No character in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy better represents the differences between movies and books than Éowyn, as played by Miranda Otto. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote her as the Rings saga’s only fully realized female. Not content to watch the men fight, Éowyn poses as a male named Dernhelm, grabs a ride with Merry and joins the crucial battle at Pelennor Fields.
There, Éowyn pulls off a feat no man is able to: She slays the Witch-King, buying Frodo more time to destroy the One Ring. Jackson – who had already tweaked the Éowyn character to form a love triangle of sorts between her, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Arwen (Liv Tyler), not to mention invented a stomach-churning romantic tease between Éowyn and Wormtongue (Brad Douriff) – felt compelled to include the Éowyn/Witch-King (Lawrence Makoare) encounter in The Return of the King. However, he was forced, because of practical reasons, to present a variation of what avid Tolkien readers probably expected from the sequence.
“We couldn’t do that in the film,” Otto says, referring to Tolkien’s decision to reveal Éowyn’s identity after she has made her presence felt. “It was too hard to do. That was discussed before I even got to New Zealand. They realized that it was easier to pull off in a book. Tolkien created a character, Dernhelm, and you believe it in the novel because you don’t know that it’s Éowyn until she reveals herself. And Merry doesn’t realize it, either. But on film it would have been harder because you see Éowyn’s face on screen. It would be tough to look at her and believe that she’s a man. So in the film, she’s disguised and Merry figures out that it’s her.
“It’s far more believable that way. And it also means that you don’t lose Éowyn; the audience knows that she’s there and can go with her on the journey instead of thinking, ‘Who is this new young warrior character?’ They wouldn’t be as emotionally invested in him, whereas they’re already emotionally invested in Éowyn and have seen what she has gone through. And watching her in these battles, you notice that she’s fearful. It’s so completely overwhelming when they arrive there. Éowyn wants to die with honor. She wants to fight for her people. But in that final moment, when you face death, it’s frightening.”
The reason why Éowyn enters the fray has long been debated by Rings aficionados. Some argue that, realizing that she can’t be with Aragorn – whether it’s because he’s likely to die or because his heart belongs to Arwen – Éowyn goes off on a suicide mission of her own. Others believe that she’s simply proud and fighting for any combination of the following: the people of Rohan, King Théoden (Bernard Hill) and womanhood as a whole.
“I don’t think that she’s fighting for womanhood,” Otto opines, “That’s a great thing that comes out of it, but I don’t believe that’s her inspiration. ‘I’m a woman. I will fight.’ It’s more that she’s standing up for her people. She also joins the battle because that’s who she is. It’s her will, and she can’t suppress that, despite how much everybody wants to protect her and have her stay at home. Her determination is to be the person she is, and so she goes to [Pelennor]. She can’t wait at home. She can’t be the one looking after all the other women, and perhaps end up being raped, which happens to them. She doesn’t want her ideals crushed. Éowyn is ready to fight and prepared to die for what she believes in.”
Otto, too, wanted to fight. At every opportunity, the Aussie actress prodded Jackson to let her in on the action. When it finally came time to jump on a horse and wield a sword, Otto was game, though she cops to at some moments thinking she had gotten in over her head. “When I arrived on the set with Pete, I came in at what I thought was a really high energy level, but he expected 100 times that,” Otto says. “He wanted me so desperate, out of control and enraged. He was looking for such a tremendous amount of energy. I have to admit that is was physically very hard. Maybe I’m a wimp, but it was a huge endeavor.
“I had to perform things so many times. I did [the Witch-King conflict] six times for the side shot, three or four times for the mid-shot and a few more for the close-up. And the whole sequence is only about a minute long. But within that period, I kill around 14 people. That’s fighting quite a number of Orcs, and it required a hell of a lot of energy, particularly since I was wearing armor, which slowed me down. That weighed somewhere between seven and 10 kilos [22 pounds] and made me work, aerobically, much harder.”
These physical demands, however, helped Otto to get into character and better understand Éowyn. After all, few female parts require an actress to decapitate a corrupt king’s undead spirit. “The fighting made Éowyn different from most other female characters,” Otto says. “And the costumes helped with the whole idea of feeling like I was in that place, time and story. Ngila Dickson’s outfits were so specific in terms of the fabric and the look. Everything about them had a femininity and a strength. They contained a human quality that was different from, say, the Elf costumes.”
Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings has an unique appeal for the actress. “In the end, I think it’s very much a modern woman’s story,” Otto offers. “It’s hard to believe that it was written 50 years ago. It’s a modern woman’s story because Éowyn falls in love with someone who’s already in a relationship, so it cannot be. Everybody can relate to that. I think everybody dreams of making a union with someone and going forward and fighting for great causes. That doesn’t happen for Éowyn, though, and she ends up fighting for herself. She takes on a male exterior and gets to live out that side, which is another thing that modern woman can relate to – they’ve gone out in to the world in that way, too.”
Otto probably could have asked Mortensen about the hardships of sword-fighting. He had already done plenty of it for the first two films by the time Otto had to face off against the Lord of the Nazgûl in Return of the King. Otto, in fact, probably could have asked Mortensen anything about anything. “I was incredibly impressed with how Viggo came to the project so late and yet was so well-researched,” she says. “He had an enormous number of books that he seemed to keep ordering in, about myths and legends. He had material about horses and sword-fighting. The stunt guys told stories about Viggo’s amazing abilities. He’s a naturally and incredibly physically gifted person. He’s one of those people who can easily pick up and master a physical skill. [Legendary sword master] Bob Anderson was tremendously impressed with Viggo. One of the head stunt guys, Kirk, told me about a scene in the first movie where someone pulls a daggers out of his leg, throws it at Viggo and then Viggo clocks it with a sword. Viggo practiced that for months and didn’t get it all the time, but he nailed it on the first take when they shot the scene.
“Viggo’s just good at all those things. Sometimes, in the middle of fighting, he would come up with stuff that he had read about in a book and try out different moves. He was always looking to enrich the story and his character as much as possible, just adding some details while staying true to Tolkien’s novel. Viggo is also very generous and kind. He cared about the whole group. But he’s both a connector and a loner; he’s a creative force. Viggo was always churning out paintings – like this engine who acts, reads and makes music. He creates all the time, and I think that anybody who’s creative needs time on their own, so they can get in touch with themselves and figure out what they’re doing. But he was very sociable with people. Viggo was really close with the stunt guys and some of the crew. He would hang out with his makeup person. Viggo’s a pretty chilled-out guy.”
As for the relationship between Éowyn and Aragorn, that’s an issue still up for debate. Éowyn definitely respects him, but she may or may not love him in the classic sense of the word. However, fans of the books know that it’s Faramir (David Wenham in the film) who wins Éowyn’s hand in marriage after they both recover from their respective injuries. “My impression is that Aragorn symbolizes everything that she respects and loves,” Otto notes. “There is a real connection between them, but I don’t think that she loves him as a person, as a man. She knows him as a king, a warrior and a symbol. They’re living in these incredibly heightened times, in the middle of war, and only know each other under those circumstances, as people besieged.
“There is a connection, though, and I believe that he’s interested in her, too. Aragorn sees her predicament and is one of the few people who understands her, but I don’t know if he loves Éowyn. She certainly feels love for him, but given the situation that they’re in, it can never be. It has so much to do with war, honor, valor, courage and bringing people together. That’s what they’re concerned about. There isn’t any time for love. And I feel that, deep down, Éowyn never really gets to know Aragorn as a man, as a man in normal times.”
The other man in Éowyn’s life is Théoden. She adores her uncle, but The Two Towers revealed her sense of disappointment in him. That is, until she realizes that the sinister Wormtongue and Saruman (Christopher Lee) have long controlled the King. Events late in The Two Towers and particularly in The Return of the King go a long way toward restoring her faith in the fallen man.
“She was disappointed in him to a degree, but she loves him greatly and still respected him,” Otto explains. “There’s a lovely relationship between Théoden and Éowyn in the third film, because Théoden not only senses her disappointment but he is dissatisfied with himself. Even at Helm’s Deep, I believe Théoden realizes that Aragorn is really responsible for their victory. Théoden, through the course of the second film, is trying to reassume his kingly character. He’s struggling to find himself after years of being under a spell. He’s attempting to recapture his glory and courage. His journey in Return of the King is to rediscover that. And he does. In the beginning, he’s worried that Éowyn doesn’t respect him. But she does. She loves him. And in Return of the King, they get to resume that, and Théoden finds his pride again.”
Now that Return of the King is out there slaying the competition at the box office, Otto can look back and marvel at its success. No one, she points out, expected the Rings trilogy to capture the imaginations of so many millions across the globe. “It’s really interesting,” says Otto, who recently got married and is currently filming a remake of The Flight of the Phoenix, “When I came back to LA after finishing the initial shooting, I told people, ‘I’ve been making The Lord of the Rings. You have no idea what these films are going to be. They’re just incredible – the effects, the acting, the story. They’re going to be the biggest movies.’ But because they were shot in New Zealand and not LA, people were like, ‘Ah, yeah. I’ve heard something about it.’ They were skeptical. We really were an underdog at that stage, before the first film came out. People were saying, ‘Oh yeah, that thing New Line financed down there. Nobody knows very much about it.’ “I always believed it would blow everybody away,” Miranda Otto concludes, “but it was interesting going to LA and listening to people who had no clue what was being made there in New Zealand.”
However, now they do know: There’s one Rings trilogy to rule them all.
source: Starlog magazine (March #320)