Movies and the Mind

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Praising The Lord of the Rings in Anticipation of The Hobbit

The origins of identity in stories about hobbits, wizards and elves.

The Lord of the Rings
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There is great excitement leading up to the release of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, so it seems like a good time to reflect on The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy 10 years after its release. I’ll start by considering the collective impact of the movies, but ultimately I want to document a personal example of how movies can become “equipment for living.”

If one treats the three LOTR movies as one story, the combined mega-film is the biggest (a 15-month shoot featuring thousands of actors, extras and technicians), longest (over 9 hours), most expensive ($300 million), and most successful ($3 billion international box-office) movie of all time. There is something to be said for a mass communal celebration where many people invest a piece of themselves in a shared artistic experience. If that is what you are looking for, LOTR is a cinematic phenomenon with few rivals.

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While often maligned by serious critics, special effects can be seen as one of the defining characteristics of motion pictures as an art form in that they are unique to the medium and cannot be reproduced in other media such as literature or theater. LOTR is a modern big-budget film that could not have been produced in the past because it relies on state-of-the-art technology (e.g., the innovative motion capture techniques that bring Gollum to life). At the same time, the film makers dig deep into the history of film (and the history of perceptual psychology) and use any visual trick that ultimately serves their purpose (e.g., forced perspective techniques that create the appearance of a size differences by placing characters at various distances from the camera). LOTR reintroduces the audience to the magic of special effects on a grand scale.

Even more important than special effects, LOTR is serious about its story, characters, and emotional impact. The film makers balance a respect for the literary source material with an awareness of what is necessary to make a movie. The deep love that the director, writers, actors and technicians have for Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is evident in nearly every shot, and the film benefits immensely from being grounded in a fantasy world that has already been painstakingly imagined. At the same time, the film makers weren’t afraid to alter the book in order to make a better movie (e.g., highlighting the relationship between Aragorn and Arwen; everybody knows you can’t make a decent Hollywood movie without at least a little romance).

LOTR’s popularity, special effects and quality writing aren’t enough to explain why I personally was so profoundly moved when I first saw The Fellowship of the Ring in a dumpy local multiplex. My reaction surprised me at the time. I was a college professor in my 30s and a new father. I still loved movies, but they tended not to have the kind of visceral impact they had evoked when I was younger. Also I was skeptical about whether Tolkien’s books were even filmable. Yet somewhere around the tracking shot that simulates the perspective of a moth soaring over the ravaging of Isengard on its way to commune with an imprisoned Gandalf, I became aware of my own enchantment. That feeling continued through the rest of the film, multiple re-viewings, and the two subsequent films.

Upon reflection, I have come to the conclusion that the movie is so powerful to me because it effectively visualizes the birth of my self-consciousness. It brings me back to a time when my sense of who I was as a person was just beginning to take shape.

Psychologists such as Dan McAdams (The Stories We Live By) argue that identity is inherently narrative. Fundamental questions such as “Who am I?” are answered through the stories we tell out about ourselves. Stories about our struggles, our triumphs, our loves, and our hates combine into the sum total of our sense of self. For most people, these identity stories really emerge in adolescence. Certainly younger children tell stories, but their stories tend to be loose and episodic. In adolescence, people start trying to tell stories that put all the pieces of what they do and think together into a more or less coherent whole.

One of the things I was doing in early adolescence was reading Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It immersed me in a strange world that only vaguely mirrored my own, yet the archetypal motifs of the quest, wisdom, heroism, and evil were instantly familiar. Tolkien transformed these motifs into a series of tales that idealized friendship, loyalty, endurance, sacrifice and compassion, and these themes were woven into my identity.

As I grew up, Tolkien’s books retained a special place in my heart, but it had been a dozen years since I last read them when the films were released. Many of the specifics of the story had been forgotten, and the memories I did have had become vague and impressionistic. When watching the movies however, it all came flooding back to me in glorious detail. There are numerous scenes in the movie that make me feel like I am witnessing the better parts of myself springing to life (Gandalf standing against the Balrog; Treebeard despairing at the destruction of the forest; Sam carrying Frodo into the Mt. Doom; etc.).

When The Hobbit opens, I plan on going to the theater, perhaps to re-experience a few of those feelings once again. But this time I will be taking my 12-year-old daughter. She has read The Hobbit and liked it okay, but I don’t expect the movie to mean as much to her as it did to me. Fortunately, she seems to be finding similar soul-meaning in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. I imagine that years from now she will be able to look back on those novels and movies and witness her own sense of self emerging.

[Skip Dine Young's Psychology at the Movies is available at http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ISBN=0470971770]

Skip Dine Young, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Hanover College in Indiana and a licensed clinical psychologist.

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