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Everything We Know About Storytelling We Learned from The Lord of the Rings: Part III

The Return of EWKASWLFLOTR: Three for the Elves, and One Rule To Rule Them All
writtern by Ian McHugh, on behald of the CSFG Hivemind

The final chapter of the epic crap-talking journey that began with The Fellowship of EWKASWLFLOTR and continued with The EWKASWLFLOTR Towers! 

XV: The Unfeasibly Large Everything Rule

This is one for the movies. The Fellowship of the Ring was a fantastic movie. It cherrypicked the best parts of the first (and second) book (ie, the bits that weren’t Tom Fucking Bombadil) and put them on screen in a way that delivered solid character development, escalating tension, threat and stakes and some holyshitwow visual spectacle. The escape from Moria was dizzyingly, ridiculously, hyperbolically epic. It worked because it was fresh and because the movie built up to that spectacular sequence. Jackson took time to earn it. And there was enough separation between that and the other impossibly over-the-top moment where the Fellowship pass the Argonath, the gigantic statues that mark the ancient boundary of Gondor. There’s a pause to savour the epic wowness of the Argonath, and then the movie reverts to human scale again for the climax.

Those moments work in FOTR because they’re allowed to be special. As with the discussion of ceaseless action in Rule XIII, that discipline goes right out the window in the sequels. Those movies, most especially ROTK, are so chock full of unfeasibly large elephants and unfeasibly steep slopes and stairs and unfeasibly tall castles and unfeasibly phallic towers and unfeasibly large rocks being flung from catapults and unfeasibly big EVERYTHING that it just becomes white noise. None of it is special because it’s all so overwhelming.

It’s possible to have too much awesome. Less is more.

XVI: The Ride of the Rohirrim Rule

Well okay, it’s not entirely true that none of the awesome in the ROTK movie was special. The ride of the Rohirrim was one of the most cathartic booyah moments in moviedom – up there with the last Mohican taking apart Magua with his badass iron club-sword thing to the tune of an Irish jig. But then… Sigh. Then they go and charge the unfeasibly large elephants from the front.

Frankly, that’s as exasperatingly dumb as the giant smurfs in Avatar frontal-charging the machine guns after banging on about how they have the advantage of the terrain, or the entire fucking Gotham City police force galloping down into the sewers to hunt for Bane instead of oh let’s think bunging up all the exits and sending in Seal Team Six. Fair enough, the horses of Rohan have minds like sacks of rabbits, but their riders?

And what happens when something amazing is followed by something egregiously stupid?  Pop! There goes the bubble of awesome.

Stupid kills the awesome.

XVII: The “The Eagles Are Coming” Rule

When the eagles intervene in the Battle of the Five Armies in The Hobbit, it’s more of a Chekhov’s Gun than a Deus Ex Machina. It’s been set up earlier in the story with the eagles’ rescue of Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves from the goblins and wolves. Plus, giant eagles saving the day when the evil hordes are about to overwhelm the hopelessly outnumbered forces of good? Why, that’s almost as metal as a wizard stabbing a giant flaming demon to death with a magic sword while falling through the heart of a mountain. And knocking Bilbo out after he utters the immortal line makes it even better, because then you’re free to imagine the eagle attack for yourself (no doubt to a soundtrack of Dio’s “Holy Diver”. Or, if you’re really hardcore, Christopher Lee’s Heavy Metal Christmas).

When it happens again at the end of LOTR, it’s a cute bit of fan service, but it hasn’t been properly set up within that story, so it no longer works as a Chekhov’s Gun. Too, the second time around, as with Jackson’s bullshit death of Aragorn, it feels like a cheat, like Tolkien just couldn’t be arsed writing the whole battle. And what’s more, when the eagles pop over and fetch Frodo and Sam from Mount Doom, it creates a massive plot hole: if the eagles are willing to intervene in the battle against Sauron and retrieve Frodo and Sam and can also demonstrably whup the arses of the Nazgul on their flying thingies, why didn’t Gandalf just ask them to fly Frodo into Mordor and drop the One Ring into the volcanic caldera of Mount Doom? Because he was too stoned on the halflings’ weed?

If you really want to have a Deus Ex Machina at the end of your story, first, it has to be awesome. Awesomeness covers a multitude of sins, but not all (Exhibit A: giant eagles saving the day when the evil hordes etcetera etcetera). Second, you’re better off putting the gun properly on the wall above the mantelpiece earlier on, so the reader doesn’t feel like you were just too damn lazy to write your heroes out of the situation you put them in.

Third, you mustn’t make nonsense of your own story.

– – –

XVIII: The One Rule to Rule Them All

Start telling your story no earlier the start of the story and end when it ends. True, Tolkien was writing in a different era with different conventions, but that’s no reason to let your hero mooch about aimlessly and respectably for twenty years – let alone writing interminably about those years – after his mad uncle leaves him the McGuffin that will save or destroy the world, no matter what kind of an incorrigible pothead the neighbourhood wizard is. And, Rule III notwithstanding, there really is no excuse for Tom Fucking Bombadil.

At the other end of the story, we just don’t do those lengthy epilogues anymore, of going back home after the adventure and fixing all the petty problems there, that amount to a whole nother act of the story – not even, evidently, when it would mean wheeling out Christopher Lee again for a last hurrah. And given that the alternatives for the movie of ROTK were wheeling out Christopher Lee or just ending the goddamn thing already, there is no excuse at all for thirty-five minutes of hobbit-on-hobbit hugging (forty-five in the Extended Edition).

Get in late, and get out early.

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