Fellowship and Keeping People Together

I am re-re-re-listening to The Fellowship of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. It has always been my favorite of the three books although I have to agree with those reviewers who claim Tolkien didn't really know what he was up to in Fellowship. The book is uneven and has a "feeling his way" cadence to it.

However, without pretending that Tolkien actually knew what he was doing, I think the book works for the trilogy. First of all, it exposes the reader to the Shire, giving Frodo a concrete part of Middle-Earth to risk his life for. Secondly, it establishes a progression of danger/risk. The riders are much more dangerous when they are closer to Mordor (I never had any trouble, even as a kid, understanding why the riders are more fierce and harder to resist near Mordor; I never had any trouble understanding the power of the ring either and how its hold grows over time. Reviewers who quibble over these points mystify me. The ideas just aren't that complicated).

I confess, however, that I like Fellowship most after Frodo reaches Rivendell and the fellowship forms. I've always preferred that aspect of books or movies. My favorite part of The Fugitive is the on-going banter between Tommy Lee Jones and his crew. I don't really care about anything else. I don't know if this is a "gal" thing or not: if I am being particularly womanly because I like to watch people co-existing in a friendly, non-violent fashion. I don't think it is particularly womanly since I don't care for soulfulness; still, give-and-take comradeship is one reason I enjoy Star Trek: Next Generation, why I watch All Creatures Great & Small (although Robert Hardy has a great deal to do with the latter), and why I love the parish council scenes in Vicar of Dibley more than the other scenes. It also explains why I lose interest in a lot of movies/books/television shows once the gang starts hating each other.

I think my lack of interest has a lot to do with my theory that fictional death (of the individual, of the group, of the relationship) is basically a cop-out. To me, the hard part of writing (and life) isn't the ending, it's making the middle--the people-in-relationships stuff--work. Hence, I have no problem associating marriage with feminism. Construction versus deconstruction.

That's me talking as a writer. As a reader, it could be an investment issue, the reason X-Files works even though the leads don't get together until the very end. Leads not getting together is usually anathema to me; I find it so tiresome. But in X-Files, Dana and Mulder have a thriving (emotionally) intimate relationship from the very beginning. This is also true of early BallyK. The leads may not technically be together, but they act like they are, so what's the dif? And that thriving relationship gives the viewer something to invest in. The viewer, I contest, WANTS something to invest in.

Which brings me to the argument, "But life changes!" Relationships fall apart. Friends drift apart. Bodies crumble apart. This is all true and people do write/create based on what they know. However, I think there is a difference between "natural" change and "toying with the reader/viewer" change. Angel leaving Buffy was a natural change (and everybody else should have left too, really). Xander breaking up with Anya wasn't--that was "toying with the viewer." When the fellowship of Lord of the Rings breaks up, that is, unfortunately, a natural/inevitable change. The heroine of a mystery/romance series not being able to choose between two guys for trillion-some-odd novels IS NOT natural or inevitable; it's just stupid.* Frodo leaving Middle-Earth is a necessary and natural consequence of what he has endured. U.S. Marshals, the sequel to The Fugitive in which unnecessary people die, was just lazy.

So, I prefer to keep my heroes/groups/lovers together, but I'm willing, for the sake of good writing and transcendent endings, to split them up. But ONLY for the sake of good writing and transcendent endings. Otherwise, it's just nasty manipulation and there're better things for me to read and watch.

*A note on the (trillion) mystery/romance series. I really hate some of them although I don't start to hate them until about novel 3 or 4. They almost always include a single woman who lives in a small town where she is pursued by two men. One guy is sweet, kind, not-so-handsome but a wonderful human being. The other is danger guy. And the heroine can't make up her mind. And the guys stick around and wait. What self-respecting guy would STICK AROUND? and WAIT? By the time I hit book 4, I start to suspect that the writer is indulging in personal fantasy. GET OVER IT, I say. (I had the same reaction to Charlaine Harris' vampire series. I really enjoyed the first few books, but I lost interest eventually. Eric was the most interesting love interest Harris created for the heroine, but because, presumably, Harris couldn't make up her mind, the heroine couldn't make up her mind either. The new guy is just dull, so I gave up. If you like her books, though, rumors have it the series is being made into a television drama.)


Joe said...

This is intriguing. I'm the opposite. While I just didn't like the Lord of the Rings books, I especially disliked the fellowship thing--it felt corny and artificial for me. Likewise, TV shows with chummy groups of people drive me crazy.

House did the right thing--fire everyone before the nauseating chumminess develops (it had already started.) Having just rewatched Buffy, it's really clear this destroyed the show. Whedon deliberately avoids this with Angel, almost to a detrimental degree, and with Firefly.

Now I do agree that the relationships should resemble reality--be "natural". Xander breaking up with Anya was so unbelievably stupid I still can't figure out what they were thinking. (Especially since it wasn't like either had another outlet for their affections--it goes with my theory that most the writers were single and had over-idealistic views of relationships and simply can conceive that people can be in love and still hate each other, to put it in extreme form.)

Drama IS conflict.

For me, I vastly prefer the loner/small group against the world. This is what makes Terminator such a great movie. But even within the group genre, I prefer groups that show internal conflict like Red Dwarf and Dead Like Me. (I'm struggling to come up with a chummy-ensemble show/movie/book that I like.)

Now the question is; is this a male/female thing. I think in part it is. Guys definitely show a stronger affinity toward Road Warrior, James Bond and Dirty Harry and it's not just the excellent violence, er, action. On the flip side, from what I understand ER is very highly rated with women. I wonder if part of it is that women do seem, in general, to pursue stability.

The perpetual platonic boyfriend thing seems to be very feminine (in general; there are plenty of women who find this every bit as annoying as most men) and, I agree, baffling from the male perspective. Crudely put, if the guy doesn't get laid after a certain point, why isn't he moving on?

PS. Of course, above all this, if a book/movie/tv show doesn't have a good story and good writing, nothing much else matters. (Given Sex in the City, this is obviously a view most definitely not shared by many viewers.)

Kate Woodbury said...

I agree that the group needs to have some kind of internal dynamic or tension. Dead Like Me is a good example, where the group functions successfully without touchy-feelyness. When the touches or moments of affection do come, they are consequently that much more surprising and sweet. Another show where this happens is Deep Space Nine, mostly between Quark and the other characters (who, in general, are very chummy with each other). One of my favorite scenes, for instance, is when Odo trashes his quarters out of frustrated love. Quark shows up, obstensibly to complain (he lives downstairs) but really to check on him.

"We two against the world" is one of my favorite motifs as well. It's what I like about X-Files, Due South, Nero Wolfe, Lois & Clark, Bones (kind of; I get tired of shows where the writers keep inventing reasons to keep the leads apart; in X-Files, the reason was built into Scully and Mulder's personalities).

I think with both the group and the small set, the most important element is the one Eugene referred to in conjunction with Stargate: exasperation. I think this is what makes early Lois & Clark so funny. Whenever Lois gets freaked out about something, Clark just nods and goes along and then grins to himself.

It's also the reason why I can't really get into Beauty & the Beast with Ron Perlman. Great idea but gosh, they take themselves seriously. (Likewise, X-Files got better once Scully dealt with Mulder with a slight edge of exasperation--not over the top, but it is always there.)

Actually, I've decided that lack of humor is the death of most romance--television drama or novel drama.

Eugene said...

There's a very good anime series called Eureka 7 that reminds me a lot of Firefly in overall story structure. And also that when the series begins all the couples that you could expect to pair up are paired up. Beginning in media res, this only makes sense. I think a lot of story runners shrink from establishing relationships because they think it'll rob them of conflict. But when you actually see relationships realistically worked into the story, the opposite is true. Clearly, Xander/Anya together offered a lot more possibilities than what they ended up doing.