Saturday, 22 June 2013

Eagle Problems

Have you heard of the Lord of the Rings?  It's pretty obscure, fifty thousand pages of rambling and made up languages.  Of course you've heard of the Lord of the Rings!  Everyone and their mum's heard of the Lord of the Rings.  Everybody who has ever lived has seen the extended editions of the films read the books and had a crack at the Silmarillion for a couple of pages before giving up with a headache and going to read literally anything else.  Okay I'm exaggerating, I'm sure they are some tiny children in outer Mongolia who have never seen the Lord of the Rings but the fact remains that it's one of the cultural touch stones of Epic Fantasy.  I have spent (some might say wasted) hours of my life discussing the Lord of the Rings with friends, acquaintances and colleagues and you know what always comes up, especially when we're talking about the movies, those fucking eagles.
Not these guys
You know the ones, the giant birds of prey that turn up to rescue Gandalf from Orthanc and the Hobbits from Mount Doom.  The massive feathery killing machines that emerge from the sky when the plot demands it before vanishing without a trace.  Everyone's always going on about the eagles, "Why didn't they just ride the eagles to Mordor in the first place?" asks 6 of the first 10 results returned when you Google eagles lord of the rings in as shrill and whinny voice.  Thousands of pieces of lazy nerd humour and joyless pedantry have addressed the issue and I want a piece of that action.

I didn't have a problem with the eagles in Lord of the Rings, eagles are cool, giant eagles are cooler and I was mostly just excited to see them on screen.  Huge winged predators turning up to rescue friendly wizards and fight not-quite-dragons are exactly what you want to see in a movie when you're a teenage nerd (or an adult nerd).  Even after realising the plot hole they presented I didn't care a great deal.  The rescue of Gandalf served to establish the wizard as a powerful character with all sorts of unexpected allies and after forty thousand hours of needing a wee and watching the Return of the King I was delighted not to dwell on Sam and Frodo's escape from Mount Doom (although it was a shame to miss out on the Scouring of the Shire).  LOTR's plot isn't watertight, but none of the holes are big enough to sink it.  The problems I have with the eagles are in the Hobbit.

The eagles' appearances in LOTR both serve valuable plot functions and, aside from the "why didn't they use them in the first place?" plot hole, don't raise a great deal of questions.  They're a powerful magical race, they're goodies, here's how they help, done and dusted.  The problem arises with how they're used in the Hobbit.  In that movie Gandalf summons the Eagles again and they save the heroes, again, before dropping them off on a rock and disappearing again, the dwarves stand on the rock without saying a word before watching a bird fly to the lonely mountain.  This is the moment where the eagles become problematic.  

Why do none of the dwarves discuss the eagles?  Why doesn't Fili of Kili or whoever ask them to take them the rest of the way?  These aren't just plot problems like in the use of the eagles in LOTR, these are character problems.  The fact that the dwarves silently watch the eagles go before discussing how much further they have to travel breaks investment in the characters.  The dwarves are ignoring this incredible thing that's just happened to them to avoid raising a plot hole, so they feel like actors rather than genuine characters and the audience finds it hard to care.

This is all so frustrating because the same events happen in the books and it never feels like a problem.  The difference comes because in the books the eagles talk, they have names and dialogue.  They are characters rather than plot devices.  Tolkien presents Gwahir and pals as a group of individuals and as such it becomes easier to accept their actions.  They presumably have their own thought and interests so it's less difficult to accept that they don't save the day every time Gandalf needs them to.  By using the eagles repeatedly  without developing their character the films reduce the Eagles to a feathery Deus Ex Machina and gives the viewer no reason not to ask "Why didn't they just ride the eagles to Mordor in the first place?" in as shrill and whinny voice.

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