“In rode the Lord of the Nazgûl. A great black shape against the fires beyond he loomed up, grown to a vast menace of despair. In rode the Lord of the Nazgûl, under the archway that no enemy ever yet had passed, and all fled before his face.”
– John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, The Return of the King
It is no big secret that Peter Jackson’s epic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) is my favourite film series of all time; it’s the reason that I do what I do now and, ultimately, every time I write, I subconsciously think back to the first time I saw this cinematic feast unveil itself on the big screen and think to myself: “How can I make this film impact on someone like The Lord of the Rings did on me?” In these articles, I’m going to talk about something I’ve taken from watching these films, and sum it up in one sentence.
This time around, I’m going to talk about strong physical presence, as well as the significance it can have on the viewer. What better example of this than Middle Earth’s feared black riders, the Nazgûl? I’m sort of assuming everyone is familiar with the lore behind these fearsome beings, but if you’re not, here’s a quick summary of The Nine: The Nazgûl, or Ringwraiths if you prefer, were among the very fiercest of Sauron’s servants; fallen Kings of men, who The Dark Lord corrupted through the rings of power. There’s a great quote from the books where Gandalf explains to Frodo (somewhat more eloquently) how they came to be:
“Nine he gave to Mortal Men, proud and great, and so ensnared them. Long ago they fell under the domination of the One, and they became Ringwraiths, shadows under his great Shadow, his most terrible servants.”
– John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
From the offset, the Nazgûl are presented as an indisputable embodiment of fear. Of all the things we encounter in this fantasy realm, these black riders are what stand out the most to me as genuinely scary. Their whispers, though an infrequent occurrence between sniffing and whaling screams, send chills down your spine as much as they do our Hobbit-y protagonists’. Yet this is only part of their awesome effect. Whether they are sweeping through Middle Earth on foot, on horseback, or upon the backs of mighty flying serpents, they inspire dread in all who encounter them, and in Middle Earth lore there are few who have dared face one in combat, least of all the leader of this evil force, The Witch King of Angmar.
However, what impresses me the most about them is their capacity to achieve this without so much as a word. All hope and courage wavers at the sight; nay, presence of these fallen men (memories of the scene in which insects flee in a fear driven swarm as the Hobbits hide from one beneath the root of a great tree spring to mind), and that is a powerful trait for a character to possess. More so, it is an effective one when observing this from an audience’s perspective. Oftentimes in film, a truly powerful performance can be completely ruined by just a few lines of bad dialogue; it detracts from the impact a character makes, at the expense of an otherwise well-composed physical presence. What Tolkien, and more relevantly to my interest, Jackson, do with the Nazgûl is eliminate this problem by focusing more on the way they present them visually, as opposed to linguistically. From the second one steps on screen, chaos and terror can be found right around the corner. In turn, this serves to convey a force of pure evil without the need to state it. What this also means is that when they do talk, it’s worth hearing… *
In other words, sometimes it’s about what is shown, not what is said.
– Joe Aldous
* I’m aware this moment is significantly changed from how it unfolds in the book, but ask me if I care…
- Peter Jackson Reflects On The ‘Long Time’ He’s Worked On ‘The Hobbit,’ Stands By Frame Rate (mukeshbalani.wordpress.com)
- Movie Review: The Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring (projectedrealities.wordpress.com)
- Peter Jackson: the maker of Middle Earth (standard.co.uk)
- JRR Tolkien’s revolver reveals true First World War story behind The Hobbit (economicvoice.com)
- The Hobbit Schools Tolkien Fans on How to Pronounce “Smaug” (entertainment.time.com)