Saturday, July 28, 2012

Mocking the London Olympics' Opening Ceremonies

The Opening Ceremonies for the 2012 Olympics made all sorts of references to the children's literature that's been produced by British authors: Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, and Harry Potter were all rather prominent. But the book - or series of books, rather - that seemed to dominate the show was never actually referred to by name.

Take the landscape that opens the show, which looks something like this. The center of the stadium is filled with green, rolling fields, featuring a giant hill in the background. Idyllic, pastoral. It's Shire-like, even:

But then, after a bit of a show and speech, (by Kenneth Branagh!) the green burns away, smoking towers rise from the ground, and weary, dirty laborers replace the cheerful farmers-in-repose. It's supposed to dramatize the "progress" of the industrial revolution...

...instead, it looks ominous, even somewhat apocalyptic. I'm thinking less of industry and more of the orcs plundering Isengard. And though you can't really see it in this image, (you'll see it in the one immediately below) they're forging a ring in the center of the pillars.

Do I need to say it? We're looking at the heart of Mount Doom. (You've probably caught on by now, too - the English classic that goes unnamed, probably not even consciously invoked, but nonetheless haunts the ceremony is The Lord of the Rings. Apt, too, when you think about how needlessly expensive and exploitative these kinds of events tend to be!)

But we're not done yet! Because the Olympic flame is eventually raised, and it looks a little something like this.

"The Eye was rimmed with fire, but was itself glazed, yellow as a cat's, watchful and intent, and the black slit of its pupil opened on a pit, a window into nothing."

Oh, yes. I went there.

Seriously, though, there was something vaguely terrifying about the entire process. How anyone could read the transformation of that adorable countryside into so much machinery-scarred Earth and smoke as anything other than a horror story... yeah, that's just confusing.


Nathan Plastic said...

I'm not so sure that Boyle is alluding to LOTR so much as he's just following in a larger tradition of romanticizing pre-industrial England (see the 'Merry England' entry in Wikipedia). Put another way: the Olympic mini-England didn't look like the Shire; the Shire looked like an idealized England. Tolkien himself was quite frank about this.

Also, my inner geek wants to remind you that the industrial revolution scenes really resembled LOTR's Isengard scenes, wherein the orcs chopped down part of Fangorn forest to equip Saruman's armies in giant nightmarish forges. Mount Doom itself was basically empty except for the lava. And of course the Rings were all forged by the elves (with Sauron's guidance/assistance).

neilshyminsky said...

Fair point on my Isengard/Mount Doom conflation. The sequence recalled both, and I kinda collapsed them into a single thing.

But it's not an "allusion", which would suggest it was conscious. That's why I called it a "haunting", and why I said I was mocking it. Boyle wasn't trying to reference LOTR, but it's difficult - if not impossible - to tell an idyll-to-industrial kind of story without risking the comparison. (The LOTR story is just that pervasive and powerful.) That it was all so cartoony, that they made a ring, and that there's a big firey circle with an actual space in the middle standing in the middle of the stadium... those are similarities that weren't necessary and just make it easier to relate it to LOTR.

Also, of course the ceremony was supposed to feature an idealized England, and of course the Shire is itself just another version of the same thing. But the Shire, at this point, is probably more recognizable and "real" to us than any other representation of pre-industrial revolution England - it's become a sort of nodal point, and thus grown beyond its origin. So it probably *is* fair to say that versions of idealized England end up looking like the Shire, even if the Shire is itself a version, just like every new James Bond is compared to Sean Connery and not Bond in the novels - the most pervasive, memorable version is the one that matters most.

But I probably wouldn't have thought "Shire" if it hadn't been followed by billowing smoke and fire and forging rings and placing giant burning eyes at the center of the stadium.

Nathan Plastic said...

So basically what you're saying is, "I watched the Olympic opening ceremony and it reminded me of this movie I saw once". Got it. :-D

(personally I was reminded of the pastoral England of Beatrix Potter and didn't think of LOTR at all, fwiw)

neilshyminsky said...

Short answer: Yes, but...

Long answer: No, not exactly. It isn't an arbitrary association, and a quick search shows reassured me that I wasn't alone in seeing the connection. Danny Boyle chose to ignore his show's obvious resonances with a canonical English epic, resonances that undermined the entire spirit of the show. And that's funny.

And like I said, the LOTR parallels weren't obvious until the smoke stacks started rising. So, seeing Beatrix Potter makes sense.