Almost 16 years after the iconic film Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers released, it is still giving filmmaking goals to Hollywood. The latest filmmaker to draw inspiration from Peter Jackson’s cult movie — that’s based on JRR Tolkien’s fantasy — is Miguel Sapochnik, who directed the tentpole episode of Game of Thrones — The Long Night.
Unlike other filmmakers, who generally view LOTR as the holy grail of battle scenes, Sapochnik apparently only watched the movie’s famous battle sequence — The battle of Helm’s Deep — as a ‘reference point’ and eventually decided ‘to blow past it’. Sapochnik said that while deciding the fate of each sequence of the episode he just asked one question, ‘why would I care to keep watching?’. It seems that his strategy worked because 17.8 million viewers not only kept watching but also waited with hearts in their hands, to see how the living wins the battle against the dead.
Sapochnik delivered on most counts in creating The Long Night. If you watch the featurette titled, Inside The Episode you will see that the shoot of the battle sequence was a well thought out mix of real shots, C.G.I and VFX and that the sets of the battle were created on a mammoth scale. While the main characters were given due importance which kept us emotionally involved, it wasn’t just about them. The opponent — the army of the dead — was truly formidable. And, the ending was a surprise win when it felt like all was lost.
While all these ideas and strategies to create a battle sequence are great, they are hardly novel. In fact, 16-years-ago, Peter Jackson used the exact set of tricks to create the magnanimous battle of middle earth at Helm’s Deep.
Sapochnik may not have taken a leaf out of Jackson’s book and brought in his creativity into filming The Long Night, but it is extremely hard, even for an expert filmmaker like him to blow past that film. Lord of the Rings’ legendary battle sequence, in a way, has created the rule book of manufacturing epic cinematic wars and here are the basic rules that evenGoT’s creative episode The Long Night had to abide by, in order to be successful.
In 2003, when Two Towers released, Jackson decided not to use many of the latest digital technology of that time to create the battle sequence at Helm’s Deep, which would have made his job considerably easier.
Instead, he built up the battleground for real by making elaborate sets. A horde of extras and infantry of technical team members worked along with cast members and the makers through four months to shoot the 40-minute sequence of the battle at Helm’s Deep. Interestingly, most of the work was done in exceptionally bad weather. The story isn’t very different for the shoot of The Long Night.
Sapochnik too did not give up on reality. The battle of Winterfell was fought in an intricately manufactured set, and real actors and extras did most of the heavy lifting. From things as basic as handheld cameras to shoot the running sequence of Jon Snow, to prop doll stand-in for Lady Marmont, Sapochnik went old school many times to keep things real, despite having the latest technology at his disposal.
Of course, a touch of VFX and C.G.I gave this battle a cool edgy feeling, but for most parts what kept us grounded in reality were those claustrophobia-inducing alleyways in the Winterfell castle, the image of the long burning trench that kept the white walkers at bay for a short while, pile of dead bodies that were mostly made of clay, to real horses and those authentic looking weapons.
In the book, The Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote, “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”
Thunderbolt it was, for all of us, and the Night King, when Arya Stark pounced on him out of nowhere and killed him with the Valyrian steel dagger that ironically was once meant to kill Bran.
While Game of Thrones is known for unexpected turns, this was one shocker that no one saw coming. When it did, it made a tremendous amount of sense. We finally understood why we had spent so much time tracking Arya’s journey of becoming a master assassin.
The Lord of the Rings too had one such excellent surprise saved up for the very end. When Aragorn and Theoden had almost lost the battle at Helm’s Deep, and the Orcs and Uruk-Hai had almost overtaken the fortress, it is Gandalf who, along with Erkenbrand and his large army, surrounded the enemy from the only open side that they could have escaped from, finally winning the battle on behalf of men, dwarfs, and elves. (remember the battle of the bastards, that too was very similar to this one.)
Irrespective of what Sapochnik may have observed in Lord of the Rings, the exhaustion never really kicks in while watching the battle sequence of that film. The final battle happening in Helm’s Deep is intercut with Merry and Pippin convincing Tree-Bread and his tree friends to join the battle against forces of Saruman, which they finally do, and attack Isengard. Also, at the fag end of that battle, we see Frodo and Sam’s journey to destroy the ring.
There is a distinctive change of pace and tonality with these three sequences intercutting one another, much like there is in The Long Night. The episode opens with the battle at the gate of Winterfell, where the Dothrakis charge with flaming swords towards the army of the dead only to disappear in darkness. The second sequence is that of Arya hiding from White Walkers in the library, and the final sequence is that of the death of the Night King. Each of these sequences, as the makers have already pointed, represent different elements of filmmaking, different genres from action, and horror to monster movies, mixing up, what would have otherwise been one long boring battle sequence.
George RR Martin, like every fantasy writer, is a big fan of Tolkien. During an interview, the writer had confessed that it broke his heart when Tolkien killed Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. At the time Martin read LoTR, he was a 13-year-old boy. Martin observed, that by killing Gandalf, Tolkien broke the cardinal rule of writing. Until then readers had taken it for granted that the main character(s) cannot die. He said that once Gandalf was dead, the stakes were much higher because after that no character was safe. It was this rule-breaking, fantastic storytelling of Tolkien that later inspired Martin to kill off so many favourite characters in his series, The Song of Ice And Fire.
The TV series too had shown many deaths — of righteous heroes and nefarious villains. But, in the last episode, the stakes were much higher than that. While it was obvious that there will be many bodies to count in the end of the episode, and some of them will belong to our beloved characters, what was also foreboding was the prospect of total annihilation, the descend of the eternal long night, which will end the entire humankind.
The end of the world may not seem like a dangerous prospect these days, given that we have already seen 22 Marvel movies based on that premise. But, it was Lord of the Kings which first made us care about saving a fictitious world from eternal darkness. When Middle Earth’s fate was hanging in the balance, it was hard to not care for the dwarfs, elves, hobbits and humans and because the stakes were the highest, the sacrifices that Frodo and Sam made during their journey seemed noble, the battle of Helm’s Deep seemed absolutely crucial, and the win of the good over evil very necessary.
You can bring in state-of-the-art VFX designs, and C.G.I to construct a battle scene, but if those scenes do not have characters we care about as an audience, there is no way that the battle scene will be memorable.
One of the big difference between Tolkien and Martin’s works are the characters. While the characters that populate Tolkien’s world have clearly marked moral compass — they are either good or bad. Martin’s creations are way more human with their flawed perception of the world, ever-changing sense of morality and loyalty, their instincts too keen to take over their higher senses. GoT’s characters are all shades of grey, so it is hard to completely love or hate them. It is harder still to root for them, and yet here we are, at the end of the nine long years finding it different to not care or root for the characters, as they took on the Night King.
That’s the mastery of Martin, that almost trumps over Tolkien’s inventiveness, that he can make his audience care about a man who indulges in incest and tried to kill a child or root for a woman who once burned a young girl alive.
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