It’s not a good sign when you watch something and think, quite clearly, of something else that did it better. But that was what happened on my watch of the final season of Game of Thrones, a season that was derided by pretty much every critic I read and person I know as appalling. They were not wrong. This was a season that folded within itself, grossly rewriting characters and forgetting years of slow and rich growth. But you know this, we all know this, and my finally watching these episodes will only serve to confirm how right we all were. Stories cannot be shot in almost total-darkness, characters cannot blink their way across the country, and goodwill can be lost – so, so easily.
It was The Long Night that broke me, an episode that should have been the pinnacle of so, so much and the way that it was not. The way that none of the marquee actors died (although here’s to you hot knight), the way that other characters just went off to the coast for a while on their dragons before popping back to see what was going on, and the way that the Red Witch just became the Red Witch Of Plot Convenience. And as the episode finished, I knew one thing very clearly: I had to rewatch The Lord Of The Rings film trilogy.
And I had to rewatch one very particular part of it.
The Battle Of Helm’s Deep
The Two Towers was first released in 2002. It had become a Christmas tradition for our family to meet at the cinema and watch these films together, and we arrived for The Two Towers with high ambition. It was a film unlike anything out there, part of a series of books that were beloved by all of us (full disclosure: I am not Team Bombadil in the slightest), and hinged on a battle that was – and still is – epochal.
In many ways, it’s a simple premise and a premise retold in a countless other films, whether they be Zulu or Hell Is For Heroes – the winner is the person who survives. Who lasts the longest. Who endures. Who wins. And ‘winning’ so to speak, is so often not what you might consider it to be.
Helm’s Deep understands battle in a way that The Long Night could only dream of. And what’s more, it understands how to bring the viewer along for the ride. There’s no self-satisfying tricks of light, no plot convenience, no artifice, and certainly nobody randomly running through an entire army and quite a lot of land to stab the chief orc in the heart when circumstances require them to.
(I know, forgive me, I’m still getting over it)
Battle costs. Physically. Emotionally. Psychologically. And it’s easy for a viewer to become disengaged by that – we are, after all, watching at a distance. We are separated by frame, by medium, by moment. I don’t live in Rohan (however much I might desperately want to). I’m not in the dark looking out onto a sea of Orcs. I’m not facing the darkest night of my life.
I’m on my sofa.
But Peter Jackson makes us see that, and he does it in some very particular ways. Have a look at the following shots –
As a rule, the good guys are on the left hand side and the bad guys are on the right. Even when things seem almost lost and they’re retreating, safety comes from that tight left hand side of the screen. Refuge. Sanctuary. The screen is overwhelmed by Orcs, but our guys can survive – they can endure – providing that they still have that little bit of space to call their own.
Of course there are shots that flip this and play around with it but it’s remarkable how many hold onto this simple, clear mode of storytelling. And this consistency pays off because you know where these people are. You know how to understand this battle. Peter Jackson’s giving you every single clue he can to understand these moments – and he’s doing it by using the geography of his screen and also of the battle itself in his favour. This is a keep. A fortress. This is how you get in. And this is where it will fall.
(Did nobody just – go – round the back of Winterfell?)
Learning Writing From Films
One of the more frequent pieces of advice I give my writing students is to think about structure in their work. A paragraph is like a brick in a house – it needs a certain shape and to be placed in a certain manner so that it complements that which comes before it and that which is yet to come. It needs to build something. And if you’ve established that, to stay with this metaphor, you’re building a wall, then it needs to stay on message.
(When you start off building a wall, you don’t want to end up with a casserole).
Structure encompasses a thousand other points. Beginnings. Endings. Sentence length. Starts of sentences. Ends of sentences. Breathing. Paragraphs. Line breaks. These are the dynamics of a page, the things that give a page a particularly quality and texture, and they are tools to be exploited. My debut , for example, features footnotes because they’re cool. They give the text a certain elastic quality, and that’s fun. It’s different. And I love the dynamic space they give me to play with.
Writing is hard. I will often give my students clips from films to help illustrate some of the points we’ve been talking. It’s easy to discount the relevance of films from the printed word – they are, as we all know, a different craft. But that’s not the way I roll: story is story, and we can learn from it however it’s presented. Here’s John Ford giving John Wayne a star-making entrance in Stagecoach – and, in the process, demonstrating precisely how to grab your readers attention.
Focus on the one thing you want people to really see. Make that thing big. Don’t let your reader see anything else other than that thing.
Use the stuff you have about you to help make your point.
There’s a point at the end of The Two Towers where salvation arrives in the shape of Eomer and his Eorlingas – an army that comes with the dawn of the third day. Gandalf rides with them (a point seeded by his departure earlier in the film – no loose plot here…) and together they charge down a hill into the orc army. It is beyond triumphant, and I am wrecked by it. I am wrecked by the charge, by Theoden, by Aragorn, by Eowyn, by the whole damn thing – and I am even wrecked by Legolas and his ‘not sure what to do with all this humanity, let’s just squint and hope for the best’ face. I am wrecked because this film has earned it from me. I have been paid for my investment in it. I have been thanked. I have been so very thanked.
I have described this sensation before as being selfish. (I’m still not sure that that’s the best way to describe it but it will have to suffice for now). I want a text to need me. I want to feel like I make a difference to a story. I want to feel like I matter to it being told. In some ways this is a difficult feeling to quantify, but in many ways it’s not. Have you ever finished reading something and been a bit ‘meh’ about it? Have you ever watched a film and forgotten it the moment that it ended? That’s what I mean – that sensation when you just ‘read’ or ‘see’ something rather than ‘feel’ or ‘engage’ in it. And yes, that’s a lot of scare quotes for a sentence to handle and I’m not even sure that they’re the right ones to use, but I do hope they suggest something of my point: stories are told, and they need to be heard. When we concentrate solely on the telling – on what we can do and how cool we can make something look with the technologies we have to hand – we lose something. The reader. The viewer. The audience.
In many ways the final season of Game Of Thrones became a story that was not told for others, and in many ways, Helms Deep is about nothing but the audience. Is a story still a story if it’s told in the forest and nobody’s there to hear it? The audience matters. The readers matter. And to forget them – to make something so dense and self-serving and to not even really matter (I mean, one battle, boom we’re done, let’s move on) – is a storytelling decision I am yet to love.
But I love every inch of Helms Deep, every inch.