It’s the Fellow-WHAT?-ship of the Ring

By: Billy Bunce

Although I can think of countless novels that take place in an Arthurian fantasy realm, very few films with such a setting come to mind. The most recent traditional fantasy film I’ve seen other than Lord of the Rings would have to be (surprise, surprise) The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Looking back on both movies, I’d have to say that the most striking similarity between the two films was the almost entirely archetypal structures of their plots.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m perfectly aware that each movie is based on a decades-old instant-classic novel, but the reality is that the narratives present in these films are quite standard fantasy fare by modern standards, and neither really does anything too unique with its plot. In Fellowship of the Ring, we find clearly-defined good (the Fellowship) on a quest to defeat a painfully obvious evil (Sauron), and not much else thrown into the mix. Saruman’s betrayal of Gandalf actually could have felt unique had we met him before his corruption by Sauron, but unfortunately the whole scene comes across as awkwardly as the director loudly yelling, “Look! That wizard’s a good guy! Just kidding; he’s breeding an army of Orcs.” Instead, the plot of the movie contains little to no twists (aside from two character deaths, one of which is relatively minor) and acts merely to prolong the inevitable final battle between the forces of good and evil, where said good forces will unquestionably triumph.

Similarly, the first Narnia movie also makes its intentions nerve-rackingly obvious from the start. However, because The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was written as a children’s book, the clarity is even sharper. The main villain is named “The White Witch”, and the main hero is a morally infallible lion (an animal naturally associated with power and protection). Aside from the Biblically allegorical death of Aslan, not too much really happens in the plot of this film either, other than, again, the inevitability of a final victorious conflict. The allegorical nature of the film makes it somewhat unique, but all of its actual plot events are more or less just copied from the Bible.

This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy these movies. On the contrary, actually, they both drew me in with their enriching worlds and excellent ambience.  However, I find that these movies provide only that: a world and an overall “epic” feel. In terms of the narrative proper, not very much occurs that couldn’t be predicted immediately by anyone who has so much has picked up another fantasy novel. In this sense, the movies are both quite similar. They don’t have too complex of a narrative, but then again it doesn’t seem that either movie actually tried to have an intricate plot. From the beginning, it is apparent that both movies try to absorb rather than surprise. They find more value in crafting an incredibly believable  fantasy realm than in creating narrative twists. In this manner, I feel that both movies definitely accomplished what they set out to do, even if the plots themselves were a little too dry for my liking.

One Does Not Simply Walk into Narnia

Jake Karlsruher AKA Kar-el

Each time I watch Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, I am reminded of the work of one of Tolkien’s contemporaries, C.S. Lewis.  Andrew Adamson’s 2005 adaptation of Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe shares enough pivotal plot details with Fellowship that I often wonder if Lewis and Tolkien, old friends and drinking buddies, ever bounced ideas off one another while sipping elixir.

In both movies and their respective novels, the authors make the assumption that their viewers do not possess any magical abilities themselves.  They present the viewer with seemingly feeble protagonists: Lucy Pevensie, an eight year-old girl from London, and Frodo Baggins, the three-foot tall Hobbit.  The authors allow the viewer to relate to the character and become comfortable in a fictional world.  The characters themselves aren’t so lucky.  They are thrust into their quests and enormous responsibility falls in their laps.  While Lucy and Frodo might feel alone at times, they are not without help.  After stepping through the passageway into Narnia, Lucy is welcomed by the warm hospitality of Mr. Tumnus, who sets the stage for her quest.  Similarly, Frodo Baggins is offered Strider’s sword (and Legolas’ bow, and Gimli’s axe-shhh) for his quest.

While comparisons remain true in plot details between the two works, they vary in terms of interpretation.  It is widely accepted among literary critics that Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, is a biblical allegory.  This is most vivid in Aslan’s self-sacrifice.  Aslan, the Great Lion of Narnia, offers himself to die in place of Edmund, Lucy’s brother who had lost his way.  The biblical imagery is shoved down your throat when Aslan is later resurrected.  Conversely, while many critics often attempt to find profound meaning in Tolkien’s Fellowship, I prefer to see it as pure fantasy.  To me, it is disenchanting to look further into the topic.

Finally, the films diverge in a directorial decision.  In The Fellowship of the Ring, Jackson paints a bleak picture of Middle Earth with desolate lands, ugly Orcs, and a black, fiery eye set as the embodiment of pure evil.  In The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Adamson sets the forests of Narnia in beautiful, glistening, white snow, cute and cuddly creatures, and a gorgeous ice witch.  Oddly enough, both settings generate the same effect of disturbing uneasiness.

The Wizard, the Orc, and the- Wait a Minute…

So I got my fantasy tales mixed up. Can you blame me? Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good, epic fantasy flick as much as anyone else, but it seems that the more I watch, the more they get jumbled up. A prime example? J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy and C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series. Just a brief list here. Both have the seemingly most powerful ally not as the protagonist but in a supporting roll in which they duck in and out of the story itself (Gandalf, Aslan). Not only that, but each sacrifices their life for the good of the company, only to have a sort of rebirth (although let’s not forget that Gandalf makes his much later in another book in the trilogy while Aslan hardly stays dead long at all). Both have a character playing the roll of the not-quite-yet King (Aragorn, Peter Pevensie). Both have a young character who starts fragile but grows in strength and respect (Frodo, Lucy Pevensie). And both feature a betrayel by a close member of the group foro what he believed to be for the better good (Boromir, Edmund Pevensie). I guess if you wanted to include all four Pevensies you could say that both also have a pretty kickin’ archer as one of the central figures  (Legolas, Susan).

If you are one of the people who simply watched the cinematics without reading the actual novels first, there’s a good chance you either already thought about this or now agree with me. But let’s take a step back and remember that both WERE, in fact, novels in their natural state. Not to sound cliché, but the books simply are better in this case. While a producer in a movie adaptation does have some leighway for creative liscense, if he or she exercises too much the risk of straying too far arises. With this in mind, it is best when comparing the substance to use the medium in which the substance first appeared. I was fortunate to be able to read both series before they were put to film, and I can honestly say that the similarities are far less prominent in reading. I can think of a couple reasons for this, the first being the aforementioned artistic liscense. Any artistic liscense a producer has/uses is far, far, far inferior to the one who actually WROTE the story. Secondly, the movies are but a few hours in time while the books may take days or even weeks to read all the way through. This condensation, while necessary for cinematic presentation, all but eliminates the subtle, unique diction styles of the author, the ephasis put on certain parts of the scenery and the list just goes on. In conclusion, The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia movies are fine movies and some of the best renditions of novels on the big screen to date. But to really see a separation in style and substance, one must turn to the books themselves.