Epic fantasy heroes share many traits. Many of them are orphans, cast aside at some point or the other by their fellows/society, entrusted with a burden that few believe they really have the strength to bear, lose mentor figures at crucial moments of their quests and, finally, despite all odds manage to pull through and show everyone, both bad guys and good, that they were the right ones for the task after all. A glance a pop culture shows many heroes with these traits: Harry, Rand, Arthur, Egwene, even Disney’s Aladdin and Mulan.
Must set reminder to discuss the latter two at some point.
Usually, these heroic struggles lend themselves very well to onscreen adaptations. With the killer combination of angst, adventure, morals and good looks, what’s not to love in these movies? Harry thus gets a new, far less pasty look with a searingly blue eyed Daniel Radcliffe, racially ambiguous Katniss becomes America’s sweetheart Jenn Law, and Legolas, such a minor character in the Tolkien trilogy, gets to steal hearts in five different visits to Middle Earth. You could say that in some cases, Legolas’s for instance, the movies do a lot to bolster a character and make him more ‘palatable’ in some ways. In other, arguably more important ways, cinema is less kind.
What I think most important about a fantasy hero’s journey is his or her ability to just keep going. This is quite possibly the least glamorous trait any hero has, but it is, in my opinion, the most important, and what really sets them apart from their fellows. Often, this ability to carry on is most severely tested in circumstances unappealing, or downright boring, to a spectator. The example that jumps to mind is that of Frodo from Lord of the Rings. Compared to Aragorn’s mad rush through the kingdoms of Rohan and Gondor, Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom is plodding, slow and dull. I know many people, myself included, groaned every time the camera cut away from Aragorn and company to the Ringbearer(s). That walk through barren, grey lands, and the import of his ability to just carry on through it didn’t translate well. Let’s face it: the only time we were ever even the slightest bit interested in Frodo was when Shelob nearly got him and Sam proved his ‘bodyguard’ skills.
Yet, when I read the book, I found the ‘war scenes’ most dull. It’s a curious paradox isn’t it; action sequences in literature rarely inspire as much excitement as their renditions on screen, while long, insightful bits like Frodo and Sam coming upon a stream of water in the middle of the Plains of Gorgoroth are axed summarily from screenplays for being ‘extraneous’. But really, could anyone else in that book have done what Frodo and Sam did? No, I think. The supreme quality of the hobbits is tenaciousness, stubborness, an unwillingness to let go of the world, or reality, or habit, or what have you. Frodo and Sam are dogged figures, and in the Middle Earth’s hour of need, doggedness and sheer persistence, not genius and flashing swords, are the saviors.
The same thing applies to Harry. Harry’s greatest moral crisis in the entire series is not, as might be expected in Order of the Phoenix, whether or not to commit murder. Surprisingly, he seems fairly cool with that (and doesn’t even end up really ‘killing’ Voldemort himself). No, Harry’s biggest dilemma comes when he finds out that his idol and trusted mentor hid things from him his entire life. The notion that faultless Dumbledore might not in fact have been as white as his beard sears Harry for a time, almost paralyzes him in the woods. Perhaps this prepares him for the knowledge that Snape later delivers to him, that he was always intended as a sacrifice. Despite this betrayal, Harry carries on.
I had a bit of a problem with this. To me, Harry seemed a very passive hero. Surely, I thought, he could have fought it, he could have acted a little human and seemed less accepting of Dumbledore’s final plan. He sort of numbly walks out to meet his death, not even reflecting on the idea that his headmaster had planned his end with such cold clarity.
And then a friend pointed out to me that that, really, is what makes Harry Harry and a hero in this context. Harry never really does things because he wants to. He never does things because he knows they will work out. He operates on sheer instinct, in conflict situations and with people, and he fights Voldemort more out of an innate sense of justice than anything else. Unlike Hermione, Harry does not rationalize his decisions. Unlike Ron, he does not strategize and think ahead. He just closes his eyes and does what he thinks needs to be done, and if that involves sacrificing himself as intended by a man he considered his closest guide, then so be it.
That’s persistence again, for you. Hard to translate on screen, especially when you have the explosions and cooler stuff going on in Hogwarts.
Finally, Rand. The Wheel of Time books have not yet been brought to the screen, but given the burgeoning of fantasy, sci fi and superhero franchises, they probably will be soon enough. Unlike these guys, Rand is an almost all-powerful hero. He is smart, good looking, very well connected, has the world backing him as he goes into battle, and can handle immense amounts of the Power, a trump card in his universe. But none of these are required, or of any help, in his ultimate face off with the Dark One. What pulls him through here is, sure enough, a conviction that he is right, that his struggle is necessary, that he must pull through. Egwene, too, wins over her competitors for the same reason. both have an iron will, complete faith in themselves, and so they succeed where others falter under weights they deem unendurable.
How would you put this on screen though? Usually a hero’s angst phase is captured in a series of workout sessions, some photogenic brooding, dramatic soundtrack and indications of time passing (like a montage of the seasons, calendar sheets falling to the floor, sand dripping through an hourglass, etc). How can you take something as downright boring as the idea of ‘doing your duty because nothing else occurs to you’ and make it sexy?
It’s hard to sell. And it’s even harder to put into practice. Maybe that’s why there’s an entire book devoted to just that basic tenet, and people worship the man who supposedly declaimed it. And maybe that’s why we salute and make fantasy heroes out of those who not only abide by that tenet, but do awesome things like save the world through their adherence to that one rule. Being a hero is hard, and at times, deadly boring. After those doldrum struggles, perhaps an encounter with a deadly foe served to ‘break the monotony nicely’. Trust Sirius Black to have the perfect phrase at hand.