August 24, 2010

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Skye's note: Heroine Content welcomes back guest poster Patrick, who previously shared his take on Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. I was quite interested to see someone take on the Lord of the Rings films. My mother is a conservative Christian who got me started on my first science fiction, Star Trek, and she's a longtime Tolkien fan. For various reaons, though, I never read any of his books on my own. So I had no frame of reference for my mother's bitter complaints that the movies had been made "politically correct" by amping up the women's roles. Thanks to Patrick for this review, which gives me more insight. And without further ado...

I debated whether I should do a single post for the Lord of the Rings (LotR) trilogy, or do each film on its own. In the end, as I don't think my assessment would be different for single films, I think the trilogy is the way to go as this allows me to treat each character's story arc from beginning to end.

Also, I don't much care about the books. No, that's not true, I rather like them, but I don't care for an accurate portrayal of them. Just because something's in the books doesn't mean it needs to be on screen. The films must stand on their own, and be an artifact of their own time. So to me, there's not really a reason why Gandalf couldn't have been a woman, Legolas and Gimli couldn't have kissed or Samwise couldn't have been black, for example. All of which to say that I realize that some of my criticism can be traced back to the novels, but that doesn't excuse the filmmakers.

The story should be known, and is difficult to condense, but I'll try: the evil sorcerer Sauron wants to conquer the world, and a small band of heroes sets out to stop him. A wizard, an elf, a dwarf, two humans and four hobbits comprise the "Fellowship" trying to destroy the One Ring and thereby Sauron's power. Along the way, war breaks out, the fellowship is split up, and the ring tries to control its wearer. Basically, the white men (and dwarves and elves and hobbits, all male, with one and a half notable exceptions) are victorious, and all ends well.

Now, the film does only contain many people of color, but none in notable roles as such. And it has a select few female characters. Let's take a look at each of them, and other issues.

Part of LotR's impressive special effects deals with how they made normal-sized actors appear to be smaller than their counterparts on the screen. This applies to Gimli, the dwarf, as well, but even more so to the hobbits. The filmmakers used forced perspectives, split screens, CGI and even little people as doubles just so that Elijah Wood could appear to sit next to Gandalf on the same cart and still be half as tall.

Was that necessary? Surely Peter Dinklage is not the only dwarf actor of some ability and charisma - and Dinklage rocks, by the way. Here you have the perfect story about very unlikely heroes, partly due to their stature, and this whole theme could have been emphasized by using actors who are equally unlikely film stars. This is a real missed opportunity, and oh-so typical for Hollywood: cast actors without disabilities in roles of characters with them.

At the same time, disfigurement is still a short-hand for evil here. Note that one of the additions to the cast this film makes is in the third film, where the disfigured orc captain Gothmog has a typical villain arc. But the orcs in general are bred for evil, and their ugliness is a signal for their depravity, both in the slimy birth of the Uruk-Hai as well as in the misshapen postures of Sauron's Orcs. The Mouth of Sauron has an oversized jaw with yellowed teeth. And so on. Just look at those two below: which one is the evil one?

Of course, another way to be evil in LotR is to be foreign. The orcs have dark skin, but so do the Corsairs of Umbar and the Haradrim, both being depicted as just as evil as the orcs (who were bred to be evil, remember?). And the Southerners with their face veils at least suggest darker skin, and certainly also suggest Middle-Eastern culture (where the Haradrim are more like Africans). So in the world of LotR, if you have dark skin, you're evil. If you're ugly, you're evil - maybe that's why Gollum won out against Smeagol? And if you're both white and handsome, you might still get controlled by Sauron and driven to the "dark side", as it were. And what if you're a woman?

There aren't many important female characters, and I will go on and discount one of them from the start: Shelob my be technically female, but she's a giant spider creature. So no fanboy whining on that one, okay?

Speaking of fanboy whining, you only need to read a few discussion threads about the first film to be informed that in the books, it wasn't Arwen who saved Frodo from the Ringwraiths at the ford, but Frodo fled on his own on a male elf's horse and was saved off-screen (off-page?) by Gandalf and Elrond. Here's one typical example. This moment is one of the few saving graces of the trilogy when it comes to feminist issues, because Arwen facing down the Ringwraiths and conjuring a tidal wave was awesome. Of course, right afterwards Arwen is relegated to moping and pining for Aragorn. She urges Elrond to reforge Aragorn's magic sword, and she decides to give up her immortality in order to be with her love, but that's all, and these two moments are very minor moments. Aside from her entrance scene, Arwen is on the sidelines, and I'm disappointed that the idea of making her appear at the siege of Helm's Deep was scrapped. A role barely escaping the typical confines.

Then there's Galadriel, possibly the most powerful character in the whole film. Of course, she doesn't really use her power, she just gets to be regal. I think Cate Blanchett is perfectly cast as the elf queen, but she basically has a cameo appearance that is not even fleshed out a lot in the extended editions of the movies. Galadriel only serves to give the heroes magical tokens that will save them later on, like the light that helps Frodo escape Shelob (at least at first). She also gives Frodo some mysterious advice. Honestly, Galadriel is a plot device and not a character; she has no true agency, she is an advice and item dispenser.

Finally, the third prominent woman: Eowyn. Eowyn is a tomboy - in the extended cut, we get a scene to show how bad she is at cooking (and presumably other things women are supposed to be good at). But she is a good fighter, and of course she (with the help a hobbit) get to take down the witch-king. Eowyn has a feminist arc, granted, but even that is a rudimentary one. In the second film, where she first appears, she is constantly sidelined and not allowed to fight despite her wishes, even in the siege of Helm's Deep (see below). The whole second film is a set-up for the third film and the battle of Pelennor Fields. There, she gets to be a geat warrior, felling an oliphant (with the help of a hobbit), and of course gets the great moment where she pulls off her helmet and says, "I am no man" before killing the witch-king. On the other hand, she kills the witch-king not by besting him in combat - she can't even evade his attacks, and is almost killed before Merry saves her. In fact, Merry is also not a man (as in, human), and even so Eowyn and Merry take down the witch-king because it was foretold, not because they bested him.

Still, this is a nice arc for Eowyn, and I would be happy with her character if not for the other elements of her story, and I don't (only) mean her bad cooking. Eowyn falls in love with Aragorn immediately upon meeting him - an unrequited love -, and in the end, she falls in love with Faramir also pretty much out of the blue (since the novel's scenes in the hospital are not in the movie). While there are many male characters who get to be warriors and nothing else, Eowyn (and Arwen, of course), must also find love. And the last time we see them, Faramir is wearing his armor and sword, whilst Eowyn is happily dressed in a fine dress - her days of fighting are over, I guess.

Of course, LotR tells of a pseudo-medieval fantasy world, and we all know that women didn't have the rights then that they have today. So isn't it only natural that we get so little female characters when we have basically an epic war movie? I don't think so. I think if Samwise the gardener can be a hero, then so could Rosie the barmaid be a heroine. If Aragorn's rangers live outside of society, then they could very well be female. And in a pseudo-medieval fantasy, basically anything goes. What you need for such a world isn't a lack of women's rights or a lack of diversity, but a lack of computers, cars and guns (and showers).

And even granted that you have all this, the trilogy still runs into problems with their second and third part because there, whole cities are besieged. In the battle of Helm's Deep, specifically, we see Aragorn equipping young boys with swords and chainmal, boys who never held a weapon before and are scared to death. While at the same time, the women are all led into the caves to care for the elderly and the smallest children, and to await their likely slaughter. This is a situation where it would seem natural to give the women swords, to have them fight beside the men for their very lives and for their children, simply because there is no way out. But no, we get lingering shots of Eowyn - Eowyn! -and other women looking scared and helpless to make the men's fight even more dramatic.

And just for completeness' sake: why not make some of the homoerotic tension explicit? Legolas and Gimli, Sam and Frodo, Merry and Pippin... heck, make Saruman and Gandalf old lovers. Or have Boromir develop a crush on Aragorn - after all, all the women seem to fall in love with the guy, why not a man, as well?

No, judging by all those things, the LotR trilogy is a long stretch of typical (and even worse) depictions mostly of people of color, a lack of representation for people with disabilities (or anything other than heterosexual monogamy), and a typical men's playground with a scant few roles for women. It needn't be said that the Bechdel test is failed. All that needs to be said is that only Arwen's moment at the ford and Eowyn's warrior arc, flawed as it may be, save this trilogy from a zero star rating. Disappointing.

1 star: Typical.

11 Comments

I recently started re-reading David Eddings' series The Belgariad, which I must have read for the first time over 10 years ago, and the assumed 100% evil of certain races of people is slapping me in the face. I certainly remember it screaming at me from the visuals in LotR. "You know those brown people, they're just up to no good!"

I'm afraid that if I re-read any more of the fantasy I enjoyed in my early 20's I'm going to find the same thing.

Quite possibly. There's a lot of bad fantasy out there, but it's one of the genres people gravitate towards when they're younger and don't have the faculties or the experience to know better. And there's the cliché about fantasy being conservative / reactionary and sci fi liberal / progressive (though with (military) sci fi that's not necessarily true, and at least China Mieville does leftist fantasy).

The Scar by Mieville was great, also the Iron Dragon's Daughter off the top of my head, if you want to read good fantasy with heroines.

Also, I hope this thread won't spark the usual debate whether Tolkien was racist or not. I don't know, I assume he wasn't, but that doesn't mean the books don't contain racist overtones – even enhanced in the film because you don't even get the "they're paid for it" excuse with Sauron's human allies.

I only mentioned it in a sentence above, but I think the way the Ring and Sauron's crystal balls corrupt people might even strengthen my point because the few white and attractive people that become evil are victims to possession and magic, whereas the Southron people and the orks are evil pure and simple. And while Eowyn's moment of glory is awesome, if you watch it again, notice that she decapitates the beast and then only gets to dodge and be wounded before Merry distracts / mortally wounds / something in between the Witch King and Eowyn can get a single stab in. At least she got to rock on horseback before.

It's funny, I was just thinking about this the other day. I recently re-read the novels, and no matter how much I love them (and the films) they fail completely from an HC perspective. And honestly, I give Tolkien a lot of slack due to the time he wrote the books in, but Jackson gets no such breaks. The racial determinism bothers me a whole lot more than the lack of female characters for some reason, but the films could have solved so many problems if only they mad a couple of the hobbits characters of color or either Gimli or Legolas female or something like that.

All in all I completely agree with the 1 star, and am overwhelmingly frustrated by a series I really do love.

"there's not really a reason why (...) Samwise couldn't have been black"

I'd agree about the other examples, but making the only working-class Hobbit in the fellowship, who calls Frodo "Master", who followed his father into service of the Baggins, be black? That would be tricky.

@ Ide Cyan, good point!

Yeah, great point. I just picked Sam because to many, he's the hero of the story, but I didn't think it through.

I have to agree that LOTR is a race fail and dis/ability fail, but I disagree with what you said about Éowyn.

Yes, she chose not to be a warrior anymore, but that wasn't because of her gender. She had become a great war hero, but now she chose life instead of death. Éowyn's story wasn't that of a tomboy who grew up to be a "proper" woman, but that of a child who glorified war and when she encountered the horrorfying reality she fought and won and walked away appreciating how precious life is.

Are you going by the films? Because IIRC, there we see her fight, and then we next see her in a dress. Without any comment whatsoever.

There should have been female Orcs.

What about Frodo and Sam? gay or not? (in the movie)

Just a thought... I thought I read in one of the LOTR books, when Sam looks down and sees the Southrons on the oliphaunts, that he wonders whether they even want to be there, if they are afraid like he is -- I guess I just got the impression that the Southrons were from parts of the world that Sauron had already conquered and thus had no choice but to be in his armies.
Could be getting mixed up though.

Nah, I think you may be right there. But with the good as with the bad, I consciously did not regard what's in the books, only what's on screen.

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