When I was about 12, my parents took me to see a stage version of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings performed with life-sized puppets. As Frodo was agonizing over pitching his precious ring into the fiery pit of Mount Doom, Sam, exhausted from the epic journey but determined to help his beloved friend, inched out onto the rocky promontory. He reached his puppety arms out to relieve Frodo of his burden, they both fell into the fires of Mount Doom, and the curtain came down.
Now, I remember reading The Hobbit when I was a kid – or rather I don’t actually remember reading the book so much as I can picture the actual book itself, and am dimly aware that I read it. It belonged to my father when he was young, and was one of those old, slightly yellowing paperbacks with a boring cream cover and a little oval drawing under a green title and calligraphic lettering. I think I also began reading The Lord of the Rings, but got bogged down in the descriptions of the moss on the bump on the log in the hole in the bottom of the Shire. That said, I was pretty sure this wasn’t how it was supposed to end.
The audience greeted the unexpected resolution with the kind of awkward shuffling, coughing silence often exhibited by groups of people who are unsure of the appropriate response. After several minutes, someone came out on stage and announced that there had been an accident and the show was over. It turned out that the scaffolding had collapsed and at least one of the puppeteers had broken a limb, which was awful, but from the perspective of a kid watching from the front row of the second balcony there was a kind of comic existential perfection to it that I was never able to recast even after I found out what had actually happened. I felt like a bit of a jerk, but it still made me laugh.
And what if it really had ended that way? It would have been simultaneously brilliant and terribly disappointing. Everyone wants to see the very special heroes improbably prevail, but in our lives how often do we have that experience? Most of us go through life achieving small, mundane victories and suffering a string of tiny defeats. Faced with such a task, the majority of us would probably breathe too loud and get discovered by the Nazgul, or take the wrong path through the Dead Marsh and sink, or get gnawed on by Orcs, assuming we didn’t break a few bones falling down that hill on the way out of the Shire and have to slink back home to bed. But watching someone succeed against overwhelming odds and imagining that it’s possible is a kind of siren song.
When that curtain dropped, somewhere in the midst of my confusion I briefly had the feeling that I had been given something extraordinary. In the disruption of the routine comfort of the expected narrative resolution, there was an emotional jolt that seemed to offer some kind of genuine insight into the human condition. For one small moment in time, I half believed that I was going to be asked to process this twist ending where the heroes tragically fail at the penultimate moment in an oddly short, anti-climactic slump into the void. And the thing is that in a way it would have been so familiar and believable.
No doubt the lobby would have been flooded with crabby, tense people who got stuck a few inches shy of catharsis. A full-blown tragedy or graphic horror film is one thing – they play the emotional narrative out all the way, evoking an intensity of feeling that gets people in trouble in their everyday lives but is perfectly acceptable from the safety of an armchair – but a narrative build up that collapses without warning or time to process is profoundly uncomfortable. It’s like ending a concerto on a dissonant chord that never resolves, so the audience is left with an almost visceral need to relieve the tension.
Discomfort can be a catalyst for deeper understanding and growth, largely because we’ll do just about anything including evolve to escape it. I think some films succeed because they manage to create a sense that the uncomfortable outcome is simultaneously unexpected and inevitable. Donnie Darko, for instance, follows the protagonist through a series of events which end with him being killed in his bed by a falling jet engine at a point in time before anything that happens in the film has a chance to occur. The whole narrative unravels backwards and loops around, cancelling itself out, averting one set of random tragedies and replacing them with another. Donnie’s death is both a shock and no surprise at all, and in the context of the film it seems organic.
Compare that to the original version of the ending to Kevin Smith’s Clerks, where one of the main characters, Dante, gets randomly shot by a robber and dies. Now that would just have pissed people off. It’s probably the same reason that Camus’ L’Etranger is the only book I’ve ever thrown across the room upon finishing it. Part way through, the main character murders a man on a beach for no reason he seems to care to explain to anyone and with no sign that it means anything in particular to him. I can appreciate a narrative that mimics the apparent arbitrariness of death or the pathos of quietly missed connections, but I don’t feel a need to manufacture any meaningless tragedy.
Which brings me full circle back to puppet Frodo and Sam’s sudden slide into the pit of doom. It’s a resolution that seems especially funny when juxtaposed against the endlessly drawn out Mount Doom sequence at the end of Peter Jackson’s film version of Return of the King, where the slowness of the slow motion was manipulative to the point at which I almost wished they would fall in. Almost.
I’m pretty sure the anti-climax would have been worse.
alex MacFadyen plans to gather his small victories and follow his string of tiny defeats until such time as he slumps quietly into the void, hopefully at an unsubversively advanced age .