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Comparing the soundtracks to the movies, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring has become something of an Olympic event among reviewers. The reason may be in part because the films were released within a couple of months of each other surrounded by a lot of hype and eager anticipation. But a more important reason is that the books the films are based on have strong, loyal readerships that have put added pressure on the filmmakers to be as true to the written word as possible.

In attempts to capture the essence of the written word on film, filmmakers focus on elements such as dialogue, plot, and setting. They are also aware of how each reader converts the descriptions of characters and worlds into images and sounds within their minds while reading the books. Secondary to this is the cinematic device used to enhance the other elements in the film -- the background music. Background music is not something our minds conjure up when reading -- unless the music is a part of the text itself. Yet, more often than not, the presence of background music in film adaptations of books is an important contributor to the success of those adaptations.

Spinning Sound Out of Silence

The composition of the score is the only aspect of film adaptation of books for which the adapter can't go back to the source material to find specific examples. The only exception is when music is mentioned or performed in the books and even these most often don't go into the depth of detail needed to give a composer a clear aural impression.

When a setting or an object or a character is described in a book, we may quibble on the minute details, but if the author does a good job with the descriptions, there is usually very little dispute over the broader visual images. A hundred different artists can come up with a hundred different interpretations of what a hobbit looks like, but the images will have enough in common with the descriptions in the works of Tolkien to make each image recognizable as a hobbit. But what happens if a hundred different composers tackle the following passage from The Fellowship of the Ring?

Then it seemed to Frodo that she lifted her arms in a final farewell, and far but piercing-clear on the following wind came the sound of her voice singing. But now she sang in the ancient tongue of the Elves beyond the Sea, and he did not understand the words: fair was the music, but it did not comfort him.

The resulting music from these hundred composers will have nothing about it that shouts to the listener that it depicts anything from The Lord of the Rings, much less a specific passage. Even the use of Tolkien's Elven lyrics would not invoke the same "that's what it was like in the book" reaction that visual images could invoke.

The musical references in the book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone are mostly of school or holiday songs imbued with the flavor of England. One delightful moment in the book is when Albus Dumbledore invites the students to pick their favorite tune and sing the words of the school song to it. When the song is complete he responds with, "Ah, music. A magic beyond all we do here!" This is a musical moment that would bring tears of delight to Charles Ives' eyes and also one of the few musical moments depicted in a book that can be interpreted by a hundred different composers and still be recognized as being from Harry Potter.

The film composer's job is to support and enhance the other elements of the film, because the music on its own is too abstract to conjure anything verbally or visually of what the film is about. Someone listening to the scores for Harry Potter or The Fellowship of the Ring -- without knowing whether they're for film or television or ballet or a suite from an opera or simply a stand-alone musical work -- cannot match it to a nonmusical medium. Instrumental and wordless choral music only conveys sounds without specific verbal or visual meaning to the listener. The astute listener may pick up on the Elven words and the reference to Evenstar in the lyrics on The Fellowship of the Ring soundtrack but that alone is not enough to invoke anything other than the idea that the music has something to do with the works of Tolkien.

Two composers with very different styles received assignments to capture in music the essence of a pair of fantasy books that have attained both critical acclaim and commercial success. While most readers are unable to articulate what kind of music matches how they visualize a book, they know when the music doesn't work, especially when it supports a visualization that does a good job of capturing a book's essence. So in many respects, the composer's task is even more daunting than the filmmaker's because the music can deaden a film as much as it can support and enhance it.

The Lord of the Introverted Scores

The selection of Howard Shore (whose musical style has been described as subtle, introverted, even non-melodic and dissonant) for The Fellowship of the Ring was greeted with puzzlement by those familiar with his work. The fantasy genre is a far step from the modern rather cult-like films that boast scores by Shore. Despite the unfamiliar literary territory for the composer, the resulting score for The Fellowship of the Ring showcases his ability to adapt his style to diverse cinematic subjects. He succeeds in capturing the overall heroic and somber nature of the Trilogy, yet disarms us with a charming innocence in depicting the hobbits and the Shire. The voice of Enya -- the single commercial element in the soundtrack -- blends well with the rest of the music. Part of the reason for this is that voices are incorporated throughout the score, and Shore's own orchestrations and arrangements accompany Enya's distinctive voice and compositions.

Shore's score succeeds in capturing the essence of The Fellowship of the Ring and complements the vision of the film's director, Peter Jackson. The score keeps the viewer focused on the action with strong thematic material, the use of a large orchestra and choral ensembles, and by giving the music the dark complexity that rumbles all the way through the Trilogy. In the end, Howard Shore has proven to be a perfect composer for The Lord of the Rings.

Harry Potter and the Composer's Hype

The moment the first notes sound during Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone the name, John Williams, pops into the mind, creating a momentary distraction away from the action on the screen. This strong composer recognition is not necessarily a bad thing. John Williams' music for the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films are wonderful musical supports, and his delightful score for Hook is a welcomed diversion in an otherwise mediocre film.

So why isn't the music for Harry Potter as strong and as memorable as other scores by John Williams? A hint comes from the attention the music brings to itself when first heard in the film's opening. The music does not quite connect with the other elements on screen causing it to sound a bit detached instead of being fully focused on supporting the film. Unlike the magical score for The Fellowship of the Ring, the music for Harry Potter lacks that spark of inspiration found in other scores by Williams. What is missing is that intangible musical turn of phrase or chord structure that absolutely captures and completes the viewers' experience with the film. Some reviewers have even suggested that the music sounds like Williams on auto-pilot. Although Williams has always been a bit of a self-plagiarist and a borrower from many different composers and compositional styles, he has perfected the ability to blend all this musical diversity into background music that successfully supports a film's overall impact.

All this being said, an uninspired score by John Williams is still better than a good score by many other composers, and the music in Harry Potter is certainly nice to listen to. But one can't help but feel that Harry Potter deserves something a little more creative and imaginative. It is interesting that so much attention has gone into capturing the quality and essence of the Harry Potter books and yet the score fails to capture the quality and essence of what is expected of its composer. In this respect, Howard Shore has had a better time of it than John Williams in the comparing the scores competition because Shore had only to prove that he could pull it off. Williams had to prove he could create musical magic -- yet again. This is simply too daunting a task to succeed at on every attempt.

To the delight of the judges and spectators alike this competition has several more rounds to go. Howard Shore is the composer for the complete Lord of the Rings trilogy and John Williams is listed for the next two Harry Potter movies.


Reader Comments

C. A. Casey is a Music Editor for Strange Horizons.

Related links of interest:

Lord of the Rings movies site

Harry Potter movies site

The Official John Williams Page

Filmtracks' Tribute to John Williams

The John Williams MIDI Page

Howard Shore

The Journey Into Middle-Earth -- Howard Shore talks about his score for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Score Of The Rings -- Howard Shore finds the music in Middle Earth

C. A. Casey was music editor for Strange Horizons.
Current Issue
30 Jan 2023

In January 2022, the reviews department at Strange Horizons, led at the time by Maureen Kincaid Speller, published our first special issue with a focus on SF criticism. We were incredibly proud of this issue, and heartened by how many people seemed to feel, with us, that criticism of the kind we publish was important; that it was creative, transformative, worthwhile. We’d been editing the reviews section for a few years at this point, and the process of putting together this special, and the reception it got, felt like a kind of renewal—a reminder of why we cared so much.
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