Should Sauron, the titular villain of The Lord of the Rings (yes, often I forget that the title itself references the dark lord!) have appeared in physical form at the films’ end?
That claim during discussion after last week’s column in this Lord of the Fantasies series surprised me. I had thought it was beyond debate that the dark lord Sauron, who had been “diminished” after the Gondorian warrior Isildur cut the Ring from his hand, could not take physical form — at least, not until the One Ring was back in his possession.
But evidently last week’s readers are not the only ones who think that is open for interpretation. Peter Jackson and the folks who adapted Tolkien’s epic fantasy into the Lord of the Rings films also thought so. They even filmed a physical Sauron appearance.
Some of you may know this already. During my last viewing of the film series’ behind-the-scenes DVD features, though, I was struck by the logic of including Sauron as a physical being, even an “angel of light” visage (known as Annatar). Yet I accepted the far better logic of instead keeping Sauron spiritual and subtle. In fact, the benefit of not making such a change is similar to that of not changing another character’s actions in The Two Towers film (after internet fans raised a ruckus over the potential alteration).
In both cases, story beholders are blessedly turned aside from insular definitions of heroes as people who are stronger and faster in battle, to oft-ignored kinds of heroes.
Example of Arwen Evenstar
Here, I think it’s best to let the filmmakers and actors speak for themselves. (This excerpted transcription, and the following, are from The Lord of the Rings Extended Edition DVDs’ appendices discs, for The Two Towers and The Return of the King.)
Discussing the processing of adapting The Two Towers book for the screen, director Peter Jackson mentions original plans to include Arwen, Aragorn’s Elven love interest, in the Helm’s Deep battle. That seemed necessary, Jackson said, because otherwise the film would struggle with a storyline of lovers separated by hundreds of miles. But …
Barrie Osborne (producer): “Certainly we got a lot of fan reaction to that. There was a rumor on the net that went out immediately that that was the direction the movie was going to go. And —” (Visibly swallows.) “There were a lot of objections to that thought.”
Liv Tyler (actress): “People don’t think that we ever look at this stuff.” (Laughing) “I once made the mistake of going and reading some of the stuff. And I cried so hard afterwards, because they were calling me ‘Liv Tyler, Xena Warrior.’”
Rick Porras (co-producer): “The way it was written, she actually was this incredibly gifted and courageous and ruthless fighter, like all Elves are capable of being. And as we were shooting Helm’s Deep, a decision was made: look, you know what, actually, this isn’t working; we need to change this.”
Viggo Mortenson (actor): “I think the filmmakers [were] trying to be creative and think of a way of including her more. But I think they found better ways to do that, by mining the appendices of The Lord of the Rings, of which Tolkien himself said the one concerning Arwen and Aragorn was the most important one to him.”
Philippa Boyens (co-writer): “Now that we’ve managed to come back to the book, what we discovered is that the love story could be more unconventional. That you could in fact tell the story as written, with these two main characters being apart from each other, because they were always together.”
Tyler: “So it wasn’t until the second half of shooting when we really started to change everything, and when we came back to who Arwen truly is, that I really just — I mean, I was so into it, and so liberated and happy. I was skipping around the set. At that point, I just went right back into the book and into the appendix. What we came to realize was that you don’t have to put a sword in her hands to make her strong. Where we’ve come to now is all these true elements of who Arwen is. I mean, this is an incredibly powerful and fearless woman, filled with so much hope and belief. And that is strong enough.”
What a thought. Not all strong female characters must fight, or prove they’re equal to male characters in every talent. Instead, strength and valor can be shown by waiting for a warrior’s return, believing in his victory, even being a servant to support him.
Would that other storytellers, non-Christian and Christian, who are drawn into extreme un-Biblical views of women’s role or abilities, understand this about female characters:
“You don’t have to put a sword in her hands to make her strong.”
Example of Aragorn Elessar
The same proves true for the film’s version of Aragorn, who almost was shown in a somewhat familiar Epic Duel, Luke-and-Darth-Vader-style, at the end of The Return of the King. That’s according to the same crew, who later discovered a much better way.
Jackson: “Sauron’s always proven difficult in these films, especially to me. I mean, I’ve always had problems — with my sort of movie-making hat on. I mean, it works fine in the book; no problem with the book. But your villain is basically a giant eyeball. […] We also felt that Aragorn has come this distance with his journey, and that Sauron is his enemy, and that we had to somehow have this personal duel between Aragorn and Sauron. That’s not in the book. But we felt that it had to be in the movie.”
[… Later, they show the actual original script.]
CLOSE ON: SAURON the FAIR looks into ARAGORN’S eyes as if STARING into his very SOUL …
What did they bring, the Kings of Old?
From over the sundered seas?
Seven Stars, and seven stones
And one white tree…
Hail Aragorn, son of Kings.
Jackson: “It was not what Tolkien imagined. And we realized it was actually totally demeaning to what Aragorn was doing. The story was so clear as to what was happening, that this was all about Frodo and Sam. Aragorn realizes, if they’re still alive, then he has to do what he can to help Frodo and Sam. So Aragorn’s heroism is not a one-on-one duel with the big villain. His heroism is his attempt to put his own life and the life of his troops on the line, in the vague hope and dream that it somehow may give Frodo and Sam that little opportunity to help them complete their mission.”
[…] “We’ve sort of got the best of both worlds, because we had that moment where he’s drawn away, and just when you think that [Aragorn is] somehow being affected by this force, he turns and he says —”
[Clip of Mortenson as Aragorn, in a greenscreen-surrounded set.]
Mortenson: “For Frodo.” [With a battle cry, he charges away.]
Yet another groundbreaking concept: turning aside from yet another scene of muscular bodies and huge weapons hurling against each other, to show not only inner conflict and defeat of evil with good, but a clear and stunning portrayal of self-sacrifice.
Would that other storytellers, non-Christian and Christian, who are drawn into extreme un-Biblical views of men’s roles or abilities, understand this about male characters:
“Aragorn’s heroism is not a one-on-one duel with the big villain. His heroism is his attempt to put his own life and the life of his troops on the line.”
Whatever our thoughts of the films and what they got wrong, we have to give them this: after considering these two possible changes, they saw the light. They both understood why the book and its story was better, and turned from the seduction of making female strength about Girl-Warrior Power, and battles of good and evil mainly about masculine combat. In this, they honored Tolkien and showed respect to his books. And, for those with eyes to see, the films showed Biblical, servant-leader heroisms to the world.
Still, you might still believe Arwen could have been different, or Sauron more physical, while also preserving these themes. If so, how so? What other diverse kinds of heroism did the Lord of the Rings books reflect? How did the films show these, or change them?