I was recently discussing Lord of the Rings with my daughter. The adaptations, by Brian Sibley for radio in the 1980s and Peter Jackson for cinema in the first decade of this century, have interested us both. This particular conversation revolved around the soundtrack to the movies. My daughter pointed out that different themes are attached to the different character groups in the story. The elves have their own, as do the orcs, the hobbits and the men.
This isn’t just a matter of simple mood music, to match the action of any given scene. Using soundtrack in that way has of course been a staple of cinema, even before sound tracks were technically possible: remember those silent movie pianists?
Jackson’s films, whilst still utilising soundtrack to create and deepen mood, in battle scenes, love scenes and so on, seems to have gone one further, and given his characters a musical signature, which underscores the attitudes we are supposed to have towards them.
I wondered if there were a parallel to this in stories told in words alone. Of course, if we are reading a story aloud we can put on ‘character’ voices, and those of us who have brought up children will know about that! Writers can give their characters distinctive voices too, by way of accents, verbal ticks, and restricted vocabularies. Tolkien does this. Here are four examples, not in the order I list them, from kingly men, elves, hobbits and orcs:
‘has learned him his letters – meaning no harm mark you, and I hope no harm will come of it.’
‘And though your people have had little fame in the legends of the great, they will now have more renown than many wide realms that are no more.’
‘Ho la! You dunghill rat! Stop your squeaking, or I’ll come and deal with you. D’you hear?’
‘Here ever bloom the winter flowers in the unfading grass’
Palette of words, order of words, sense of words, all contribute, even in these brief extracts, to help us assign the speakers. Throughout the trilogy of novels Tolkien slips from one English speech form to another, let alone his forays into created, imagined languages from his imagined world.
He’s not the only writer to do it, of course, and it’s not only to distinguish
types of individuals. Here’s Cormac McCarthy putting his own ‘soundtrack’ to Outer Dark.
‘She shook him awake from dark to dark, delivered out of the clamorous rabble under a black sun and into a night more dolorous, sitting upright and cursing beneath his breath in the bed he shared with her and the nameless weight in her belly.’
This is from the first few lines of that novel, and even the two-word title, by opting for ‘dark’ rather than ‘darkness’ is playing some mood music. In his much later, and probably more famous work, The Road, and indeed throughout his writing, he uses a similar technique: picking unexpected words, not so such for their accuracy, I suspect, as for their obscurity. Again, word order, choice of words, as well as their actual sense, is creating an ambience, of character and context, is creating a response in us, that author is looking for. Words are being used not simply to let us know what is happening, nor even merely to let us know how it is happening, and what it feels like to be part of it, but also to manipulate the way in which we ourselves will feel about what we are being told.
In a previous piece I quoted an author who said he strove ‘always for clarity’. The clarity being striven for in these examples of verbal soundtracking, is that of the mood in which we will hear it. Exactly the same job is being done, as that accomplished by Jackson’s orc drums, and elvish choirs.
In fact the soundtracks of adapted novels might be viewed as the movie equivalents to the writing styles adopted by the authors of those novels, as they move from mood to mood throughout their stories. One can go on searching for and finding examples. Henry Fielding’s opening chapters to each book of Tom Jones are written in a conversational tone, by which he sits beside us as it were, and points out the foibles of his characters, of his world, and of other readers not so erudite and civilised as we are:
Examine your heart, my good reader, and resolve whether you do believe these matters with me. If you do, you may now proceed to their exemplification…..if you do not……it would be wiser to pursue your business….than to throw away any more of your time in reading what you can neither taste nor comprehend.’
(Henry Fielding, Tom Jones, Book VI, Chapter 1, Of Love)
For me these chapters are like the theme that accompanies the arrival in-shot of various comic movie characters, like the Spiv in the St. Trinians series. Fielding’s style in these chapters is quite distinct from that of the rest of the book, but reminds us that he is the author, and to borrow his metaphor, he is the one putting the dishes before us at his inn. Another example from film might be the famous ‘Jaws’ theme, which is so well known that it can be hummed or sung, dum-dum, dum-dum, dum-dum, and I suspect even people who have not seen the film will know you are presaging a not entirely serious, yet unpleasant surprise. Again from Fielding, his evocation of Sophia, in the chapter entitled ‘A short hint of what we can do in the sublime’, the writing style is a clear parallel with a musical theme:
Hushed be every ruder breath. May the heathen ruler of the winds confine in iron chains the boisterous limbs of noisy Boreas…’
(Fielding, Book IV, Ch.2)
And so on for almost a whole page!
Of course, Tom Jones is a long book, but in short fiction, the technique remains the same. In shorter works however there is less room for multiple uses, and variations of themes. Short stories often, but not always, have a single theme, a simple soundtrack, but not necessarily a faint or indistinguishable one.
Different authors, we might say, sing with different voices, and not from the same hymn sheets. Here are three short story extracts: one from Chekhov, one from H.E.Bates, and one from Hemingway. I think you can pick them out without attribution, simply by the music, or rather the style of writing.
1 There was a heavy dew and as the wheels went through the grass and low bushes he could smell the odour of the crushed fronds. It was an odour like verbena and he liked this early morning smell of the dew, the crushed bracken and the look of the tree trunks showing black through the early morning mist, as the car made its way through the untracked parklike country.
2 And like this too, her eyes would shift about, from the near, shadowed fields, to the west hills, where the sun had dropped a strip of light, and to the woods between, looking like black scars one minute, and like friendly sanctuaries the next.
3 One could sense the proximity of that cheerless time which nothing can avert, when the fields become dark and the earth is muddy and chill; when the weeping willow seems to be sadder than ever and the tears trickle down her trunk; when only the cranes can flee from the all-pervading disaster and even they, as though afraid of offending morose nature by declaring their happiness, fill the skies with mournful, melancholy song.
I did not search long and hard for these, and chose simply to avoid names of people of places that might give a clue, and to find pieces that all referred to similar elements. Even if you can’t identify the authors, you should detect a different style in the pieces, a different mood music, though the three are not that far from each other in mood. The techniques of writing make the differences: palette of words, order of words; length and structure of sentences.
Which leads me on to the speculation that it is not what happens that we read a story for, so much as the effect that the story will have on our mood, and that may be a reversal of the reasons for which we watch a movie, however affecting its soundtrack.
(The three stories were quoted above were, 1 The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, Hemingway,2 Never, H.E.Bates, and 3 The Reed Pipe, by Anton Chekhov)