In 1937, J.R.R Tolkien released his children’s book, The Hobbit, beginning a saga that would be used as an inspiration for speculative fiction for years. Even today, the influence of the Lord of Rings can be seen in popular culture as a whole, from songs directly referencing the story, such as Led Zeppelin’s Ramble On, to multiple books and shows that directly attribute their influences to the saga.
But why did the Lord of the Rings become such a cultural phenomenon?
A key draw of the series, and an aspect that revolutionized the fantasy genre as a whole, is the intricate and rich world that forms its setting. Before the Lord of the Rings, the fantasy genre had mostly used real-world settings and cultures to base their stories on.
Fantasy today often uses more complex world-building, featuring new cultures, traditions, and technological advances. Science fiction, which along with the fantasy genre makes up the realm of speculative fiction, also uses its world-building as a significant aspect of the narrative.
However, most worldbuilding draws on existing cultures and societies to create their settings. This is especially obvious in visual media such as movies and tv shows. Since these media often do not have the time to explore their world and setting too deeply, the way it is possible to do in books, it, therefore, becomes necessary to use some kind of shorthand, so that viewers are immediately able to associate the fantastical with the familiar.
Most often, this is done through architecture, which creates an immediate visual clue as to the inspiration to the world the narrative occurs in. This is called coding. Coding makes use of common tropes and associations that viewers draw, and architecture and the built environment often help facilitate this.
The setting is an important characteristic of movies and shows. It helps to create the world around the characters and grounds them within a set of rules that may vary from our world, especially when compared to our world, but make sense within the universe of the show or movie. Often this is easy to do for adaptations since much of the rules are already established in the source material. However, for movies and shows which have to start from scratch, it becomes necessary to establish the internal consistency of the world.
Architecture in movies and tv shows is used to immediately orient the viewer within the world by drawing on familiar imagery that immediately evokes understanding. This is used to situate the story within a clear genre, culture, setting, and period. The built environment plays an important role in quickly communicating the societal and cultural influences that the imagined world draws upon.
Avatar: The Last Airbender, for example, is a widely popular children’s show that draws deeply from East and South Asian culture and architecture, as well as Inuit culture. These influences can be seen in distinct places within the world. The four nations in Avatar all draw from different real-world cultures, such as Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Indian, and Inuit, and this is clearly visualized in the architecture, from the villages to the places and the cities. Ba Sing Se, for example, is influenced by the Forbidden City in Beijing.
In contrast, Westeros in the Game of Thrones series is based deeply on European culture and features the distinct architecture of the forts and castles of Europe. These distinct spatial inspirations immediately allow the viewer to associate these places with the societies they are inspired by and infer that the characters in the movie or show also follow similar cultural practices and traditions.
This method of creating quick associations is especially useful for stories with larger scopes in terms of worldbuilding since they help to easily establish where the characters are within the world both geographically and narratively.
Architecture also helps to establish the genre. While science fiction and fantasy are broad classes of speculative fiction, multiple sub-genres or flavors within them. Treasure Planet, for example, draws heavily on the steampunk genre – an aesthetic derived heavily from the look and feel of the industrial era and usually features an anachronism of futuristic machinery blended with a more historical setting.
Hugo (2011) is also a good example of this genre, with steampunk’s characteristic architectural language that evokes the feel of living within a machine and acting as a call-back to the steam era of innovation and exploration. Though the term steampunk may not be commonly used, the trope is still easily recognizable by its distinct architectural language.
Architecture is not just used to create spaces that parallel real-world architecture, however. Many movies and shows use architecture more uniquely – rather than directly drawing influence from a particular style of architecture, it instead takes aspects of architecture that evoke the required emotion for the setting. Moria, the dwarf city in the Lord of the Rings, is an example. It does not directly draw on any real-world culture but fits the in-universe culture of the dwarfs, who are miners and craftspeople. Stone is the prominent material to symbolize the sturdiness of the race.
Science fiction also utilizes bright neon accent lighting and swooping curves to denote spaces intended to be more futuristic, such as spaceship interiors or alien planets, as seen in movies like Tron: Legacy and Star Trek. The imagery of these movies enters mainstream culture and tends to be easily understood today as a reference, just as realistic architecture does.
Architecture, therefore, clearly plays a major role in establishing the setting and context of fantasy worlds by using associations, parallels, and relations that the viewer is already aware of, by virtue of familiarity with both the real world and the genre of the work.