Home / General / <em>Fellowship of the Ring</em>: Conventions of film, conventions of genre

Fellowship of the Ring: Conventions of film, conventions of genre


(One of the visual rhetoric posts born of this course. If it seems a little more basic than the rest of those posts, that’s because it’s the first real day of class and I have to start somewhere.)

I have one goal here: to define “high fantasy” as a genre through Fellowship of the Ring. There will no doubt be academic arguments about the particulars—the true extent of Tolkien’s influence, for example, or the necessity of orcs—but I want to sketch out the basic generic qualities of high fantasy in a portable manner, i.e. one that will also apply to Game of Thrones. Meaning the most commonly argued generic feature to qualify as unnecessary baggage is this one:

Works of fantasy exist in a world utterly unrelated to the one in which we live and are therefore purely escapist.

Because, at the very least, whatever work I do with Fellowship also needs to apply to Game of Thrones. That and it’s just wrong. Anything written by a human being in a particular historical moment belongs to that particular historical moment even if it depicts a different or invented historical moment. The rest of the generic features of high fantasy I want to pull from Fellowship via an immanent analysis of the film itself, and what better place to begin than with maps?

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Maps are important because 1) sentences like “Go north until you hit Chicago and hook a left and you’ll end up California” don’t make intuitive sense in fantastic worlds, and 2) the most common plot elements in fantastic works, quests and wars, are map-driven affairs. You need to know who’s where and in relation to what in an invented world, and that requires special attention be paid to maps. Though the visual presentation and manipulation of maps is prevalent in high fantasy—as is evidenced both above, viewing Peter Jackson’s zooming around the map of Middle Earth, or in the opening credits of Games of Thrones—it should be noted that as a film convention, it predates high fantasy as a genre. (Spielberg’s clearly referencing something here.) Another common element in high fantasy would be a token of power:

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Like one of those. In the case of Fellowship, the ring functions as both a token and embodiment of power, whereas in Game of Thrones, the Iron Throne will merely be the token awarded to the winner of the game, but in both cases there’s an item whose acquisition is certral to the plot. In Fellowship, Jackson establishes and maintains the significance of the ring by constantly zooming in on it. The frame above, for example, belongs to a sustained zoom:

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But Jackson’s always zooming in on the ring. To wit:

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That’s Frodo at The Prancing Pony, but note the difference between the sustained zoom on Sauron’s hand and the interrupted zoom on Frodo’s fingers. Jackson’s taking advantage of our implicit understanding of filmic convention when he zooms in on Sauron’s hand: he knows that such zooms are sometimes intended to convey a thought process-in-process, so by sustaining the zoom it appears as if the ring itself is thinking. The edit from the extreme close-up of the ring to Frodo’s face and back to an even more extreme close-up on the ring breaks up the continuity of the zoom, meaning the ring doesn’t appear to be thinking so much as conversing with Frodo. It’s asking Frodo to put it on, and from one shot to the next is becoming more insistence, hence the increasing extremity of the zoom. That’s a literalization of the typically figurative allure of a token of power. Who falls victim to this allure?

Depends on what you mean by “victim.” In one sense, the victims are a few singularly important people through whom the narrative will be focalized; in another, it’s the anonymous hordes whose fates will be decided by which of those singularly important people acquire the token of power. For example, here’s a singularly important person surrounded by his anonymous horde:

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You can tell Elrond’s important both because of the central framing and the difference in costume: it’s not just that he’s not wearing a helmet, but that not wearing a helmet makes his full face available to the audience. (See here for a preview of why that’s important.) It goes without saying that in terms of genre it’s the singularly important people who undertake quests and the anonymous hordes that go to war. It’s also worth noting the color of Elrond and his anonymous hordes, which for historical reasons typically fight against anonymous hordes that look like this:

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I’m not saying that dark skin and unconventional jewelry decisions necessarily indicate that a character in a high fantasy will be less-than-noble, but neither am I denying it. (There’s a reason that conversations like this one happen, and about Peter Jackson, no less. I include that link not so you’ll click on it so much as to avoid having that conversation again at this particular moment.) But more on that later, because at this point it would behoove us to unify the generic conventions I’ve identified as succinctly as possible:

High fantasy consists of narratives in which singularly important people go on quests for tokens of power in order to facilitate or forestall wars between anonymous hordes and all of that can be tracked on maps.

That seems like a fair assessment of the genre, as established in Fellowship, don’t you think? If you don’t, what essential features do you think I’ve missed?

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