Saturday, September 1, 2012

Stories within stories within . . .

My wife has been home this week, recovering from surgery, and we decided, since we had some time on our hands, to watch the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, the extended versions of all three movies.  Thirteen hours, or whatever, journeying through Middle Earth.  The movies proved to be every bit as magnificent as I remember them being, and by the end, we felt as wrung out as if we'd actually been with Frodo and Sam, climbing to the fiery pits of Mount Doom. 

One thing that really struck me watching the movies this time through were the little stories, the minor stories, the nameless characters and unheralded actors that helped round out the story, that gave it substance and variety.  I mean, obviously Lord of the Rings is about Frodo and Sam, about Gandalf and Saruman, about Aragorn and Boromir and Theoden, king of Rohan.  In a class I used to teach about dramatic structure, I used to say that the trilogy was built on three basically tragic stories.  Fellowship of the Ring is the tragedy of Boromir, The Two Towers is the tragedy of Smeagol/Gollum and Return of the King is the tragedy of . . . Frodo.  But that way of looking at the film leaves out Aragorn, perhaps the most powerful and compelling character of the entire series. 

But this time through, I kept noticing tiny stories, little stories that Peter Jackson weaves in the fabric of the entire trilogy.  For example:

The barmaid of the Shire:  In Fellowship, we get just a hint of Sam's unrequited longing for a girl we only see briefly, slinging ale in a Shire tavern.  Her name, apparently, is Rosie Cotton, and the actress who plays her is Sarah McLeod.  Sam dances with her at Bilbo's farewell party, after mooning after her like a love-sick calf.  I think we see him briefly remember her in The Two Towers, but at the end of Return, Sam musters his courage and boldly goes over to her in the tavern, and next we see, they're getting married.  And at the end of Return, she and Sam can be seen outside their home, with two small children in tow, and we're thrilled; brave, loyal, heroic Sam has achieved a happiness Frodo will forever be denied.  But it works because Sarah McLeod makes the most of her tiny part; she's a cheerfully beckoning presence in the film, in Sam's life. 

The Rohan woman and her two children:  In Two Towers, we see a village of Rohan, beside a creek, about to be attacked by Saruman's Orcish army.  A woman puts her two children, an older boy and a little girl, on a horse and tells them to spread the word, promising to meet up with them later at Helm's Deep. I can't find the older actress' name on IMDB, but she's tremendous in the part, fierce and strong.  We think she can't possibly have survived the Orc attack, but later we see her and she did survive it, and is reunited with her children.  She then waits with the other women and children in the cave beneath Helm's Deep, while the older child, her son, joins Aragorn as a fighter.  He and Aragorn have a brief scene together, in which he admits he's afraid, and Aragorn tells him he has a good sword.  That's it, that's all we see of this family, but we assume the boy survives the battle, and that this small family is saved because of the heroism of the Helm's Deep defenders.  Strictly speaking, we probably don't need that story line, but it gives a moving, human face to the victims of Saruman's treachery. 

Gamling's heroism:  Gamling is not a character you probably remember from the books and movies, but this image, you might remember.  We first meet Gamling at Theoden's castle at Rohan.  Gamling is basically the captain of the guard, taking orders from Grima Wormtongue, but clearly not thrilled about it.  When Gandalf frees Theoden from Saruman's spell (his face morphing from 'senile ancient geezer' to 'powerful middle-aged king' in one of the coolest effects ever), Gamling's in the background, restrained from interfering by Legolas.  Gamling gets a tiny scene with Theoden right before the Helm's Deep battle, in which he admits to being scared.  But he's still alive and fighting alongside Aragorn in the final battle in Return.  Bruce Hopkins, the actor who plays him, does a wonderful job giving this tiny part a real story arc, from a guy who is basically there to take orders, even if it means serving a loathsome rat like Grima, to a frightened-but-game soldier, to a battle-scarred, heroic soldier. 

The Orc Richard III.  As the Orc forces gather outside Minas Tirith, capital of Gondor, this one deformed looking chap, Gothmog, leads them into battle.  I love the way he moves: with one arm and leg crippled, he's the very image of Richard III. At one point, a Minas Tirith trebuchet launches a big rock at him; he glares at it contemptuously as it hurtles towards him, then steps aside at just the last instant.  He later gets in a fight with Merry and Eowyn, nearly kills them both, but is beheaded at the last second by Aragorn.  Basically, all by himself, Gothmog gives the Orcs some character, some individualization.  The actor who plays him, Lawrence Makoare, plays an earlier part in the trilogy, in which he is likewise beheaded by Aragorn.  He's Lurtz, the muscle-bound archer leader of the Uruk-hai in Fellowship; the scary-looking dude who kills Boromir.  Makoare plays a third character as well, the Nazgul king who Eowyn kills so memorably in Return.  It's difficult to imagine Lord of the Rings being as rich and powerful as it is without this fine actor, who brings such a menacing physical presence to his three roles. 

I don't know that there's much of a lesson for writers with these subplots.  Most of us don't write thirteen-hour long movie trilogies.  The lesson, if there is one, is that details matter.  Small stories can be as powerful and important as bigger ones.

Also this: there's no such thing as an unimportant part in a play or film.  And actors in smaller roles still get to enrichen our show with their own humanity and talent and presence.


  1. They say you know a movie is big when a minor character gains a following. I remember hearing about an Elf who appeared for one second during the council of Elrond who gained a Boba Fett-style fan base. It got so big they tried to find the actor and gig him a part in the second two movies, but his part had been so small that they didn't even know the name of the actor.

  2. It would be interesting to hear the actor's thoughts/feelings about that.

    While we might not write 13 hour movies, there are many of us who will never write sweeping sagas placed in fantasy world's either. In the common, write what you know vein, most people write stories of the lives of supporting characters. My fiction may be fiction, but it is informed by my life and the things I have seen and done. I consider myself to be someone who may enter someone's life to play the "best friend" character for life (as in a novel) or just a few days (a minor character in a short story, who at least has a name) but not someone who is likely to be the main character in a novel about my life. Understanding that makes it easier to remember that it is easier to show a relationship than to describe one. It also takes less room on the page.

    I think character actors with smaller roles can make or break the sweep and arc of sagas. Either it seems one sided and silly as the narrator *tells us* what he/she knows, or the people at the fringes of the action make the story pop out, and we see depth in their lives. They don't simply live for the one interaction with the "hero(ine)" and then pop out of existence.

  3. Great post! I would also make a case for the Hobbit farmer who we see at the very beginning and the very end of the film. He smiles reluctantly at Gandalf's fireworks with his children or grandchildren, and looks suspiciously at the four main Hobbits when they return from the journey, arrayed in the clothing of Gondor and Rohan. It's a great full-circle moment and emphasizes just how far our heroes have come. That obscure actor's command of his facial expressions makes it all happen.

    1. Absolutely. Grandpa Grumpy, I call him, in my head. Yes, that actor was wonderfully cast and utilized