Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania
An Image of Splendor. A Scene from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Abstract: This essay presents Peter Jackson’s approach on adaptingthe story of Aragorn and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, changes made in the script and their importance to the narrative and analyzes the mise-en-scène technique used in Elrond’s vision scene of Aragorn’s death.
Keywords: Narrative; Mise-en-scène; Applicability; Vision; Event.
A cinematographic adaptation of a literary work is a difficult challenge for any screen writer especially when it comes to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Even though the literary work comes first and knowing the difficulties entailed like “the risk of vulgarization”, Tolkien welcomes the idea of a motion picture which he sees as being potentially “good for publicity”. The biggest challenge for Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens was to contract Tolkien’s masterpiece into a comprehensive script. Tolkien didn’t write his works as fantasy or allegorical, he wrote them as history, as an English mythology, the mythology of Middle-Earth. He prefers the term of applicability in detriment of allegory as he specifies in the preface to The Lord of the Rings: “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author”.Peter Jackson approached his adaptation from the same perspective; he wanted to think that “The Lord of the Rings is real, that it was actually history, these events happened…”, making it a historical film instead of a fantasy one. The image affects the reality of the viewer through this applicability in a way that he finds and gives meaning to what he sees from his own experience and as film theorist Tom Gunning wrote in Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film: “The realism of the image is at the service of a dramatically unfolding spectator experience, vacillating between belief and incredulity”.
The critical aspect of screenwriting is the coherence of the plot line which is achieved by using the aesthetic elements of exposition-development-climax-denouement that form the narrative structure of the film. An adaptation demands a change in the narrative medium, a visual narrative mediator that replaces the narrative subject of the literary work. Tom Guning’s piece “The Cinema of Attractions: Early film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde” creates the phrase “cinema of attractions” which means that the film relies on the appealing spectacle of the scenes in detriment of narrative diegesis. So Peter Jackson had to find a way to balance the narrative with the interactivity of the visual effects, to use these attractions as a way to advance the narrative instead of distracting from it. Tolkien also considers the aspect of narrative important: “The canons of narrative art in any medium cannot be wholly different; and the failure of poor films is often precisely in exaggeration and in the intrusion of unwarranted matter owing to not perceiving where the core of the original lies”.From this narrative perspective, the difference between the book and the movies is that Peter Jackson rearranged the events into a chronologically linear narrative while Tolkien uses a nonlinear narrative (The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King follow the storylines of Frodo, Sam and Gollum separately from the rest of the fellowship).
In order to make the best possible adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson and his crew had to preserve the main themes, storyline and the immense diversity of creatures, races, characters, languages, geography through meticulous directorial, screenwriting and design processes while still making an accessible film for those unfamiliar with Tolkien’s books. Some of the major changes the script had to suffer were in the second movie of the trilogy. Since The Fellowship of the Ring introduces the story and the characters and The Return of the King has a proper ending, “in a sense, the middle chapter of the trilogy is the greatest drawback”. The structure of the second movie changes; it follows three different storylines that have to interweave in order to keep the audiences engaged. The last chapters of the book (the climax of Frodo’s confrontation with Shelob that chronologically takes place at the same time as the siege of Minas Tirith) were cut out and edited in the third film so it wouldn’t interfere with the main climax of the movie, the battle at Helm’s Deep, thus sustaining the chronologically linear narrative. Because of this change, Frodo, Sam and Gollum were left with “this journey to where, to what” and that’s why the script had to be sacrificed by making the character of Faramir an obstacle, therefore the reason to take the hobbits to Osgiliath, a step off the path Tolkien paved for them in the book.
An important addition to the second movie of the trilogy is the character of Arwen. Peter Jackson succeeded in captivating a world-wide audience by applying a tactic of popular cinema: the romantic subplot. Even though The Lord of the Rings story isn’t centered on a love story in either the movie or the book, the romance between Aragorn and Arwen makes the story more appealing to large audiences. Part of their story was presented in the first movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, but Arwen’s absence in The Two Towers book came as an impediment for Peter Jackson because he needed to sustain their story throughout the whole trilogy and the “geographic” problem was this romance between two characters that were in two different places of Middle-Earth; so “how can you keep a romantic story going when you can’t actually have the two people connecting?”.Arwen’s character needed to be more participant in the story so Peter Jackson initially intended to reconnect her with Aragorn at the battle of Helm’s Deep but the fans reaction to this deviation and the fact that it is untruthful to what Tolkien wrote, made the writers reconsider the script. The solution was to develop the story of Aragorn and Arwen found in the Appendix. “We still had this problem of getting the two of them together, Aragorn and Arwen, so we eventually cracked it by devising a way in which we could present flashbacks instead of forcing them together in terms of the progression of The Two Towers storyline.”The solution was to create scenes where the two find themselves through psychic connection, dreams or visions and resulted in adding depth to Aragorn and Arwen’s characters that strengthens the coherent narrative of the trilogy. One particular vision I will analyze is Elrond’s vision of Aragorn’s death but before that I will present a shortened version of the story of Aragorn and Arwen, found in the Appendix.
After Aragorn’s father died when he was just two years of age, he went to live with his mother Gilraen in Rivendell, the house of Elrond. Around his twentieth year, while wandering in the woods he saw Arwen, Elrond’s daughter, and fell in love with her despite his mother’s warning. “[Y]our aim is high, even for the descendant of many kings. For this lady is the noblest and fairest that now walks the earth. And it is not fit that mortal should wed with the Elf-kin.”Shortly after, Elrond intervenes and acts like an impulse that convinces Aragorn to embrace his destiny; “Aragorn, Arathorn’s son, Lord of the Dunedain, listen to me! A great doom awaits you, either to rise above the height of all your fathers since the days of Elendil, or to fall into darkness with all that is left of your kin. Many years of trial lie before you. You shall neither have wife, nor bind any woman to you in troth, until your time comes and you are found worthy of it”. Aragorn soon left Rivendell and for thirty years he fought against Sauron. In his forty-ninth year of life he rested in Lórien where he stayed with Arwen for a season and the two plighted their troth. “And thus it was that Arwen first beheld him again after their long parting; and as he came walking towards her under the trees of Caras Galadhon laden with flowers of gold, her choice was made and her doom appointed.” After the War of the Ring, Aragorn and Arwen married and spent a hundred and twenty years in harmony. When Aragorn felt his life was drawing to an end he said farewell to Arwen: “In sorrow we must go but not in despair. Behold! We are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory, Farewell!”.
This scene of Aragorn’s death is beautifully transposed by Peter Jackson in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. In trying to convince Arwen to leave Middle-Earth for the Undying Lands, Elrond has a vision of what will happen if everything that Arwen hoped for came true. He visualizes Aragorn’s death and the tragic end that awaits his daughter if she chose to stay. It is a visually impressive, sad, evocative scene and the attention to details in the diegetic world, the narrative and the mise-en-scène creates an emotional bond between the audience and the film. Alan Lee and John Howe, both responsible with the concept art in the films, proved to be critical assets for the mise-en-scène.
Décor – Set in Minas Tirith, the predominant materials in the scene are stone (in the foreground, Aragorn’s tombsurrounded by four giant pillars and in the background, buildings, stairs and statues) and wood (trees in the background) with dead leafs as props. The giant pillars that surround an imposing bier emphasize the importance and statute Aragorn had as ruler of men.
Lighting – Because Elrond’s vision is a prolepsis, the scene begins with a white screen and the light slowly decreases as the scene advances. The usage of three-point lighting focuses on the characters’ faces (Aragorn, Arwen and the extras in the background) before shifting on Aragorn’s bier; it starts with a colorful image that includes the colors of the costumes, trees, sky before it all turns to a predominant dark grey. The digital grading manipulates the image by giving a certain depth to the scene, it enhances the dramatic tone, the visual aspect and its importance for the diegetic world and the man responsible with this work was Peter Doyle, who also worked on the Matrix project.
Space – The scene is a smooth transition from a slightly animated space in the beginning (the close-up on the characters, the people passing by, the green trees and blue sky) to a more static, empty space(the dead trees, the absence of people, clouded sky).The clearly visible background amplifies the dramatic tone of the scene while the giant pillars suggest a roof timbering which creates the impression of a closed space. This contrast emphasizes the sad mood of the scene and affects both Arwen and the spectator’s emotional state, an emotional engagement between spectator and scene that can be considered ethical because it connects him with others outside his self (Arwen, Aragorn and Elrond) and is affected by this other, by “alterity”, through sensibility and receptivity. According to Alain Badiou, ethics should concern a “faithful”truth-seeking process. It’s a search for a truth rather than the truth and it emerges from the ethical responsibility to be faithful to a situation. “I shall call ‘truth’ (a truth) the real process of fidelity to an event: that which this fidelity produces in the situation.”This fidelity is supported by the recurrent motif of Arwen renouncing the Eldar immortality in order to spend a mortal life with Aragorn. The only way the two could be together was for Aragorn to fulfill his destiny to defeat Sauron and be crowned King of Gondor. The main attributes of Arwen’s character are love, trust and hope, in which she finds the courage to accept her own death. She knows the sacrifices that had to be made but doesn’t quite understand them and Elrond tells her that “you’ll still have to taste the bitterness of mortality”. Arwen never experienced death (those closest to her were also immortals or they left for the Undying Lands) so this scene visualizes the faith, sorrow, pain and the impact that Aragorn’s death will have on her. “Let us say that a subject, which goes beyond the animal (although the animal remains its sole foundation [support]) needs something to have happened, something that cannot be reduced to its ordinary inscription in ‘what there is’. Let us call this supplement an event…”From this perspective, Aragorn’s death is an event that determines a transformation in Arwen. The experience of death and mourning through the loss of Aragorn is humanity’s signature, that’s what makes her human. Self-sacrifice is akin to saintliness and as Daniel Bensaïd wrote in “Alain Badiou and the Miracle of the Event” “the event… is akin to a miracle”. There is a certain relationship between ethics and aesthetics that determines the spectator to choose based on his moral imperatives if the ethical attitude that manifests in a scene (for example, the interracial relationship between Arwen and Aragorn could be interpreted as a mistake from a racial point of view because one is a human and the other is an elf or one represents the middle class and the other the upper class, etc.) should or shouldn’t affect the aesthetical appreciation and judgment of the scene.
Costume, makeup and hairstyles – The dark color of the costumes indicate the grieving state of the characters while Aragorn wears a crimson red costume that suggests royalty. Aragorn’s crown and gray hair establishes the time period of the scene.
Acting – In this scene, Arwen’s character (interpreted by Liv Tyler) acts as a visual simulation of her father’s vision. Elrond (interpreted by Hugo Weaving) narrates, in voiceover, passages from The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen that underscore the symmetry between visual and auditory. The line “and there will be no comfort for you, no comfort to ease the pain of his passing” is visually transposed as the camera shows Arwen crying at Aragorn’s side before zooming-out and centering the image on Aragorn’s body. The line “He will come to death. An image of the splendor of the Kings of Men in glory undimmed before the breaking of the world” is brilliantly transformed into visual; as Aragorn becomes a stone effigy, people fade away, trees die, the sky gets dark, the light fades. Arwen reappears on the right side of the screen, dressed in black with her face covered by a black veil, standing at her husband’s side like a statue of sorrow.
Sound – There are three distinctive elements of sound in this scene: Elrond’s voice, the music and the sound of leafs in the wind. Even though he doesn’t physically appear in the scene, Elrond’s low, authoritative voice gives a certain solemn depth and importance to the narrative. The sound of dead leafs in the wind has a particular importance because it’s the only diegetic sound in this scene, the only visual element that is accompanied by sound and it emphasizes the silence and solitude of the moment. “Writing music is about how you’re feeling about certain imagery”and music is a very important element in the scene because it draws you into the diegetic world, it guides your emotions, it creates a bridge between the film and the audience and it also gives cultural significance. Narrative, mise-en-scène and music form a unified artistic experience that reminds of Richard Wagner’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk but in this instance film is the modern version of total art. Speaking of Wagner, Howard Shore found inspiration for The Lord of the Rings score in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen especially in the usage of leitmotifs. More than 90 identified leitmotifs form a vast musical vocabulary categorized by Middle-Earth cultures and characters. Arwen was often called Evenstar, also the name of the jewel that Arwen gave to Aragorn as a symbol of her love for him and the name of the song that appears in Elrond’s vision scene. Featuring opera singer Isabel Bayrakdarian on voice, the language used is Sindarin, one of the languages of the elves invented by J.R.R. Tolkien. The lyrics were written by Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh and translated into Sindarin by David Salo. There is an interesting aspect of the track that is accompanying the scene. Even though both the scene and the track are evocative of sadness and grief, the words tend to have a different meaning. “Ú i vethed…/ nâ i onnad./ Si boe ú-dhannathach / Ae ú-esteliachnad / Esteliohan / Estelioveleth”, would translate as “This is not the end…/ it is the beginning. You cannot falter now/ If you trust nothing else / Trust this (the Evenstarjewel)/ Trust love”. The central point of the scene is death; Aragorn and Arwen will both die but the verses “This is not the end…/ it is the beginning” come as a hint of hope in the negative context of the scene suggesting death not as a final destination but as a new beginning. Their death and the end of the Age of Elves is also the beginning of the Age of Men (through their son, Eldarion, who doesn’t appear until the third chapter of the trilogy). Thus, the central theme of the song becomes faith and the hope that comes from it which is in contradiction with the death theme of the scene but ultimately this contrast makes the emotional attachment to the movie more powerful.
Despite the tragic end of this love story, The Lord of the Rings comforts us with a happily-ever-after end worthy of an epic work. Being a multicultural work of literature and film, in the struggle between good and evil the later one is defeated by the collective action of races (wizard, men, elves, hobbits, dwarfs), based not in real politik but on commitment to community. The alliances between the races, the fellowship, even the interracial love between Aragorn and Arwen are examples of the depth of their commitment to community, to one-another. And this is why The Lord of the Rings is a classic; it has the ability to portray the essence of ethics: truth, goodness and morality in antithesis with the evil of the world and leaves us the impression that everything will be alright, that we will overcome hardship, that in the end we will settle down to normal life like the rest of the characters did because, as Bilbo said, “It is no bad thing to celebrate a simple life.”
Doug Adams, The Music of The Lord of the Rings Films, Carpentier, 2010.
Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (London: Verso, 2001).
Martin Barker & Ernest Mathijs (ed.), Watching The Lord of the Rings: Tolkien’s World Audiences, Peter Lang Publishing Inc, 2007.
Janice M. Bogstad, Philip E. Kaveny (ed.), Picturing Tolkien: Essays on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, McFarland & Co., Inc. Publishers, 2011.
H. Carpenter (ed.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Allen & Unwin, London, 1981.
Jinhee Choi & Mattias Frey (ed.), Cine-ethics: Ethical Dimensions of Film Theory, Practice and Spectatorship, Routledge, New York, 2014.
Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde”, Wide Angle, Vol. 8, nos. 3&4, Fall, 1986.
Thomas Honegger (ed.), Translating Tolkien: Text and Film. Cormarë Series n.6, Walking Tree Publishers, Zurich and Berne, 2004.
Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being or Beyond the Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis, The Hague, Martinus Njhoff Publishers, 1981.
Ernest Mathijs (ed.), From Hobbits to Hollywood: Essays on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, Murray Pomerance, Editions Rodopi B.V., 2006.
Ernest Mathijs (ed.), The Lord of the Rings: Popular Culture in Global Context, Wallflower Press, 2006.
J.R.R.Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 1966.
Kathrin Weinen, The Love Story of Arwen and Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, GRIN Verlag, 2006.
Linda Williams (ed.), Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film, 1995.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,Extended Edition, Peter Jackson, DVD, New Line Cinema, 2001.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,Extended Edition, Peter Jackson, DVD, New Line Cinema, 2002.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Extended Edition, The Appendices, Part 1: From Book to Vision (DVD) – Designing Middle-Earth, Part 2: From Vision to reality (DVD) – Digital grading. Music for Middle-Earth, Part 3: The Journey Continues (DVD) – From Book to Script-Finding the Story, Part 4: The Battle for Middle-Earth begins (DVD) – Music for Middle-Earth.
 See J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. The Return of the King, Appendix A (V). Here follows a part of the tale of Aragorn and Arwen, illustrated by Alan Lee, 1991, p. 216-222 (abridged as AAA).
 Daniel Bensaïd, “Alain Badiou and the Miracle of the Event”, published as a chapter of Peter Hallward (ed.), Think Again. Alain Badiou and the Future of Philosophy, Continuum, London/New York, 2004.