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I've mentioned occasionally that I'm rereading Lord of the Rings as I can, in waiting rooms or just before going to sleep, etc. I finished The Two Towers last night.

Something I didn't really notice the first time I read it, but has really struck me this time around, is how often Tolkien avoids directly showing anything resembling action. There are plenty of things that would count as "exciting action sequences" in the story -- but almost all of them happen offstage, with the characters in the narration either seeing distant effects and wondering what's going on (Aragorn and the hobbits in the Barrow Downs, seeing the lightning blasts from Gandalf's battle on Weathertop miles away), or they hear about it afterward (Merry and Pippin relating the fall of Isengard to Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas). It happened in The Hobbit, too, upon reflection -- the death of Smaug comes to mind, or Bilbo being unconscious for pretty much the duration of the Battle of Five Armies.

It happens often enough that it can't be an accident. Obviously he's trying to set up an effect of some kind, but I am undecided in my mind what effect that is. And it isn't true of every action sequence -- Sam's fight with Shelob is shown in blow-by-blow detail, for instance. One would assume that the point of keeping the action offstage is because he wanted to emphasize the character of the people involved in the story, rather then get bogged down in the details of this fight, that fight, and the next fight. While I'd say you can learn as much about a person from how they fight as why, it's also true that you can get bogged down in too much of that stuff.

It may also be that Tolkien was trying to get across what it was like to be in a war, with battles raging in the distance while you hunkered down in your trench, worrying for your comrades and only hearing about what happened later. Or it may have been that he thought the "action stuff" was the least interesting or hardest part, and so avoided it when he could. (Hey, all writers are guilty of this ... SJ and NN have had a ton of things come up where I thought of some scene that I didn't want to fight with and so just sorta skimmed over.)

The other thing that strikes me is how much easier it is to follow the story, now that I've seen the movies. And how easy it is to see where Peter Jackson wandered off into his own fancies. Overall, I'd say he did a pretty good job translating a very talky book into a visually-compelling and exciting movie -- although I still think he really bungled on poor Faramir.

Oh, and Gollum tricking Frodo into sending Sam home -- and Sam going? No.

No, no, no, no, no, no, no.

You need to redo that bit, Peter.

-The Gneech


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 13th, 2007 03:15 pm (UTC)
I agree: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no!

As for action sequences: A friend in college proposed that the books were written from the perspective of Sam, and that he really is the center of the story, rather than Frodo. I'm not entirely sure I agree with him, but Sam and Frodo are pretty much inseparable throughout the book. Perhaps it's written from both their perspectives. The parts of the story where they are not involved, there's always another Hobbit nearby, so those would be reported to the two heros from thier kinsmen.

It's an interesting idea, and until you pointed this out, I had not agreed with it, but now I think Luke may have been on to something.

Have the best

May. 14th, 2007 03:28 pm (UTC)
I don't think it's just Sam, but rather "The Hobbits generally, plus Aragorn."

-The Gneech
May. 13th, 2007 05:53 pm (UTC)
You know that Tolkien came from the trenches of WW1, right? He probably wrestled with his conscience about the ethics of describing the combat scenes the whole time he was writing. On the one hand, he didn't want to glorify war and fighting, but on the other, he didn't want to load up the books with hideous gory detail either.
May. 14th, 2007 03:29 pm (UTC)
I remember a Tolkien quote, "The war made orcs of us all." I'm sure he was keenly aware of the many facets of it! :)

-The Gneech
May. 13th, 2007 07:07 pm (UTC)
Just thinking aloud, as it were, but it seems that he leaves out battles where the battle itself isn't the story, just the result. At points where the struggle itself (very often a one-on-one type of situation) is the real story, you get the blow-by-blow account.
May. 13th, 2007 08:29 pm (UTC)
Obviously he's trying to set up an effect of some kind, but I am undecided in my mind what effect that is.

The effect makes the books seem much more like a passed down history rather than a big 'Once upon a time' story. Gandalf's battle is a good example. The only details that could be given about such a battle would have been limited to what Gandalf might have told someone about it later. Since Gandalf was well known for telling every detail about everything he did (harharhar) and there were no other eye witnesses, that is all you get. :)

I totally agree with the Sam going home bit. It would have been much better if they had dumped that, and included the watchers at the gate instead. That and the scouring of the shire instead of Legolas plinking Sauraman. (nice shot though)

Peter's work at fleshing out the battle of Helm's Deep was very good though. A scene that the book esentially said 'And there was a huge battle, we nearly lost, but Gandalf saved the day with the help of some trees', was made much more substantial in the film. Though I would have liked them to have included Aragorn's bit about looking out to see the dawn.
May. 14th, 2007 03:32 pm (UTC)
Actually, Wormtongue stabbed Saruman, then Legolas plinked Wormtongue. You're thinking of "DM of the Rings". ;)

-The Gneech
May. 14th, 2007 12:24 am (UTC)
Like the climactic battle in "The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe". :)

Dramatic exposition is a tried-and-true literary technique, I guess, though in drama the playwright has the excuse of not having the means to stage elaborate scenes (unlike a novelist). A couple of reasons spring to mind: variation of pace (to avoid the monotony of battle after battle after battle), narrative economy, the dramatic effect of having friends recount their adventures to friends, etc.

I think it was mentioned in one of the documentaries that Jackson had trouble matching the pace of Frodo & Sam's narrative with the Aragorn/Legolas/Gimli narrative after the Fellowship divides. More calendar time passed in one than in the other, and Jackson's writers had to tweak the pacing a little. That could've been another reason for economising with dramatic exposition, in Tolkien's case.
(Deleted comment)
May. 14th, 2007 05:39 am (UTC)
Beowulf would be a good comparison, since Tolkien was strongly interested in Old English and Nordic folklore and history. Wasn't it Sam that finished the Red Book after Frodo sailed to the West? It would make sense, then, that the story is more or less told from his perspective, with Frodo's POV intertwined.
May. 14th, 2007 06:43 am (UTC)
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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