Favorite moments: ‘Stick to the shadows, Master Frodo’

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The video:

(Skip to 5:40)

Why it’s great:

In most kids movies, there sometimes comes a moment where the young star of the show has to embark on a dangerous mission to save the day, and sometimes those missions involve sneaking around without being seen. Looking past the obvious question of why it’d be sensible to send a pre-adolescent out on a solo sneaking mission up against dangerous, competent, and trained adults, those missions usually end with the youngster managing to embrace the spirit of the ninja and succeeding in saving the day.

But what if they didn’t?

As seen in the video above, Frodo Baggins bravely attempts to – in the words of reviewer OhhhMarmalade – become one with the shadows and escape from the Shire, complete with the theme music from Metal Gear Solid… only to instantly fail, be caught by the Ringwraiths, and plunge Middle Earth into a never ending age of darkness and hellish suffering.

Whoops.

What amuses me most about the segment above is showing what would really happen if Frodo, or any unqualified person, tried to become a ninja and become one with the shadows as they tried to sneak out of a heavily patrolled area: They would probably be caught almost instantly. It doesn’t matter how pure of heart they are, how noble their quest is, or that they love their family very much: They’re not trained, they’re not qualified, and they’re doomed from the moment they set out.

While there’s far, far too many instances of people failing at trying to do something they can’t in real life, having someone fail immediately at the big, important task/quest they set out to achieve seconds after starting can make for some great comedy, as poor Frodo demonstrates. It gets even funnier if they’re The Chosen One who have to save the world, which can then lead to all sorts of interesting situations: What do the other characters do now that the Chosen One has failed/is dead? Do they try to fulfill the quest? Realize that it was a terrible idea to send a child out to do an adult’s job? And if they do try to pick up the quest, do they have any chance at all at succeeding, since they weren’t chosen by fate/prophecy/God?

Failure can be funny, but it can also open up new avenues and scenarios in storytelling that are otherwise underutilized.

What we can learn from ‘Let’s Go’

Armageddon. Ragnarok. The end of all things. Almost every culture and mythology has its version of the moment when everything ends and the human race is wiped out.

But what if someone survived?

A few days ago, I came across the above music video, which tells the story of a Chinese astronaut who devotes his life to making it to the Moon, only for it to be all for nothing. Though only a little over three minutes long, it’s a gripping story, so let’s take a look and see what it does well.

You audience admires determined, focused characters

Though he gets no lines, or even a name, the astronaut in the video gets our attention thanks to his strength of will: Thanks to a very efficient montage, we see him devoting everything to accomplishing his dream of getting on the Moon, sacrificing joy, happiness, or even love. Yet, we still root for him to succeed: How many of us wish we could devote every waking moment of our lives to accomplishing our dreams? Sadly, many of us can’t, which makes us envious and (begrudgingly) admiring of those who can. The same goes for fictional characters. Perhaps your character wants to become president, or go into outer space, or win a spelling bee. Seeing them striving to accomplish a dream makes for compelling drama as they learn whether their dream is really worth everything they’re sacrificing.

It’s important to note that determined, focused characters don’t need to be heroes. Consider the T-800 and the T-1000 in the first two Terminator films, Sauron from ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ and the Thing from the 1982 Universal film of the same name: All three have solid, achievable goals (kill John Conner, take over the world, and take over the world by assimilating everyone on it), and stop at nothing to achieve those goals. Both antagonists and protagonists benefit from laser-like focus, and when their strength of wills clash, it can make for some of the most compelling drama ever put to page or screen. Need proof? Consider Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in ‘Return of the Jedi’: The former wants to redeem his fallen father, and the latter wants to convert him to the dark side. Neither will budge, and their duel of wits becomes what is arguably the most dramatic sequence of any Star Wars film:

Consider exploring what would happen to the lone survivor of a world-ending event

What would you do if the world was destroyed, and you were the only survivor? What would you do? How would you live? Would you even try to, or let yourself succumb to despair and throw yourself out the airlock? In the case of the music video, the astronaut realizes that what really mattes to him most is achieving his second chance of experiencing love, and he stops at nothing to make it happen.

While destroying the world shouldn’t be done lightly in any medium, doing so has the advantage of forcing a character to confront reality without all the masks that they put up to protect themselves from other people and society at large. Do they go nuts and indulge their every whim? Succumb to despair and meaninglessness? Or do they defy the odds and refuse to give in, searching for others who might have survived, or chronicling everything for whatever sapient life form comes after them? There are countless possible answers, and wanting to see what happens to isolated, vulnerable characters will keep an audience engaged in our stories.

Consider having your character escape/navigate/survive the fallout from a world-ending event

When something big – like a building, a city, or a planet – is destroyed, it creates a lot of debris and wreckage. In some situations, it gives us an opportunity for a unique action scene of characters having to escape said debris. ‘Let’s Go’ has the astronaut fighting to reach the space station before it gets out of reach, but to do so, he has to go through a debris field consisting of wreckage from Earth, making it extremely difficult for him to reach his goal, and with the promise of certain death if he fails.

When writing our own stories, having to navigate the ruins of a wrecked mega-structure can lead to some exciting action scenes that we don’t get to write very often. If the opportunity arises, embrace them and milk them for all they’re worth. One of my favorite examples comes from 2016’s ‘Independence Day: Resurgence,’ in which David Levinson and friends have to dodge falling debris sucked up from all over the Earth that subsequently rains down on London.

Consider having your character/s decide to accept death and pass the time as best they can

In disaster movies, it’s very common for the survivors and main characters to either find a way to stop the disaster, or start rebuilding afterwords, hopeful and upbeat that one day, things can return to normal.

But what if they couldn’t? What if they had no chance at all of rebuilding, or surviving, and death is inevitable?

One type of story we don’t see too much of these days is the disaster story where there’s no way for the characters to survive in the long run. It’s easy to understand why: Audiences want a happy ending, or a hopeful one. A story where everyone is going to die, won’t leave them feeling good after leaving the theater, closing the book, or turning off the game console. But if we choose this path, writers have a unique opportunity to explore what characters might do if they only have a little time left to live. Will they weep? Try to make peace with their god? Resolve any lingering conflicts with their loved ones? Or will they accept it and try to have fun before the end? Both astronauts choose the last option in ‘Let’s Go,’ deciding to play video games together as they drift off into the void.

Choosing the path of inevitable death need not be dark. It can be sad, but it also gives characters one more chance to enjoy themselves, or to choose how they will spend what little time they have left. And if they go out having fun, or healing long-simmering hurts, that can be just as uplifting as a happy ending.

The Takeaway

Our audience will always admire a protagonist or antagonist who has a goal and obsessively pursues it, even at a cost of personal happiness. They’ll be even more interested if that individual is the only survivor of a world-ending event, and applies that determination to surviving or continuing on, no matter how bad things get. But if they are doomed, those characters can become their most interesting selves when they have to decide how to spend what little time they have left.

Favorite Moments: The saga of Dervorin, the… ringbearer?

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The game

‘War in Middle Earth’

The video

(Skip to 27:35 to reach the relevant part of the video)

Why it’s great

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: In the land of Middle-Earth, the Dark Lord Sauron seeks to reclaim his Ring, which will give him the power to enslave the world. After the Ring is found by Frodo and his friends, they head for Rivendell, only for Frodo, Sam, and Merry to be cut down by Ringwraiths, leaving Pippin to be the Ringbearer.

Wait, what?

Afterwords, Pippin eventually makes his way to the city of Minas Tirith, where he personally commands the defense of the city, but during one of the seemingly endless assaults, Pippin falls in battle, leaving only heroic Dervorin to take up the ring, at which point he bravely sets out to reach Mt. Doom with 881 of Gondor’s finest infantry. But the quest runs into disaster when all of Dervorin’s troops are mowed down by 500 trolls; now alone, Dervorin continues on, sneaking through the mountains of Mordor before finally reaching Mt. Doom and chucking the Ring in, defeating Sauron and saving Middle-Earth!

Okay, so that’s not how The Lord of the Rings played out. But thanks to the computer game, ‘War in Middle Earth’, we have this curiously compelling tale of what might had happened in the tale to save Arda. Aside from the obvious deviation of having all the hobbits die – save Pippin – we get a story where it isn’t some legendary or heroic figure who takes the Ring to Mt. Doom, but some random guy most Tolkien readers have never heard of. I don’t blame any of them either; Dervorin appears only briefly in ‘The Return of the King,’ where he leads 300 men to the defense of Minas Tirith… and that’s all he contributes to the story. We don’t even know if he dies or not, which makes him an odd choice to entrust the fate of all Middle Earth to.

So why do I like this video so much? There’s the novelty factor of seeing a beloved tale being changed so drastically that it’s almost entirely new, of seeing favorite characters take on new roles and getting into interesting situations (like Gimli somehow evading 492 trolls by himself in the wilderness), but what captivates me the most is Dervorin himself. In a film, he would be an unnamed extra, someone in the background who doesn’t draw attention to himself. In battle, he would be one of the countless mooks who’s only purpose is to provide cannon fodder for the enemies, and to die to emphasize how dangerous the battle is. In every aspect, Dervorin is a nobody, an unimportant character who doesn’t have the luxury of plot armor to keep him alive.

Now, imagine what it must be like to be one of this unnamed, unimportant background characters, and suddenly be entrusted with the fate of the world.

When he gets the ring, Dervorin goes from being a nobody to being the most important person alive in Middle Earth. If he fails, Middle Earth is doomed. He’s the ultimate underdog, and we suddenly become invested in his survival, eager to see if he triumphs. And aside from the aforementioned skirmish with all those trolls, Dervorin somehow manages to pull it off, making his way to Mt. Doom all by himself, and managing to throw the ring in, all while apparently being immune to its corruption. That makes him awesome, and a fantastic example of an underdog rising to the occasion and saving the day.

Favorite Moments: The TRON Holiday Special

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The Video

Why it’s great

No, this isn’t a long-lost relic from the 80’s that should have stayed lost: this Funny or Die video pokes fun at the Star Wars Holiday Special by imagining what might have happened if TRON had a special of its own. The answer? It would have been as terrible/awesome as it’s infamous real-world counterpart.

While my favorite moment is poor Santa being de-rezzed, the whole video is a great example of the Christmas Special trope, and why it’s a near-perfect formula for comedy gold:

1. Take any franchise and give it a Christmas special, no matter how absurd it might be (Can you imagine a Hellraiser Christmas? How about a Waterworld Christmas?).

2. Have your characters save Christmas.

3. Have said characters learn the True Meaning of Christmas (which may or may not involve Jesus, depending on your audience).

If you’re looking for comedy, you really can’t loose with the Christmas Special: the more outlandish and non-family friendly franchises you get, the better the comedy. Imagine how hilarious it would be if Darth Vader had to deliver presents to all the good Stormtroopers on the Death Star and learn that it’s better to give than to receive. Or imagine Gandalf, Frodo, and the Fellowship traveling to Mordor to save Santa after he’s been kidnapped from Sauron. Or contemplate how amusing it would be for the Umbrella Corporation to feel the holiday spirit and work to make everyone’s Christmas a little merrier while simultaneously trying to destroy with with zombies.

No matter what genre your franchise is, injecting some holiday cheer is a great way to make your audience laugh… even if said franchise involves giant, shapeshifting robots from beyond the stars.

What we can learn from: ‘Ring One’

 

One of the greatest pleasures of our digital age is how easy it’s become for fans to create crossovers of their favorite franchises and play around with all manner of ‘what if?’ scenarios. Most of these revolve around characters and factions from different franchises fighting each other, but every so often, we get a crossover that tries something a little different.

This mashup of ‘The Return of the King’ and ‘Rogue One’ sounds like it would focus on, say, the Fellowship of the Ring infiltrating Scarif to steal the Death Star plans (Oh, how I would love to see Legolas taking out stormtroopers with his arrows), but  ‘Ring One’ tries something we don’t see very often in these mashups: Tragedy.

While it’s fun to imagine the Empire and the free people of Middle Earth fighting one another, and our heroes saving Middle-Earth, this mashup shows how it would really go: Everyone would die. Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn, Sauron, and everyone else are obliterated by the Death Star. Yet, while such a situation can be depressing, ‘Ring One’ makes it a great example of the ‘Face Death with Dignity‘ trope. We’re so used to seeing characters be brave and courageous when facing impossible odds in everyday life, but what happens when they face their inevitable deaths? Are they still brave and courageous? Do they try to flee, even when it’s hopeless? Do they pray? Do they try to comfort others?

For writers, having our characters know they’re going to die is a fantastic way to see their deepest qualities, to find out who they really are when they face the end. Here, Frodo still tries to get to the Crack of Doom, Sam spends his final moments of life trying to comfort him, and Gimil and Legolas finally reconcile from their trilogy-long distrust of each other.

Is it sad to see the Fellowship all die? Yes. But it’s beautiful in a bittersweet way: some of fiction’s most memorable moments occur only at the end of a character’s life, moments that can stay with us like nothing else can. We remember those who give their lives to save others, who spend their final minute trying to comfort someone else, or refuse to give in to fear. When you bring your character’s stories to a close, you have a chance to give them one final, shining moment of glory. Take advantage of that, and you’ll give your audience a moment that will stay with them forever.

Favorite Moments: ‘Then we must do without hope!’

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The Movie

‘The Lord of the Rings’ (1978 Bakshi film)

The Moment

Why it’s great

Today marks the 40th anniversary of Ralph Bakshi’s adaptation of ‘The Lord of the Rings’, an imperfect but ambitious attempt to bring Tolkien’s world to life on the big screen. While there is undeniably much to the film that didn’t turn out well, there are equally many things to do work, chief among them being the portrayal of Aragorn. While Viggo Mortensen is unquestionably more well known to the public, the late (and great) John Hurt’s performance of the ranger-turned-king is one of the film’s highlights.

Hurt’s interpretation of Aragorn embodies the spirit of what a perfect, Arthur-like king should be: Focused and knowing what’s at stake, but not using that that as an excuse to treat others unfairly. He may raise his voice, but only to get someone’s attention or get them back on track, but he also shows care to those under his guidance.

While there are other great examples of those traits throughout the film (including a fun moment where he gets into a play fight with Frodo), I like this clip the most because it portrays all three of those traits in only twenty seconds. It even has Aragorn turning grief into a motivator to keep Frodo and the others going, showing how determined he is to continue, even when all seems lost. Though he may be ridiculed for being a pantless Native American, this version of Aragon embodies what I’d like to see in a king, and I’d be happy to fight alongside him… and maybe offer some trousers.

Favorite Moments: Gandalf Destroys the Ring

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The Movie

‘Gandalf Destroys The Ring’

The Scene

Having finally found the One Ring, Gandalf destroys it.

Why it’s great

When it comes to dark lords in fiction, we expect them to be nearly-invincible abominations who can only be defeated through great sacrifice, peril, and suffering. But what if they could be defeated with hardly any effort?

The reason I love this fan edit so much is that it turns Sauron, a dark lord so powerful that he’s almost impossible to defeat, into a joke. His source of power, instead of being thrown into a volcano in the heart of his own realm, is destroyed by being thrown into a fireplace. It’s a brilliant subversion of the dark lord trope, and helps us imagine an alternate version of The Lord of the Rings where Sauron is so determined to conquer Middle-Earth, but he’s incompetent and easily foiled, turning him into a comedic figure instead of a force of pants-wetting terror.

In our own comedic stories, consider making your dark lord a force of utter terror that scares the pants off everyone who hears his/her/its name, who has armies beyond count, minions without end, and a will that can never be broken, and then have him be defeated in seconds:

*Someone shoots him with a gun or a bow.

*He’s hit with a rock.

*He trips and breaks his back (due to the ornate, impractical, and scary armor they’re no doubt wearing).

*His object of power is destroyed by hitting it with a rock (or a hammer).

And when all is said and done, the Dark Lord’s forces stand around in awkward silence and wonder what they’re going to do now.