by John Finnegan |
Amazon seems to be moving full steam ahead on its Lord of the Rings television adaptation and given that they are one of the biggest companies in the world, I'm expecting big things from them. But it got me thinking about the original Peter Jackson trilogy and one of the things I loved so much about them. It wasn't the great spectacles or the mythology, but the way in which the relationship story threads were used so well. Okay, so when the movies came out I didn't really care much about those aspects - I just wanted to see some epic battle sequences - but now when I watch them, I take notice of Sam and Frodo's story arcs more than all the action set pieces. Simply put, their relationship thread, the story of a friendship being tested against all odds, is one of the strongest and well-written b-stories I can think of.
So I wanted to talk about b-stories and their importance in the narrative of a film. More than this, I want to talk about The Lord of the Rings and how this b story is used so effectively and to show you how to apply this stuff in your own work.
So what is the b-story? The b-story is often times considered to be the subplot of a film. It could be the developing love story in a James Bond film, or it could be Alan Grant's growing friendship with the two children in Jurassic Park. In The Godfather, it would arguably be Michael and Kay's relationship. In almost all examples, it is a relationship thread of some sort. It is the break from the main adventure to show the human side of these characters and it's usually where we have the opportunity to see some real character development.
It's easy to tell what the b-story is, even if it isn't a relationship thread, and that's by looking at how much time is devoted to it in the film. By its very nature, the b-story won't take up as much time as the main story. So you can usually get a sense of what it is just by how many times you have visited this aspect of the film. Pacing is important here because if you devote too much time to this story, it can risk overtaking the main story as the dominant element of the film.
So why is the b-story important? Well, as I said, it is often here where much of the characterisation comes through. In a film like Wonder Woman, you don't get a huge amount of characterisation during the frontline action sequences. You see Diana Prince proving herself to be pretty indestructible, but when she is alone with Steve Trevor, that's when you see who she is on the inside. Likewise, James Bond can make all the quips and defeat all the henchmen, but it's only when he is alone with the love interest character that you get a sense of whats going on inside of him.
Many people make the mistake of writing the b-story as a justification for the main adventure. The character loves someone so they must go and fight for that person. Or a person loses a loved one and so they must avenge their death. Instead, a good b-story should be a resolution for what motivates the character. It should be a therapeutic experience that enriches the character and allows them to achieve what they set out to do. So, rather than the b-story being a justification for vengeance, it can be a moment for pause to challenge the protagonist on whether or not that's what they really want to do. Or it can be a window into what such a path might lead to - perhaps one of sorrow or anger. The b-story, when used well, should be an educational experience for the protagonist.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy does this perfectly. The b-story follows Frodo and Sam as they set out to destroy the ring. Strangely, this is the b-story and yet its the most significant story of all of them in this trilogy. It's the literal destruction of the ring that will bring peace to the land. But the storytellers, whether it's Tolkien or Jackson, are probably wise to the fact that the destruction of the ring isn't a guarantee of anything other than the fall of a tyrant. The other characters still need to get their affairs in order. They need to rise to the occasion, accept their destinies and so on. The fact that this war is coming and the fact that Frodo and Sam are closing in on the mountain is a sobering idea for the rest of the characters. If Frodo and Sam's quest was the main story, we wouldn't get to see how their adventure truly impacts the world. Remember, the b-story should impact the main story in some way.
After their victory of the major battle in Return of the King, Aragorn and his army rally to buy Frodo and Sam those much needed final moments to climb the mountain and destroy the ring. They are motivated by the inspiring story of our two heroes. Aragorn and the other characters wouldn't have made it this far, without that unifying thought. For this reason alone, it's a well-written b-story.
But we can go deeper. As a relationship thread, Frodo and Sam's friendship is severely tested throughout the arduous trip. At the beginning of the journey, they are nervous but their friendship sustains them and encourages them. At the end of the film, Sam and Frodo's loyalty to each other is secure. It is then tested by the arrival of Gollum in the second film and at one point, Frodo even tries to kill Sam, but Sam manages to talk him down. In the final film, their friendship is really on the brink as Frodo abandons Sam and goes it alone. Sam, yet again, refuses to leave his friend, knowing that he is under the influence of the ring. Sam rescues Frodo and literally carries him up the mountain in one of the most powerful moments of the entire trilogy. If Sam and Frodo's friendship wasn't as strong as it is, Frodo would never have made it to the top. It wasn't Aragorn or the elves that saved Middle Earth, it was Frodo and Sam and the seeds of a friendship, a brotherhood no less, that had been planted years earlier in the Shire.
The final point to take away from The Lord of the Rings is that the b-story is resolved prior to the final climax of the story. In many films, particularly James Bond films, the resolution of the b-story is usually reserved for after the main climax. Bond defeats the villain and then rides off into the sunset with the woman in his arms. In these instances, the b-story is never more than a reward for our hero. The protagonist spends the moving sewing the seeds for this reward so that they can claim it at the end when all the drama has died away.
In The Lord of the Rings, the resolution of Frodo and Sam's journey - their indestructible friendship in the face of incredible evil - is what allows them to finally climb the mountain. If Sam said "hey, we'll talk about this if and when you get back", well Frodo wouldn't have made it back, would he?
The b-story of this trilogy is an emotional journey as well as a physical journey, but it's the beating heart of the entire adventure which includes so many other characters and side stories. Their emotional journey, their personal growth is directly linked to the fate of the other characters in the world in a literal sense. And, true to their character, Sam and Frodo come out the other side stronger.
Speaking of James Bond, it should be noted that Quantum of Solace, one of the lesser received of the new Bond films, actually employs this technique in its movie. The b-story, Bond's relationship with Camille, is resolved just before the climactic action sequence and because they are stronger for knowing each other, they are able to overcome all the obstacles.
Okay, so this is a lot to take in. The main point to take away from this is that the b-story is usually the relationship thread in a film but it should not be treated as the reward for a successful journey - we won, now we can be together. Instead, it should be the emotional journey that prepares our protagonist for the physical journey ahead. By having met this person or allowing themselves to grow with this person, they are now equipped with the tools or skills they need to move forward with the main story. And maybe, that means realising that actually, they don't want to pursue this quest anymore. Sometimes that can be as refreshing for an audience.
The Lord of the Rings is a complex example of this technique done at the highest level of cinema - but it can work on a much simpler level, even in short films. It's all about asking yourself, what is the function of this b-story and making sure that it is used to enhance the main story, not be a distraction from it.
(Image copyright: New Line Cinema)
John Finnegan is an Executive Producer at The Script Department and a Senior Lecturer in screenwriting at Falmouth University. Find him @johnfinnegan247