Tension is the storyteller’s best friend. It means the audience has become invested in the story’s outcome and what will happen to the characters. Creating that investment is the difference between the success and failure of any narrative output.
Unfortunately, what we get most often in Lord of the Rings is a fake kind of tension.
There are certain challenges to creating tension for a movie based on such a well known novel. Many people know how the movie will end, and those who don’t can can easily guess, based upon all the books and movies that have stolen from it over the years.
For example, we KNOW that Aragorn won’t die at Helm’s Deep. We are also fairly certain that Legolas and Gimli won’t either. It’s also unlikely the orcs will be victorious. Even if they win the battle, EVERYONE knows they will lose the war. So the outcome is predetermined.
So how can a filmmaker create tension in this situation?
What Peter Jackson has done is create a fake kind of tension. He tries to convince the audience that the situation is hopeless (a tactic that’s undercut by Aragorn telling some kid that there is always hope). He has several arguments between characters where someone says that the situation is hopeless, and some other solution is suggested. Of course, all of these other solutions are even more hopeless so it just makes the entire argument seem pointless. The reality is, and the audience should probably realize this, is that Helm’s Deep is the ONLY option. Even if it’s hopeless, the alternative of trying to fight the orcs on open ground is even more suicidal. So not only do these arguments (between Aragorn and Theoden, between Aragorn and Legolas, etc) fail to create any real tension, they don’t make much sense from the perspective of the characters. It just makes them look stupid and petty.
The same situation can be seen with the Ent council. Of course the Ents will be roused to fight Saruman. It’s inevitable. Having Pippen and Merry yell at Treebeard just makes them look like pricks.
When an outcome is assured, you have to work really hard to create tension for the audience. This is what is known as good screenwriting.
What Peter Jackson might have done instead is make it clear that Theoden and the others had no choice. They could only hole up in Helm’s Deep and hope for a miracle. Start from a point of power. Helm’s Deep has never fallen. Then allow the situation to become darker and darker. The size of the orc army would be revealed. Perhaps they run out of food, or find they don’t have enough arrows. Complications keep occurring that make success more unlikely. But again, they have no choice but to do their best to survive.
Then, at the same time, Aragorn must make a decision. He must chose between staying to fight a hopeless battle, or abandoning them. People could be saying to him things like, “You are too valuable to waste your life here.” Now this battle has something personal at stake. No one cares about the thousands of nameless lives. They are meaningless to the audience, especially when we know that in the end they will eventually triumph. But if Aragorn must struggle with a personal decision that will help define who he is as a hero, than the audience becomes invested. Having several such personal battles going on at once would be even better.
Instead, we have a serious of arguments between various characters about whether to defend Helm’s Deep or not. The arguments aren’t even consistent. They are just a pathetic attempt to create tension.
We even have the elves randomly show up before the battle. I’m convinced the only reason they are at Helm’s Deep is to have a character that we already recognize–Haldir–die. Peter Jackson is hoping to convince the audience that lives hang in the balance. If the elf we have seen in one previous scene can die, than anyone might die, right?
The build up to the battle is inconsistent and not driven by the characters or the circumstances. Each scene has an argument that seems unrelated to the scenes before. When the battle finally comes, the only feeling Peter Jackson has managed to instill in the audience is tedium. Every body wants the battle to begin because they want something, anything to happen.
I suppose you could say that feeling of why the fuck am I watching this 3 and a half hour movie is a kind of tension, so Peter Jackson does succeed in that sense.
Minutes Watched: 2.2:47.48
Number of Montages: 12
Number of slow motion close-ups of people crying: 43
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