Tolkien’s Eagles and the Tyrannosaurus ex Machina

One of my all-time favorite movies is the 1993 release of Jurassic Park.  My husband teases me all the time about how much I enjoy watching it, to the point where he won’t watch it with me anymore because I have seen it so much.  Or, if he does watch it with me, he spends time pointing out plot holes or things that the characters do that don’t make sense, or are just plain stupid.

One of the big scenes at the end (Too bad if you are hoping for a spoiler warning; you’ve had 24 years to watch this awesome movie!), as much as I love it, is a quintessential example of this post’s topic: the deus ex machina. Take a look at the film clip below, paying close attention to what follows at the :51 second mark:

Now, in this particular movie, I’m okay with a giant dinosaur busting in to save the day. Back in 1993, I paid my $5.00 to see a popcorn movie that had dinosaurs in it, and for sheer entertainment value, you can’t really beat a giant T-Rex crashing through the wall, flinging those two nasty raptors around, and thus letting our heroes escape to live happily ever after (For the record, this is not how the novel ends.).

From a playwright’s perspective, however, the ending of this film is lazy.  This particular moment is a fine example of Aristotle’s element of spectacle, but from a plot standpoint, it is a deus ex machina (Lit. “God from a machine.”).  In ancient Greek and Roman plays, if the plot got too tangled up and the characters found they were in serious trouble, they would lower a god (i.e. an actor playing a god) onto the stage suspended by a rope from a some type of crane, or the god would be raised up on a riser through a trapdoor in the stage to intervene and fix things or offer a reprieve.  Essentially, the event or ending comes out of nowhere and fixes everything.

Looking at Jurassic Park, notice that we find our heroes in what should be a no-win situation. They are trapped between two raptors with no possibility of escape. In this situation the quartet faces a dead end; the scene should have ended in a gruesome bloodbath.  But, due to the abrupt and unexpected entrance of the Tyrannosaurus, they escape. An objective observation of their situation reveals that their escape feels contrived; like they screenwriters painted them into a corner, and the only way for them to move forward in the story is through the means of a miraculous intervention. In this case, a hungry T-Rex.

People also make the same argument/complaints about the eagles in Tolkien’s writings. When some one is in trouble, the eagles show up and bail them out (Tolkein himself maintains that they are actually a manifestation of divine grace.) in otherwise impossible situations. Next time you read the books or watch the films, take note of when the eagles show up.

As a playwright, you owe it to your audience to present them with a well-crafted play. That’s not to say good plays don’t contain a deus ex machina moment; you can find them in Shakespeare’s plays As You Like It and The Winter’s Tale, as well as the 17th century playwright Moliere’s comedy Tartuffe.  But you should strive to structure your plot in a way that doesn’t rely on a miraculous intervention or coincidence to get your characters out of dire situations or otherwise unsolvable problems.

While it is true that miracles and amazing coincidences do occur in real life, they are rare, and I would argue that is what makes them so remarkable. In the world of your play, however, audiences seem less tolerant of a character being spared at the last moment by dumb luck. They want to watch your protagonist struggle through an organic and unified story in which the outcomes of a character’s dramatic situation is a natural consequence of the events proceeding it.

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