge fan of allegories, to the point where he usually considered them detrimental to the story (and also the biggest flaw of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe). Rather, he liked the idea of ‘applicability’; there is a point to it all, but it’s one for the reader to make up.

The Lord of The Rings does have major themes: the smallest can accomplish the biggest, teamwork over competition, war is bad, good wins; but there is no direct reference which gives it more latitude and reach. By opting for applicability, Tolkien gave Rings the leeway to mean more than he could have hoped; letting the book’s audience decide what they think is the most important part. Stories that dispense with an agenda allow more breadth of interpretations.

Like The Last of Us, an absolutely beautiful game. Is it about fatherhood? And if it is, what is it saying about it? Because the logline of protagonist Joel’s arc is inherently non-judgemental (a broken man who lost his daughter twenty years ago will go to extreme lengths to protect his newfound surrogate), it’s up to the audience to decide whether or not Joel is justified in his actions, let alone right. Is he doing what a father should? Or is he a monster playing at actually being someone decent? I love reading commentary on the game and various people’s takeaways. There’s room for discussion that makes the game so great.

Ulysses is another story like this. There’s not much plot, there’s not much in the way of a clear theme neither. The takeaway I got (and wrote a paper on) was that it is a book that lets you live as someone else for the altogether-too-much-time you’ll spend reading it; though everything external mayn’t be resolved, the book itself has the resolution that comes at the end of a day. But that was my takeaway; a friend of mine found more weight with Leopold Bloom’s interactions with women, another just plain hated the book. This space in interpretation is what lets us spend hours loudly discussing fictional characters’ sex lives over pizza and beer.

But being open to interpretation doesn’t mean ambiguous. Though the justification of Joel’s actions and long-term implications of Leopold Bloom’s day are up in the air, the events are clear. There’s no attempt from Neil Druckmann to obscure what Joel’s motivations are, and even though James Joyce makes Ulysses incredibly dense, it is possible to extract clear story details. Having no meaning is different from having many meanings. A story needs substance for it to have applicability. There are far less people who feel that “I Am The Walrus” describes their life than those that feel that way about “Here Comes The Sun.”

At the end of the day, one thing I love about applicability is its freedom. I don’t think stories should preach at you, they should be designed to entertain and let the reader experience and feel something they wouldn’t ordinarily. Firefly will forever be dear to me because it’s about life on a ship and Iron Man 3, way I see it, is a story about identity. Someone else will like (or hate) them for different reasons, and others will find my interpretations deeply flawed. But that’s the beauty of fiction. The story’s there on the page, on the screen, in the panels, prepared by the writer for you to understand in your own way.

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Background Details

There’s a building I can see outside my window that’s under construction. I’m not sure what it’s going to be or where exactly it is, but it looks to be somewhere in TriBeCa. The basic structure of it is there, there’s a crane going up the side, and it looks like the skeleton of a monolith as there aren’t any external walls up yet. There are tiny lights on each floor that glint in the daylight.

To my sci-fi-addled mind it looks like something you’d see in the background of Destiny, or maybe a new spaceship being built in Star Trek. It looks cool, almost otherworldly.

In other words, it’s something that could help tell a story. Visual storytelling (comics, movies, television, video games; anything that requires you to look at images) depends heavily on details to give life to the scene. Filling the background of the scene with details lends credibility and reality to the world.

This can be done in very subtle ways. In early seasons of How I Met Your Mother there were a pair of swords hanging on the wall of Ted and Marshall’s apartment. They were referenced on occasion, used once, but for the most part were sort of just there. That said, these two friends who met in college having swords on their wall added a sense of history to them, more so, than, say, a wreath would have (needless to say, Chekhov was probably very happy when they finally used them in a duel).

For all its epic-ness and grandeur, The Lord of The Rings films are filled with smaller, tiny details. Carved on helmets are runes which, should you have the bother to translate them from Tolkien’s appendices, say stuff actually relevant to the world. One of the buildings in the background of Minas Tirith is a ratcatcher, for example. Another one of these details is found in the Tower of Cirith Ungol, where Sam rescues Frodo from the orcs. There’s a lamp in the uppermost room which, if you look closely, was made from the helmets of Soldiers of Gondor. It’s a tiny detail, one that most people won’t notice, but it adds to the overall feel of the film. As I’ve said before, it’s these little details make a world seem real.

Which brings me back to Destiny and the spaceship-under-construction building out my window. Much of the game’s storytelling is done through environmental details. You’re not necessarily shown the story or the game’s background lore, but it’s there. When you enter Old Russia’s Cosmodrome you can see ruined buildings all about and, rising over the horizon, a huge spaceship with what look like futuristic space shuttles attached around the side. You’ve heard details about a Golden Age, expansion, and colonyships, but seeing that massive spaceship decaying in the distance adds a reality to it.

For a game so sparse on explicit storytelling, it does wonders with the little things. Item descriptions mention how the Titans raised the Wall or the exploits of some Saint-14. We’re not told more details than that, but, again, it adds to the feeling of depth and bigness of the world. Even things like seeing the crest of the Vanguards on a wall add further reality to it. The world feels like it’s breathing. These details make it seem alive.

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Becoming Legend

On Thursday a new trailer dropped for Bungie’s Destiny. In the vein of trailers for Bungie’s prior games (like Halo 3: ODST’s trailer, which remains one of my favorite pieces of marketing ever), it doesn’t really tell you much about what the game is like. It’s live action, for crying out loud, not a cutscene, or let alone actual gameplay. Which almost begs the question, how does the game even play?

Only, no, the trailer actually does an impressive job of summing up what Destiny’s gonna be. Rather than advertising actual gameplay, something that’s been covered plenty by news sites, the trailer looks at the tone of the game itself, while still teasing gameplay elements. How? Let’s get into it.

Right off the bat, we’re informed that humans haven’t been on the Moon in hundreds of years. That line alone tells us so much about the setting of the game. It’s obviously future science fiction with spaceships and such, so why haven’t humans been on the moon in hundreds of years? There’s a sense of awe and mystery conveyed, further enhanced by the long abandoned lander module and American flag. That we next see an alien base (that the heroes assault) further adds to that feeling of a mysterious future. The game’s action takes place after there’s been a massive shift in the status quo. The trailer doesn’t clearly say what, just that it happened.

This setting is further hinted at when we see them arrive on Venus: gone is the oppressive sulfuric acid atmosphere, instead there are verdant forests, rivers, and the ruins of a long abandoned structure in the distance. It’s mythic in the vein of The Lord of The Rings where the Argonath statues guarding the Anduin harken to an eons old civilization. Destiny plays with the same imagery and atmosphere, only this time in science fiction. Gone is the gritty and angst-ridden tone much modern science fiction takes, instead is an idealistic planetary romance, a direction that far too few storytellers take, in any form of fiction.

But what of the actual players? Here too is where the trailer positively shines. There’s banter between the three players throughout it, but, in keeping with the tone, it’s all very light hearted and full of a sense of romantic adventure. They make quips at each other which, sure, is a little heavy on the cheese, but mirrors the sheer fun of playing Destiny. Gameplay in the beta (released for a few days over the summer) felt a lot like how the players/characters in this treat it: it’s a power fantasy in a way, but more than that it’s an adventure. The social aspect of Destiny is played up here too; as a self-described shared world shooter, teaming up with friends (or strangers) is part and parcel to the game. The trailer plays up that aspect, and rightfully so as it’s one of the things that really sets Destiny apart.

There are a few other hints of gameplay in the trailer; summoning the Sparrow speeder-bikes, each class’s unique abilities, and, of course, shooting aliens. Like the setting and social nature, these are all part of what the game will be.

Destiny comes out on Tuesday. Even before this trailer I was excited, now that I’ve seen this, I can’t wait. Of course, there is that mountain of homework to get through, so we’ll see how things progress.

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Of Dragon Training Sequels

So I finally got around to see How To Train Your Dragon 2 this week. I’d enjoyed the first one well enough, but it didn’t stick out as something with a must see follow up. Figured, eh, it’s just another sequel.

I was wrong.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 is arguably one of the most important modern animated films. It deserves this title for the reasons you’d expect: beautiful animation and technical brilliance along with a great story; but there are aspects that allow it, like Up before it, to really elevate the animated film.

But let’s talk about the animation for a moment. Simply put, the film is freaking gorgeous. Without a doubt, Dreamworks has finally given Pixar a run for their money. Details. Details like wisps of cloud or individual scales on Toothless give the movie a sense of being larger than life and yet still realistic. It’s amazing, and the quality of that alone makes it worth watching.

Fortunately, the animation isn’t everything. Dragon 2, unlike many other sequels — animated or not — has grown up. To an extent, literally: Hiccup and the other characters are five years older. Stoick is showing gray hairs, Hiccup’s taller; time has passed. This time gap is important. It’s easy for something animated to keep its characters the same age (See Ash Ketchum, who’s been 10 since I was barely seven). After all, it gives it a timeless feel. Going back to Pokémon, it means the show could continue for sixteen years with kids who weren’t even born when it came out able to latch on as if it was theirs. This does mean that characters remain stagnant, which is what Dragon didn’t do. Instead, it went the route of The Empire Strikes Back.

Now Empire is one of the greatest sequels, and also probably the best Star Wars movie. It earns it through several ways. For once it, unlike many sequels that have come in its wake, does not repeat the events of the first movie. Instead, it serves as an addition to the saga, a second episode (or fifth). With it, it takes the characters past where they started: Han’s showing signs of warming to the Rebellion, Luke trains to be a Jedi. Dragon also pushes forward in its plotting: there’s a psychotic warlord to deal with and it’s time for them to learn more about dragons. The same things don’t happen again.

For example, Hiccup’s relationship with Astrid. A simple subplot would be to add tension to the relationship established in the first film. Shrek 2 did it to great effect, others less well like the second Pirates of the Caribbean and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the Princess Diaries sequel ditched the original love interest so there could be a new romantic subplot. It adds drama, so, y’know, why not? Instead, Astrid and Hiccup are untouched in Dragon; there’s no backsliding character development. They’re a couple, and it’s not big deal. Stoick calls Astrid his future daughter-in-law, the pair are seen cuddling and the occasional kiss on the cheek is seen as no big deal. It’s sweet, and it’s also refreshing to see a couple that’s simply understood as being a couple.

Refreshing too is the film’s treatment of its female characters. Astrid’s plot doesn’t revolve around Hiccup. Rather she plays Han Solo to Hiccup’s Luke (to continue the Empire comparison), embarking on her own quest in Hiccup’s absence. Ruffnut, meanwhile has several lingering ogling of a male character which, besides showing off Dreamworks’ impressive animation of rippling muscle, provides examples of the ever elusive female gaze. It’s played for laughs, of course, but that fact that it’s even there is worth mentioning. Valka too is a great character — period. She’s someone who’s spent twenty years out of contact with society. Now, it could be easy to make her a one-dimensional half-feral person, but instead the film takes aspects of that an wraps it into a more complete whole. She’s cool and wonderfully layered. Point is, female characters in this movie don’t get sidelined.

But what stood out the most to me was Dragon 2’s sense of scale. It went big, reaching settings and scenarios that were epic of The Lord of the Rings variety. Its sweeping moments give the film a grandeur just about never found in animation. The human drama is never lost within it, though. Whether it’s Hiccup’s bond with Toothless or a certain parental reunion, the movie keeps has emotion to spare. It also helps keep the fantastical and epic elements anchored.

There’s a gorgeous scene early on where Hiccup and Toothless are flying above their clouds as a Jónsi song plays. The animation and scale of it is breathtaking, but it, along with the dialogue and sound, everything mise en scène, all serves to establish first the relationship between rider and dragon, but also where and how they stand now. It’s beautiful, and one that sums up how well rounded the film is.

I know my reaction is late, but I say this wholeheartedly: How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a phenomenal movie, animated or not, and, once again, easily on the most important animated films of recent memory.

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