Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Hanging a lantern on it

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John Rhys-Davies in The Return of the King

For Christmas, I finally got my own copy of the complete Lord of the Rings trilogy on Blu-ray. About a year ago, I’d laboriously worked my way through all the commentary tracks and special features on the discs I’d borrowed from my brother-in-law, and I realized that it was a real treasure trove of insights into filmmaking and storytelling—the closest thing I’ve found to a film school in a box set. Not surprisingly, I decided that I had to own it for myself. Playing it again now, I’ve started to see that part of the reason these supplementary materials are so fascinating is because they show us a director and creative team coping with a subject larger than they’d ever confronted before. The Lord of the Rings movies are fantastic, but not perfect, and much of the fun of the commentaries is hearing Peter Jackson and his collaborators discussing what they might have done differently, or analyzing problems that they were never quite able to crack. You’ll often get richer insights from a director talking about an unworkable project than about one in which the pieces just seemed to fall into place: I find The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo more interesting to think about than The Social Network, even though I vastly prefer the latter movie, and I have the feeling that I’d learn a hell of a lot from the commentaries to The Hobbit.

There’s one particular moment in The Return of the King that I’ve been thinking about recently. Aragorn has just succeeded in raising the army of the dead at the White Mountains, and with its help, he’s routed the orcs at the siege of Minas Tirith. Later, with an expedition looming against Mordor itself, the king of the dead asks Aragon to release them from their oath, leading to this aside from Gimli: “Bad idea. Very handy in a tight spot, these lads, despite the fact they’re dead.” Aragorn, of course, lets them go—and it’s a good thing he does, at least within the context of the movie we’re watching. As Jackson points out in his commentary, an invincible army of ghosts is a fatal narrative device: if they can’t be killed, there’s no suspense in any battle. He goes on to say that he hated the idea, but felt that he had to include it out of fidelity to the books, so he did what he could to delay their involvement and them out of the way as soon as possible. Even in its final form, their appearance still feels like something of a cheat, with all the prior action we’ve seen on the battlefield rendered more than a little irrelevant. But the movie buys back a lot of credibility with Gimli’s muttered observation, in which he basically speaks, as he often does, for the audience.

The Return of the King

In other words, the movie anticipates the viewer’s objection, and instead of ignoring it or rewriting the story to remove it, it calls attention to it. And while this may not be the best solution, it kind of works. In the past, I’ve talked about the anthropic principle of fiction, which briefly states that the most fundamental aspects of a story should be built around its least plausible elements. If the narrative hinges on a coincidence, a freak occurrence, or some odd fact of nature—as we often see in mystery and science fiction—it’s not too much to tailor the setting, the major beats of the plot, and even the primary characters to make a tenuous idea more credible when it comes. (My favorite example from my own work is my short story “Ernesto,” which ended up being set in the Spanish Civil War and featuring Ernest Hemingway as the lead simply so I could justify an undiagnosed outbreak of erysipelas.) This approach tends to work better in short fiction, in which every element can be introduced to ultimately serve a specific twist or pivotal moment. A longer work, like a novel or feature film, pushes back a little more: the story is so large that not every detail can be contingent on a single narrative problem. And in practice, you often end up with necessary but infuriatingly uncooperative moments that don’t quite track, but can’t be cut.

All you can do, in the end, is make it seem intentional, by spotlighting it to the point where the reader can’t accuse you of overlooking it through carelessness. In television, it’s called lampshading or hanging a lantern, while Brian Eno, in his Oblique Strategies, says: “Magnify the most difficult details.” Or, in the language of software development: “It isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.” You see it whenever a novelist points out that a plot point is exactly like the kind of thing you’d see in a bad novel, or when a writer claims that he’d hesitate to mention an improbable coincidence if he weren’t describing factual events, or when Bruce Willis simply says: “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” This isn’t anyone’s idea of a great solution, and it should only be used as a last resort. (If nothing else, it’s an example of authorial desperation masquerading as cleverness and then drawing attention to itself, none of which are enviable qualities in fiction.) Sometimes, though, the end justifies the means—even if it isn’t the kind of thing you want to do more than once per story, if at all. A novelist needs to be a good liar, and the greatest deceivers, as we all know, don’t press the point too much. When you’re called on it, there are times when you have to double down. But it’s better not to give yourself away in the first place.

Written by nevalalee

January 13, 2015 at 9:32 am

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