City of the Dead, Crossroads of the Bored

squire: Here is a shot-by-shot breakdown
of this scene for your reference.

Next thing we see (shot 20), the company is crawling up some very steep stairs, under an equally steep ‘ceiling’ of rock, surrounded by structures of some kind.

Watch your step! No handrails.

What I never in a million years realized is that the structures are tombs, and the company is passing through the Cemetery of the Dwarves! (these things always look better with capitals: why?) Here is Grant Major and Brian Van’t Hul on the ideas they put into it and on the problems that resulted.

squire: A. Did you realize it was a cemetery when you saw this scene?

Elostirion74: Well I didn't realize that, but it's a good idea considering their ambition to show the history and culture of the Moria-dwarves. But there's something to this first shot which looks so fake and so painting-like I wish they could have just cut it. But the idea was good.

Darkstone: "Death! Death!! Death!!!" Not at first.

Weaver: Cemeteries, books, stairs, and fallible Gandalf... I didn't realize it was a cemetery until this discussion. I thought the skeletons here were just an indication that a battle had taken place in this location as well.

Aerin: Cemeteries and doors. It never occurred to me it was a cemetery, and I don't think it adds anything to know that it was intended as such. It seems superfluous. We've already got Boromir's remark that Moria itself is a tomb (which does indeed make the discovery that Balin is dead rather anticlimactic; by the time they get to his tomb, it's quite clear that no dwarves live in Moria and that they probably all were killed in a battle with orcs). In the movie, discovery of the carnage calls into question the idea of going through Moria, before the collapse of the doorway cuts off other options. As the company ascends the stairs, the remains scattered about are naturally construed as casualties of the fighting. I really don't see what it adds to have them traversing a cemetery, given that they already are traversing a dead city and a battlefield.

Elf_Maven: Nope, never in a million years did it occur to me that this area was intended to be a cemetery, with the Fellowship climbing past tombs of the dwarves.

squire: Should it have been more obvious, like having a line from a weepy Gimli crying over his ancestors?

Darkstone: Well, Gimli’s cried at the West-gate. Gimli crying all the time probably would have taken away from the impact of his sorrow at Balin’s Tomb. Besides, it’s not like Gimli didn’t know these ancestors were already dead, so it really wouldn’t make much sense for a Dwarf to lose his composure over them, especially in company with a bunch of outsiders. Very bad form. (So Gimli not crying is actually significant in itself, like the dog that didn’t bark in Doyle’s "The Adventure of Silver Blaze". A neat little character moment.) All which again points to the significance and impact of Gimli crying at Balin’s Tomb. People are going “Wow! The Dwarf is really losing it!!” rather than “Oh, Eru! There he goes again.”

Elf_Maven: I cannot recall how many times I'd watched FOTR before I listened to any of the commentaries, but it was A LOT. And not once did I catch on to the cemetery idea. No comments from Gimli would have established that for me. I would only have thought it was all weirdly tweaked and unlike the book.

It's not that I don't like it - in fact it added meaning to that scene when I found out what I was looking at - but that's exactly it: the meaning comes from knowing their surroundings, not from their actions or dialogue related to the story. I absolutely love the time, thought, and effort that were lavished upon the three movies (FOTR in particular, because after that everything seems to become more and more condensed), but almost the backstory of the creative efforts has come to mean more to me than Tolkien's story - at least while I watch the movies. 

squire: If it had been more obvious, would it have “foreshadowed” Balin’s tomb?

Darkstone: Dead Dwaves, deserted halls, and no roaring fires and malt beer? The only thing more obvious was to have actually shown Balin’s Tomb!!!!


squire: B. Why do we only see the hobbits (Frodo, and then Merry & Pippin) climbing the stairs in close-up?

Elostirion74: Because hobbits are the main point of perspective of the book and the film.

Darkstone: Just like the book? Hobbocentric? Or maybe it’s just they didn’t have money or time to build a second set of stairs for the “big” members of the Fellowship. We tend to forget the movies, especially FOTR, were filmed on a shoestring.



squire: C. I guess I understand the corpses scattered about the stairs, but what’s with the book? (talk about foreshadowing!)

Darkstone: Well, any cemetery worth getting buried in keeps records of where and when people are buried. Records are best kept in books. When the barbarians (or orcs or goblins) take over and start looting, books are usually the first casualties and end up being thrown willy-nilly.

Weaver: As far as the book on the stairs, well, there are lots of instances where books are used as props in the films -- Frodo drops a book he's reading when he hears Gandalf arriving in the shire, Boromir interrupts Aragorn reading a book in the Rivendell Museum, Saruman's got the big book with Balrog drawings in it, Elrond and Gandalf have their little discussion about Middle Earth in a library, Arwen drops a book right before Elrond realizes the life of the Eldar is leaving her, there's Gandalf's reading out of the Book at Balin's tomb, and Bilbo's book that he wants to finish, that Frodo continues and that is given to Sam at the end. Only two of these instances are from the books -- the rest are movie inventions. Maybe books are just convenient props. Maybe they are intended to convey the depth and age of Middle Earth. Maybe they are symbolic of moments where characters must trust to something besides their own knowledge, and I do think it's interesting that Frodo's journey starts when he drops the book -- the moment when he stops reading a story and enters into one. In this scene, the book could represent that the Age of the Dwarves is over -- their knowledge is found only in places of "death." And yes, I have had a lot of caffeine today.

squire:  In the commentaries (reference above), Grant Major goes on and on and on about the safety issues involved in having actors perform on a 20-foot high sheer staircase.

D. While as a former art director I deeply sympathize with him, why is this included in the commentaries?

Darkstone: Actually, I love it. My dream job on the production would’ve been Safety Supervisor. I’d have been able to wander around to any set any time, talk to anyone, and just stand around and look.

squire: Who cares?

Darkstone: Hmmm. Seem to remember board discussions about all the accidents during the movie and whether adequate safety measures were taken. Obviously some TORnsibs care. Indeed, I would think all fans would care. Isn’t caring one of the major themes of Tolkien? “No Man (or Elf or Dwarf or Hobbit or Ent) is an island”?

Anyway, I’m sure “Who cares?” could be said by someone somewhere about anything on the commentaries.

squire: Since he starts by giving Jackson credit for the idea, is he in effect boasting that no matter how crazy Jackson’s requests, the art department came through -- while biting their fingernails that nothing would screw up?

Darkstone: Well, yeah. Understandable. People who love their work like to talk about it and how they overcame obstacles and difficulties. Nice to see how much these guys love their work.

squire: Or were the editors of the commentaries just enthralled by his commitment to on-set safety?

Darkstone: Jackson does seem to come across as having a magnetic personality. “Enthralled” seems an apt description. And Jackson seems to have his priorities straight regarding safety. Look how much flack he took over the shot with Edoras and the backward smoke just because he felt the winds were too dangerous for any more helicopter shots. Or all the complaints over the standing falls of the stunt horses at the Pelennor. Personally I’m glad to know the safety consciousness of a director. I have a hard time watching films like Ben Hur (1925), How The West Was Won (1962), Flight of the Phoenix (1965), or The Twilight Zone (1983). The idea that someone was horribly injured, much less killed, while filming a movie takes all the enjoyment out of it. At least for me. I’m sure there are a few descendants of the Plebian Mob who would actually enjoy it more. Look at the sales of “Faces of Death". Disgusting.

squire: Jackson brainstormed the staircase. Until then, according to Major, the company was going to walk through the cemetery, tombs and all.

E. What does the staircase represent? – or, what was Jackson thinking?

Elostirion74: I like the staircase, because Jackson knows how to represent old and worn staircases. Also difficult stairs (and chasms) are mentioned in the book, so it's a nice nod to Tolkien.

Darkstone: Moving up or down stairways, like walking along narrow ledges or across winding bridges, is more dynamic than simply walking through a space on a flat surface. Indeed, the latter gives one time to take a breath and kind of look around. And note the one shot where indeed the Fellowship is shown walking on flat ground: Dwarrowdelf!

Weaver: The staircase -- On a symbolic level, it takes them to a higher place -- which is the level at which Gandalf has to make a decision based on something other than his own personal knowledge. So, it's a climb to faith. On a practical level, it adds some variety to watching the Fellowship wander around in a dark cave. And, on a theoretical level, it helps explain why it takes 4 days to get through Moria -- vertical climbs would add to the length of the journey.

Aerin: The stairs themselves simply highlight the perilousness of the passage, and if anyone is going to slip and nearly fall, the relatively inept Pippin is an obvious choice. I don't much care for this bit, myself.


squire: Gandalf looks up from the stairs, and climbing one last flight circles around to a place with three identical doorways. Baffled, unable to remember the right way, he sits and broods while the company smokes and rests on the level below.

F. What do three doorways symbolize in “traditional” mythology?

Darkstone: Hmmm. Well, there’s the three paths to Nirvana: Wisdom, Meditation, and Morality. Indeed, Wise Gandalf Meditates on which way to go while dispensing a lesson in Morality to Frodo. And at the end of the paths Gandalf falls and finds himself All with the One. But that would means all the paths are the right ones. Lessee. How about the three choices of Paris: Wisdom (Athena), Wealth (Hera), and Lust (Aphrodite). That fits in with the reason Moria is a necropolis. The Dwarves forsake Wisdom and give themselves over to the Lust of Wealth. And these are also the three choices of the three wizards: Radagast chooses the path of Wealth (the World), Saurman chooses the path of Lust (the Ring), and Gandalf chooses the path of Wisdom.

Elostirion74: Good take on the doorways!

squire: Does that come across here?

Darkstone: Probably not. Too subtle. Jackson probably should have given in to his schlockmeister side and put up riddle inscriptions in Khuzdul over each door like with the West-gate and had Frodo figure out they had to take “the path of Wisdom over the paths of Wealth and Lust”. But personally I’m thankful he didn’t.


squire: Jackson and Walsh comment that Gandalf being uncertain of his way here makes him more human and fallible, instead of being “a wizard that knew what to do all the time”.

G. At this point in the film, would the viewer assume that Gandalf was omniscient?

Elostirion74: Not sure what you're getting at. Sometimes the film makers repeat themselves, which is not very strange. I don't think the audience would believe that Gandalf is omniscient at this point considering what's happened before.

Darkstone: Up to now he seems to know where he’s going.

Weaver: I don't mind fallible Gandalf in this part of the scene -- particularly since I like how they resolve his moment of fallibility here. But I'll save that for the next part of your discussion!

Aerin: As for Gandalf's puzzlement about the doors, this pause is there to provide the opportunity for the heart-to-heart between Gandalf and Frodo, which is possibly the single most important scene in the entire trilogy, because it concisely conveys one of story's central themes ("all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us"). (I also love the comic relief at the start of the scene, in the whispered exchange between Merry and Pippin.) In short, sometimes a door is just a door!

squire: Has he made no mistakes due to ignorance or folly up until now?

Darkstone: Of course he has. That's exactly the point. A moment of being human and fallible here is very important for character consistency.

squire: What idea of “wizard” is Jackson comparing Gandalf to?

Darkstone: The Witch of Endor? The Wizard of Oz? Dumbledore? Alan Greenspan?


squire: H. How important to the story is the idea that the characters are all “human” and “fallible”?

Elostirion74: It makes it easier for the audience to identify with the characters. Jackson has toned down the more extraordinary aspects of the hobbits (and some of Aragorn's), but I think that's as much a consequence of what kind of characterizing Jackson prefers as a consequence of his general intentions in adapting the story, although these are important as well. The story would have been vastly different without Jackson's insistence on making the characters so fallible.

Old Took: On Fallibility I don't think it's just that Jackson wanted to show fallibility...he wanted to show the characters start out fallible and then, through the strength of their own wills, face and succeed in weathering the challenges that come to them. It would be rather boring to have any character be completely perfect ALL the time. It's much more interesting to show the character's goodness come to them in spite of their own failings. That's what Jackson tried to do, I think.

Elostirion74: I think you're right about Jackson's intentions - it's a good perspective. Naturally I don't want the characters to be perfect all the time (the characters are fallible, and like Darkstone says it's important), still I believe Frodo and Sam in particular suffered more from Jackson's choice of portrayal than other characters (not so much in FoTR, though), although they are very satisfying on an emotional/friendship level. But that's an entire discussion in itself, which for me is not so much related to just fallibility.

Darkstone: Well, if they’re inhuman and infallible then Frodo’s failure at Oroduin becomes incomprehensible and unforgivable. If, however, it is established early on that even the wisest and strongest characters can stumble and fall, then we can understand and sympathize with Frodo as he falls to the ring. Most importantly, we can forgive him. The ability, the capacity of Forgiveness is crucial for Tolkien’s story. And it’s really hard to forgive the one guy who keeps messing up while everyone else isn’t having any trouble at all.


squire: I. Why is the company sitting, smoking, and gossiping, rather than stretching out and napping or sleeping?

Elostirion74: I interpreted the talking as a way of trying to fight off worries and a growing unease. But I agree that Jackson could have given the scene more weight if he only allowed Frodo and Gandalf to be awake and not the entire company. I don't think this scene represented the general feel of that passage in the book (except general things like the smell of the air and the existence of a cross-road), but that was not their intention either I suppose.

Darkstone: Oh, this is very important! The next place the Fellowship sleeps is in Lothlorien. The sleeping is cinematic shorthand to show Lothlorien as a safe refuge. (Unless of course you bring evil within your heart and so cannot find rest there.) Note how good sleep is associated with places of safety: Outdoors in the Shire, Rivendell, Lothlorien, the Houses of Healing. Note how sleeping in bad places (say on the Stairs of Citith Ungol, or in the same room with a palantir) can get you in big big trouble.

squire: What does the relative energy level of the Fellowship in this shot say?

Darkstone: Probably the same as the flets, the nighttime camp on the Anduin, the rainy night in Emyn Muil, the dark of the Uruk camp by Fangorn, the tent at Dunharrow. Sometimes no matter how tired you are you just can’t sleep in some places.


squire: J. What is your sense of passage of time?

Darkstone: Gandalf says it’s four days, IIRC this is the third day.

squire: Gandalf warns it will be a four-day journey. David Bratman argues that the four days did not come across in the film, but could easily have been established by the use of fade-out/fade-in.

Do you agree?

Darkstone: Sure. It would take up valuable screen time, though.

squire: Is that all it takes?

Darkstone: Jackson seems to be trying to do it with changes in sound, which I find quite intriguing. For example, the sound level before and after “I have no memory of the place” is quite striking, and is in effect an audio fadeout instead of a visual one. Since some didn’t notice that then obviously it didn’t work for everybody. Nice try, though.

Anyway, visual fadeouts and fade ins use valuable screen time. Again, throughout the film Jackson uses alternate techniques if he can. Nice.
Personally I’m still a fan of showing a map with a little moving line on it (I love maps!), but I know I’m strictly in the minority here.

squire: Can you see any points where Jackson deliberately destroyed the impression of passage of time during the journey through Moria?

Darkstone: Um, no. Why on earth would he do that?

squire: "deliberately destroyed the impression of passage of time"? When the Company leaves the gateway chamber, Gandalf is talking. As we cut to the "New Chamber" as the effects team calls it, Gandalf is still talking. The continuous voice-over implies that they went through the door at the top of the entry-chamber stairs, and came out the other side, in real time.

There are only a few cuts between sessions of walking through Moria. Every cut is precious for establishing time passage, since nothing else does. By having the voice-over continue across the cut, Jackson gives up one opportunity to suggest time passage.

I think Bratman's suggestion about fades is excellent. In the end, I think Jackson felt that the "four days" was irrelevant and unimportant. And frankly, from the movie point of view, he's right. It doesn't matter how long they are in there.

So what I can't figure out is why he left the line in, where it practically screams for some kind of meaning in some scene to follow. Taking it out would have cost him nothing, and given him the freedom to shoot it and edit it the way he wanted, as he actually did in the end, at the cost of some slight cinematic consistency and Dave Bratman's impotent wrath.

Darkstone: Strange My experience was just the opposite. The second part of the voice-over seemed disembodied, which increased my awareness as an observer since it placed a second layer between myself and the visual events. Which took me out of the time flow of what I saw on screen so indeed I got the sense that time was passing.

I trust I make myself obscure.

squire: That's the other way to take the cut, of course I know most people don't give a hoot, either. But the "disembodied" idea didn't fly with me; it resembles "voice-over narration" by Gandalf too much, and that's not a convention of the film (prologue and epilogue aside).

To me, the lighting and change of scale indicate time passage; but Gandalf is still just completing that thought!

Darkstone: Well... "We must hold this course west of the Misty Mountains for forty days."
That voiceover worked well for me.

squire: Guess I know who my daddy is! I forgot about that! I hate that "40 days" line, but there you are: it establishes Gandalf as a voice-over type, all right, and certainly helps suggest that time passes between shots 3 and 4 in the Journey in the Dark scene.

Darkstone: 2

squire: 325

Alan Lee’s sketch of the three doors, from Russell, The Art of The Fellowship of the Ring, 2002

squire: Grant Major says that they designed the three-way junction early, because “it is very very well described in the book.”

K. Is it?

Darkstone: Not really. But a three way junction itself is pretty easy to visualize.

squire: And does this set really have anything to do with the description in the book?

Darkstone: Resting, standing guard. Seems to.


squire: Well, with these scenes (the stairs and the three doors) we come to a halfway point in the week and in the chapter. And although we don’t know it yet, the journey through Moria is almost over: when Gandalf finally chooses a doorway, it will lead right to the great hall, Balin’s tomb, and the climax to the entire three-chapter “Moria” section of Fellowship.

So today I want to close by examining the “concept” of Moria in the film.

It’s a commonplace of mythological criticism that the “underground journey” is a metaphor for death and rebirth. It’s also a commonplace of artistic creation that a “concept” is a necessary organizing element for executing a large-scale work of art, serving as a kind of road-map when the artist or artists are in danger of getting lost in the details.

Here’s the material we’ve covered so far:

The shots, script and the commentaries; note Peter Jackson’s comments especially, but also read Andrew Lesnie’s bit at shot #7.
Alan Lee’s comments on the design
Grant Major comments on the design
Howard Shore’s comments on the music (excerpted from the script page)

squire: L. Can you identify any ways in which the production team seem to have used “death” as their concept for Moria?

Darkstone: Corpses, cemeteries, tombs…The death of Balin, the death of Gandalf, the death of the Fellowship, the death of Frodo’s innocence…. I think I might be seeing some sort of pattern here….

squire: How does the camerawork contribute to the concept?

Darkstone: Shadows, darkness, bluish gray, a shaft of bright white light, fire, brimstone, demons, a fall into the abyss.

squire: M. Well, do you agree with me?

Darkstone: Not always, but it’s nothing personal.

squire: Is “death” the concept?

Darkstone: Well, Tolkien said so and I have no reason to doubt him.

squire: Or not?

Darkstone: Well, it certainly isn’t about summer cotillions and hay rides.

squire: If you do, how does this concept for this part of the movie work into the film as a whole?

Darkstone: Lessee. Ruins of Khazad-dûm, ruins of Numenor, ruins of the Elves, all showing a long past Golden Age and how the world is falling into decay. The underground cemetery of the passing Dwarves in contrast to the underground nursery of the rising Uruk-Hai.

squire: If you disagree, well: what do you think the filmmakers were thinking as they conceived of and filmed this chapter?

Darkstone: “When’s lunch?” “Did I leave the oven on?” “Wow, that script girl is hot!!” “’Balin’s Tomb’ would be a good name for a rock band.” "Should I give her a call?" "When the #$%*# is he going to call??"



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