…And Some Nice Crispy Bacon
A filmmaker has many tools to portray a character. First of all, there’s the dialogue. A lot can be said about a character in a few words – Butterbur’s description of Strider in The Prancing Pony for instance is the perfect way to outline the character which is about to be introduced; and on the other hand one can learn a lot about Boromir of Gondor from his lines at the council of Elrond.
Dialogue is brought to life by interpretation, and so casting is also vital when you want the audience to understand a character: Elijah Wood’s facial expressions are just as important as the words he says, and the reason why Brad Dourif’s portrayal of Gríma Wormtongue made such a big impression on me is simply the depth of his performance and the many layers he suggests with his pronunciation and gaze.
But a body which performs needs to be dressed, and so props, make-up and costumes are also vital to the construction of a character: the starlight in Galadriel’s eyes, Boromir’s shield or Saruman’s worn garment are a vital part of what persuades the audience to view these characters in a certain light.
Lighting, music, screen time… all these things matter when it comes to portraying the characters correctly and have great influence on the audience. But sometimes these conventional tools won’t suffice, and filmmakers need to be innovative and come up with special ways to subconsciously influence the audience.
Peter Jackson chose to use food.
Carrots, Mushrooms & Apples
No other character – or group of characters – is so involved with food as the Hobbits: out of eighteen food-related moments in Fellowship of the Ring only three don’t involve the Hobbits in some way. Most obvious is Pippin, who has no less than eight food-related scenes.
If we take a closer look at these, we get a better insight of how Peter Jackson wanted the Hobbit characters to come across to a non-bookie audience.
At the beginning of the movie, Jackson tries to give us a general introduction to the Hobbits and their way of life. He uses a great number of scenes to do this, and most of them involve food in some way.
When Gandalf arrives at Bilbo’s doorstep, the first thing the old Hobbit starts to do is try and fix his friend some kind of meal – enumerating all the things he has left to serve and concluding that (although it sounds like a large buffet to the largest part of the audience, no doubt) ‘it just won’t do’.
This tells us a great number of things: hospitality is very important to Hobbits, and apparently involves eating or drinking together. What is more a guest should eat and drink exceptionally well, and not something ordinary and everyday like cheese and roast chicken.
Other than that, it’s also surprising how well Bilbo knows the content of his own supply cabinet -–so Bilbo is not only constantly occupied with food, he must also have a very good memory. Whether this is exceptional for a Hobbit or not, we’re not told (although the fact that he has written a book about events that took place a good fifty years earlier does imply that it’s more of a personal trait), but Jackson does manage to put this connotation of memory (something that becomes increasingly important in the books as the trilogy nears its end) in the movie.
Another great Bilbo-moment also involves food, or better, drink: when Bilbo makes his farewell speech, it’s obvious that he is fairly drunk – his speech is a little difficult, his words slur, and he leans to the right a little as if he’s slightly off balance.
As a matter of fact, the use of alcohol plays an important part in the movie’s portrayal of the Hobbits: in three major scenes Hobbits are getting drunk. At Bilbo’s birthday party, the number of beer pulls is sheer uncountable, and the image of a Hobbit leaning against a large barrel of beer is not put in without reason. The scene that plays at the Green Dragon Pub – which most bookies consider a far better introduction to Frodo and his friends than the birthday party – involves Frodo buying a round of beers and Merry and Pippin standing on top of a table, singing, with their mugs in their hand. And the incident at the Prancing Pony is triggered by Pippin insisting on getting a pint of beer instead of settling for a smaller mug.
This, too, gives us a few pointers as to how Jackson sees the Hobbits: beer is usually associated with fun, social contact, long nights discussing the great themes of life or merely gossiping in the company of friends.
What’s more, Frodo’s buying a round for his friends (or that is what is implied by him carrying four mugs around) also shows that he’s not just a wealthy Hobbit but generous.
Bilbo’s signs of intoxication pull him into the lower realm of the ‘ordinary Hobbit’, which tells us a bit more about him: we know he’s exceptional in some ways (though maybe we don’t really understand why) and he’s obviously a Hobbit of great importance; but he doesn’t seem to be very different in his ways. This points us towards the idea that Bilbo was tricked into joining the quest for Erebor – much like Frodo rolls into his quest by accident.
The sequence of Bilbo’s birthday party is important for another reason: it launches the Apple Joke, which has been topic of much discussion. When we see Merry sneak behind the tent to choose a piece of firework, he is eating an apple – during the whole of Fellowship we catch many glimpses of either Merry or Pippin eating or at least holding an apple. The most famous one is when Pippin asks Strider about second breakfast and the Man tosses two apples at him, but apples also appear in other places. This emphasises the comedic nature of their characters.
As a matter of fact, Merry & Pippin have plenty of food-related scenes – and most of them serve as some sort of comic relief.
When Frodo and Sam encounter their friends in Farmer Maggot’s cornfield, they are running away with arms full of stolen vegetables. The entire sequence revolves around food, with already legendary moments as Sam with arms full of cabbages and carrots, Merry breaking his carrot and Pippin finding mushrooms.
This refers to something in the books (Frodo stole mushrooms from Farmer Maggot and was afraid to stop by there), but it also fits within the frame of the movie: it shows Merry and Pippin as youngsters, rascals who pull harmless tricks. It also counters some of the heavier and more emotional scenes that surround this sequence: the treason of Isengard, the journey of Sam and Frodo and the encounter with and flight from the Nazgûl.
Merry and Pippin also provide the heavy Prancing Pony-sequence with some light relief: the conversation about pints forms a brief halt in an otherwise almost unbearably heavy sequence which begins when the Hobbits hide from the Nazgûl and ends when the Hobbits start to journey with Strider. The same trick is used at Weathertop, when Frodo is awoken by the sounds (and no doubt smells) of tomatoes, eggs and nice crispy bacon.
Sam, too, is associated with food a couple of times in Fellowship Of the Ring (and those who have seen the second instalment, The Two Towers, will recognise even better what I’m about to say): he too drinks at the Green Dragon and the Prancing Pony, he is the one who carries pots and pans around and he is the one who cooks during his journey with Frodo through the Shire, at Weathertop and at Hollin.
All of this shows us how Jackson interprets the relationship between the loyal servant and the troubled master: Sam is the caretaker, the one who makes sure all the necessities (like food) are taken care of so Frodo can allow himself to be preoccupied with other, more demanding but in a way less important things. This is not merely the actual way their relationship is organised, but it also shows us how Sam thinks of himself: he is the one carrying the pots and pans. He is the one who has to take care of his master – in a way he is the most important one on this quest.
The Deer Hunter
One of the most uncharacteristic food-related scenes in the movie is the shot of Strider bringing a deer to the Hobbits when they are journeying to Weathertop.
Why is this so uncharacteristic? Because it’s not canon, it’s not comic relief and it serves no actual purpose. It was Viggo Mortensen’s own idea, who had this image in mind when trying to figure out the relationship between his character Aragorn and the Hobbits on this first stage of their journey.
And it was sheer brilliance.
Many things are shown with this shot. For one, the concept of Ranger is elaborated on: Strider is not just a dirty Man who knows the way to Rivendell. He is, for one, a hunter – reminding us of many a character from European mythologies. The theme of the hunt or the hunter is one that reoccurs often in late Germanic and early medieval texts such as ‘Beowulf’ or ‘Sir Gawain and the Greene Knight’.
This is emphasised by the fact that Strider catches a deer, an animal that is omnipresent in Germanic and Celtic mythologies and texts.
It also shows us more clearly than anything else could, that Strider is no threat to the Hobbits: he too, like Sam, is some kind of caretaker. He provides the Hobbits with food, in a silent way – as if he’s been doing it all his life. No words are added or needed in this scene, because that is who Strider is.
Finally, it also shows a part of Strider’s perception of Hobbits: in stead of keeping a constant eye on them he doesn’t seem to mind to leave them alone and unguarded in the wild. This could mean that he doesn’t care too much about them, but on the other hand it could also imply that perhaps Strider knows all too well that these little people are capable of watching their own back for a while. In which case he values them as high as Gandalf does – and as a matter of fact, when the journey continues we see that Aragorn pays less attention to the Hobbits than Boromir: not because he’s uncaring but because he figures they can take care of themselves, whilst Boromir keeps seeing them as children who need to be taken care of.
Or, put in other words: Boromir is misguided by appearance, while Aragorn has learned (and is the living prove of the fact) that looks are rather unimportant.
Dew & Lembas: the Otherworldliness of Elves
In Tolkien’s books, a lot of attention is paid to the concept of lembas: because they become increasingly important in the second and third part of the trilogy, Jackson added a small scene about them in the Extended Edition of Fellowship of the Ring, which involves Legolas explaining about their use and purpose to Merry and Pippin who obviously already discovered certain qualities – much to their own dismay. (Again, comic relief).
This is the only reference to food involving an Elf, and it would not be so strange if it hadn’t been for the fact that Jackson omitted a large scene from the Many Meetings chapter which involved the Elves organising a grand banquet for Frodo and his companions. This was left out for practical reasons, or so the authors claim, but I can’t help thinking that it also aids Jackson and his team to intensify their interpretation of the Elves as a people.
The Elves in the movies are a lot more ethereal than Tolkien’s: they are almost flawless, graceful, wise, calm, drenched in melancholy… They lost all mischief and haughtiness, and they also lost the capacity to eat or drink. This gives the impression that Elves live off dew, which enhances their status as supernatural.
There are many interpretations of Tolkien’s Elves as being the ‘Angels of Middle-earth’. Though Tolkien himself hated such religious analogies, it seems that the filmmakers were thinking along the same lines when they adapted the books and the on-screen result is indeed not so far removed from the classical depiction of angels: tall, clad in robes, long hair, long slender limbs, refined features, pale skin, graceful.
Because angels are non-corporeal beings, they don’t require food or drink to sustain themselves: maybe that is the reason why Elves don’t eat and the only reference to food they make is at lembas – a bread that one should only take a little bite from to have enough.
The contrast with the Hobbits, who enjoy eating and drinking so much that it takes up a central place in their culture and Jackson’s portrayal of them, couldn’t possibly be bigger.
You Will Taste Man-Flesh
One other reference to food should be mentioned here, and that is the exquisite diet Saruman’s Uruk-hai are on: man-flesh. Can it possibly get any worse?
One rule in art about villains is that you have to give them an inhumane trait – much like demons can take on many guises, trolls turn to stone when they are faced with sunlight or Cruella DeVille wants to kill adorable little puppies for a fur coat; the Uruks are alienated from ‘ordinary’ bad guys by one trait which is outrageous enough to dehumanise them.
Because the Uruks resemble Humans so closely, we are of course immediately reminded of cannibalism – and this is one of the last and most important taboos in our western society: eating human flesh. Only monsters and psychopaths do such things, and maybe people in the greatest need. [One of the most important romantic paintings dealt with this theme (Le radeau du Méduse by Géricault) and it is still shocking] In Greek mythology one of the cruellest events is when Chronos, out of fear of losing the throne, eats all his children.
Because the Uruks are halfway between beasts (because of their low instincts) and Humans, they can now take a unique position in the movie: they are an enemy that cannot be sympathised with, and therefore completely wiped out. Hardly anyone will protest against the massive slaughter of Uruks in the next two movies – not like they would have if these had been Haradrim or Easterlings.
By using this line, Jackson simplified the story for the audience: there ís some black and white to it, after all, and this will allow for great and bloody battles like the Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers and the great battles that take place at the end of the War of the Ring.
And so Jackson uses food to influence the audience’s perception, not just of the Uruks, but of Elves, Hobbits and Men… To me, that is proof of his great brilliance as a filmmaker, and his insight in the human psyche.