I never saw Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical The Phantom of the Opera on stage. But I am fond of the 2004 movie. I can’t compare the two formats, so I’ll have to duck quietly out the back door if people want to debate their relative merits. But the movie does bring up an entertaining, if minor, point.
If you’re not familiar with the story of Webber’s musical, check the Wikipedia link at the top of this post. What we need to know here is that around 1870, a reclusive villain haunts the Paris Opéra House; he’s obsessed with a young singer named Christine Daae, who is in turn mesmerized by the Phantom’s music; and the partially-masked man lives in extensive caverns under the opera house, which form the backdrop for scenes in the movie.
When I say “caverns,” you may be picturing some dark, gloomy retreat. Not at all. The Phantom’s lair is not only pretty plush; it’s brilliantly lit by what seem to be thousands of candles.
My family was watching the movie one time and started speculating about exactly who manages these candles. To begin with, someone has to have lighted them all before the Phantom spirits Christine away to his hideout. Did the Phantom himself spend a couple of hours going around with a Bic lighter beforehand? It’s not as if he has a crew of minions to do it for him. The Phantom is strictly a one-man operation.
Nor is it enough simply to turn a light on, as might be the case for, say, a gas lamp. Candles burn down and have to be replaced. One imagines the Phantom singing the languorous lyrics of “The Music of the Night” while breaking off every few lines to change out a guttering candle for a fresh one. It would kind of ruin the effect.
It gets worse. Where do all the candles come from? Even if we assume the mystery man can afford them (he demands regular protection money from the opera in exchange for not killing people), remember that this is a secret hideout. If a big lorry pulled up outside the cellar doors every week—“Order of 5,000 candles for Mr. P.”—someone would eventually notice.
Of course, The Phantom isn’t exactly a model of realism, and we don’t begrudge the producers another minor lapse in logic in exchange for the visual spectacle. It’s an example of what TV Tropes calls “Fridge Logic”: the plot holes that occur to you half an hour after the movie is over, as you’re rooting around in your refrigerator.
Still, it’s surprising how common this particular anomaly is.
In Disney’s 1993 version of The Three Musketeers (still my favorite version), the primary villain is Cardinal Richelieu, hammed up to the hilt by Tim Curry. He too has an underground lair: a dungeon somewhere near the palace, which can only be reached by rowing a boat across a subterranean lake.
The path to the dungeons is lighted by plenty of torches; no doubt the Cardinal’s numerous henchmen can take care of those. But in addition, there are firepots spaced strategically around the lake, presumably with wood or coal feeding their bonfires.
I suppose there must be minions whose sole job is to row around the lake, periodically replenishing the firepots’ fuel. And I expect they are under strict orders to skedaddle off the lake whenever the Cardinal himself comes to take a boat across, lest their mundane tasks interfere with Richelieu’s august progress. Still, it seems a rather elaborate, not to mention wasteful, setup.
It might well be more economical, instead, for Richelieu to hire a contractor to come in and handle the job. That method would solve the minionless Phantom’s problem as well. Clearly, there’s a market niche here in providing this key service for villains.
But why shouldn’t heroes also get in on the game?
Carroll’s Oil Troughs
In National Treasure (2004), Our Heroes spend most of the film searching for a fabulous hoard of valuable artifacts originally collected by the Knights Templar, passed on to the Masons, and eventually hidden by Charles Carroll, one of the Founding Fathers of America. They finally discover this treasure in—you guessed it—an underground cavern, this one under Trinity Church in New York City.
This vast array of shining gold would be unimpressive if it were lighted by a single torch. Fortunately, Our Heroes find that the designers of this particular display hall have run troughs filled with oil down from the entry and across the whole expanse. All Nicolas Cage has to do is touch his torch to the basin of oil at the top, and flames race along the entire network of open tubes, providing them, and us, with a wonderful view of the goodies.
This neat bit of eighteenth-century construction still works perfectly after all these years, reminding us of the kind of Durable Deathtraps Indiana Jones is always running into; except that this isn’t a deathtrap, just a convenient lighting effect. At least we don’t have to imagine fires that have been burning continuously for two and a half centuries. We needn’t worry about plausibility as long as we don’t wonder why the oil hasn’t evaporated or leaked away long since.
If those fridge thoughts do occur to us, however, clearly the answer has to be that Carroll got in touch with the Phantom’s lighting contractors to renew the oil supply every so often. The movie has already presented us with several secret societies functioning for centuries; what’s one more?
This particulat subtrope seems to occur mainly in the movies, since it’s primarily a matter of visual spectacle. A verbal description can more easily skate around the problems, though it still wouldn’t be quite as satisfying to write about the wonderful sight of a vast treasure if it were almost entirely shrouded in gloom.
It’s primarily in a historical context that we need the lighting contractor’s services. A story set in the present or future would face less daunting challenges if it merely had to explain long-lived electric lighting rather than candles or other fires. And of course it’s in underground settings that we tend to need the light most.
A little stretching of the imagination was always needed when visualizing exploration, not to mention swordfighting and such, in underground areas without an obvious source of light. One could stipulate that Dungeons and Dragons adventurers were carrying torches in one hand while wielding swords in the other—but at best that always seemed like something only a master swordsman could pull off. I was rather relieved when the players in my D&D campaign came up with the idea of casting Continual Light spells on coins that they could hang around their necks. The wildly shifting shadows as they darted around in a melee, lanyards swinging, would be headachy to imagine; but at least they could get rid of the dratted torches.
What really justifies (and I use the term loosely) these candles and firepots is what TV Tropes calls the Rule of Cool: we’re willing to grant some logical leeway to a storyteller to allow a really impressive effect.
But I’m still tempted to add to the traditional Evil Overlord List an additional bit of advice: If you want cool lighting effects, and the technology level is such that it’s not just a matter of making sure your utility bills are paid up, look up the Phantom’s lighting contractor.