The Fellowship of the Ring scene in which Galadriel is tempted by the Ring radiates a transgressive, intoxicating camp aesthetic in an immediate way. Cate Blanchett, whose ethereal beauty transcends mere humans, rises up into the air, her figure transformed by the light bending around her, her cheeks turned sallow and masculine, complicating her gender presentation. Her voice becomes deeper and modulated, roaring, “In place of a Dark Lord, you would have a queen, not dark but beautiful and terrible as the dawn!”
It is terrifying to see this avatar of kindness and power mutate and shriek, “All shall love me and despair!” It is also kind of funny — and very campy.
2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies’ 20th anniversary, and we couldn’t imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we’ll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon’s Year of the Ring.
When I watched The Lord of the Rings with my mother growing up, it was a sincere, real transportation into the world of Middle-earth. The ents and oliphants were tactile and fantastical, its elves and hobbits beyond reproach. The universe created by Tolkein and brought to life by Peter Jackson had no stitching that I could see.
Revisiting the trilogy as an out queer adult made the seams more apparent. But rather than detracting from the films, it makes them deeper and more interesting; more complex movies about artifice and openness. The abstract idea of power itself has a visual language to play with, and the stranger and more unusual aesthetic moments of the films makes them better movies. The Lord of the Rings movies are campy, and that makes them great.
There’s not an easy consensus on what is and is not “camp” (it tends to be a “you know it when you see it” kind of deal), but it’s predicated on a subjective engagement with a piece of work and an awareness and love of excess and artifice, which coalesces into a sensibility and aesthetic that is transgressive or outside the realms of conventional taste in some way. It’s not always unintentional or “naive,” as Susan Sontag wrote in the 1964 essay that popularized the term, but can take pleasure in a kind of “too muchness,” an extreme quality in the aesthetic that the work can’t really hold without showing its own lack of realness. Recognizing it and being fluent in its signifiers makes you feel like you’re in a secret club of like-minded Others.
For Galadriel’s moment of temptation, Blanchett (and Jackson and his VFX crew) transform her into a bit of a drag queen, an outsized persona meant to be off-putting straight or general audiences. (And, yes, drag queens can be scary too!) It’s a conscious undermining of the idea of Galadriel we’ve had prior to this moment in the film, a Titania-like beauty who maintains a hyper-awareness of the control she has on herself and holds over others. (Also Cate Blanchett did do ’drag’ at the Stonewall Inn a few years ago.)
Evil Galadriel is a loss of that control, but also an acknowledgment of the artificiality of the films themselves, a moment of magic that reveals that it’s a magic trick. Galadriel comes back to herself, shaken, but also like she just got off a roller coaster at Disney World. “I have passed the test,” she says, catching her breath. That’s funny.
Of course, camp as an aesthetic is heavily tied to the history of queer art and queer engagement with art, and much has been written, too, on the way the trilogy explores homoerotic desire, particulalry between Sam and Frodo. The Lord of the Rings has never exactly been a stranger to queer readings, with slash fanfic (Library of Moria has literally thousands of examples) and scholarly analysis having proliferated since the 1970s. But camp is also primarily a subjective understanding and way of relating to a piece of work. It’s not, at least in the case of The Lord of the Rings, an objective fact of the style, compared to something like Pink Flamingos directed by John Waters or But I’m a Cheerleader directed by Jamie Babbit, both of which use camp as a deliberate filmmaking choice — but it does open up the film in an interesting way to different audiences.
The films’ camp sensibility, though it doesn’t cover the entire surface of the cinematic universe of Tolkein’s world, does feature significantly in specific beats of the films. Besides Galadriel’s temptation, scenes of the Ring seducing and taunting Frodo crossover into the same territory. While probably intended to resemble something more akin to a struggle with addiction and relapse, Elijah Wood also looks as if he’s about to orgasm.
Before their journey has even really started in The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry find themselves tracked by a a group of Ringwraiths (whose shriek sounds like the squawking of excited gay men, for the record). They hide within the nook of a tree, and as the Ringwraith bends over, sensing the Ring and ready to capture whomever has it, Frodo begins to feel the Ring taunting him and taking over his sense of desire. Wood’s eyes roll back into his skull and he closes his eyelids, his breathing gets heavier, and his nose quivers. He holds the Ring with its orifice open using his right hand, about to put it on his left pointer finger. The erotic imagery feels a little blatant and self-aware.
It’s a scene of incredible tension, sure, but it also feels like a sly wink on the part of Jackson, an awareness of the multifaceted images and metaphors that can be found in Tokein’s story, turned up to 11 to shed light on what images of desire and temptation look like, especially when power is the object. Jackson himself is not a stranger to using camp aesthetics, having employed them earlier in his career with the gonzo splatter films Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles as well as the queer inflected fantasy drama Heavenly Creatures, which starred Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey as a pair of young girls with a very complicated friendship. It’s these traces of those artistic experiments found in The Lord of the Rings that makes it so stunning and interesting.
Jackson has a willingness to consider the other genres and styles of storytelling that informed Tolkein’s work and how those styles and genres were shaped by Tolkein. The Lord of the Rings is not just a grand fantasy blockbuster, but an intelligent film invested in the nuances and tropes of action, melodrama, romance, horror, and, yes, even camp. You just have to open up your lidless eye.