Fantasy Tropes

You know what would make for a great fantasy campaign? This.


[In this age of job insecurity and unemployment, the punchline feels a bit patronizing to me, but great comedy nonetheless.]


Things That PJ Got Wrong: The Mouth of Sauron

[This is going to be the last “Peter Jackson” post, for now. I was really interested in writing about the Hobbit trilogy as well, but the movies are just too bad: the rant could go on forever and I treasure my few readers. Next, book reviews, GURPS discussion and more errata for Fate of the North Star.]

Sometimes minor facts can be revealing. I really think that Jackson’s LOTR must be viewed in its extended versions to be fully appreciated and, as it happens, criticized. The shorter versions are probably better balanced, surely less time consuming, but they just leave off too much of the story. One minor episode that I really missed from the theatrical release of TROTK was the meeting with the Mouth of Sauron. The extended edition gives you that. The problem is that it also gives you the most crass distortion and, ultimately, trivialization of Tolkien’s text in the whole movie trilogy. Let us see why.

In the book, the Mouth is introduced in a climatic scene, which leads to a cliffhanger. The army led by Aragorn has come to the Gates of Mordor to engage Sauron’s main force, in the hope that this might divert his attention from Frodo and Sam’s covert operation. Once there, they obviously do not meet Sauron in person (see the last post in the series), but his ambassador, who calls himself the Mouth of Sauron. Tolkien makes much of the fact that this figure is a living man, not a wraith or a half-orc or anything. Plotwise, the encounter is crucial because it triggers the above mentioned cliffhanger: the Mouth induces Aragorn (and the readers) to think that the hobbits have been captured and their mission has failed. But the most interesting aspect of the scene is in something else entirely: the scene is instrumental in (a) making a (not entirely trivial) point on the nature of evil and (b) characterizing Aragorn. Let us read an excerpt:

Now halting a few paces before the Captains of the West he looked them up and down and laughed. ‘Is there anyone in this rout with authority to treat with me?’ he asked. ‘Or indeed with wit to understand me? Not thou at least!’ he mocked, turning to Aragorn with scorn. ‘It needs more to make a king than a piece of Elvish glass, or a rabble such as this. Why, any brigand of the hills can show as good a following!’
Aragorn said naught in answer, but he took the other’s eye and held it, and for a moment they strove thus; but soon, though Aragorn did not stir nor move hand to weapon, the other quailed and gave back as if menaced with a blow. ‘I am a herald and ambassador, and may not be assailed!’ he cried.
‘Where such laws hold,’ said Gandalf, ‘it is also the custom for ambassadors to use less insolence. But no one has threatened you. You have naught to fear from us, until your errand is done. But unless your master has come to new wisdom, then with all his servants you will be in great peril.’

The passage is written with great subtlety and, if I may, a nice brand of understated irony. The Mouth is an ambassador and, as such, is by right immune from any harm. But he is in bad faith: he is not interested in a parley, and cannot help insulting his counterpart. At the same time, he fears for his life: why so? Because an evil man cannot conceive of the good faith of other people. The Mouth has no intimate respect for the nature of diplomacy, so he takes for granted that Aragorn has none either. But, crucially, he is wrong: Aragorn (like his mentor, Gandalf) proves his moral fiber as a king exactly by granting the Mouth the immunity he deserves for being an ambassador, albeit an undignified one.

Here is the corresponding scene from the movie:

Do you see the problem? Forget about the plot point, which is there unchanged: the hobbits have been captured etc. Everything else is gone, and replaced by something infinitely more banal and predictable. The Mouth does not look like a man, because you know, he would not have been scary otherwise, am I right? And you know the point about diplomacy, good faith vs bad faith? F*ck that, man. A good longsword strike to the neck, and we are done. So we moved from an ironic and measured picture of the virtues of a good leader, to some macho exhibition of badassery. Call me a killjoy, but this scene alone would have been a deal breaker for me.

Things That PJ Got Wrong: Literal and Figurative

Besides the writing itself, there are a fair number of directorial choices in Jackson’s LOTR trilogy that have always stricken me as disingenuous. Tolkien’s novel has often been presented as a paragon of a very subdued treatment of magic. I would not swear this judgement is in fact deserved. There is, after all, a decent amount of very explicit magic in the books: only, first, there is less than your average D&D player might expect, and second, much of it is embodied in objects rather than manifested in spells.

In the few occasions when magic was present and conspicuous, Jackson obviously goes for the flashiest treatment technically possible: think of many Gandalf moments and, most eminently, his duel with the Balrog. Fair enough. Interestingly, though, he also takes events in the novel that were most likely meant to be interpreted figuratively  and changes them into (a) literal magic and (b) very obvious magic. Apparently, LOTR was not fantasy enough, could you imagine?

So, as discussed in my previous post, when Gandalf and Galadriel seem to tower above poor Frodo, they are literally  warped into giant monsters. Does it add anything to the characters? No, in fact it detracts a lot from their characterization (Galadriel). Could a better result have been achieved by trusting two very capable actors to express a hint of threat in their voice, rather than humiliate them with heavy handed visual effects? You bet.

We all know that Saruman, via his minion Grima, was casting a sinister shadow on Theoden’s mind, and Gandalf (with his magic or more simply with his truthful words) healed him. In the movie, though, Saruman literally possesses Theoden, like a demon, and the scene feels like an outtake from The Exorcist, only less thrilling. Would the scene have benefited from a more figurative reading? I think so.

The most egregious example, though, is Sauron’s eye. I do not mean to object to the implied choice of making Sauron disincarnated, while Tolkien made it clear in his letters that Sauron did have a physical body. That is immaterial (Ha! Good one!). One thing is sure though: Tolkien would not have approved of his image of the Eye of Sauron as a flaming eye staring at people from the top of Barad-dûr to be rendered literally. Yes, it is spectacular, but it also feels goofy, or plainly childish.

Curiously enough, there is at least one example of the opposite nature. Faramir’s sight of Boromir’s body, which was very explicitly meant as a great prodigy, in the movie is merely a waking dream. Why? I have no idea. Perhaps Jackson felt that the notion of Faramir finding his brother in his funeral boat unharmed by one hundred miles of rocky waters would feel cheesy. But hey, the evil lighthouse eye? Classy, man.