One does not simply claim that The Lord of the Rings “contains multitudes” and leave it at that. There’s more than enough heart, drama, and spectacle (not to mention meme-fodder regarding those ubiquitous walking sequences and Eagle-sized controversies) to appease any casual fan. But for those of us who identify as J.R.R. Tolkien purists, our relationship with Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens’ three-part adaptation could best be described as… complicated.
2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies’ 20th anniversary, and we couldn’t imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we’ll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon’s Year of the Ring.
You can trust the most passionate (insufferable) among us, burdened with book-learned knowledge, to host annual trilogy marathons and debate ourselves in disturbingly Gollum-like fashion. Between effusive praise (nothing but respect for MY The Fellowship of the Ring prologue front-loaded with all that worldbuilding and historical lore) and head-scratching disbelief (they did WHAT to Faramir in The Two Towers?), we can spin ourselves into knots trying to reconcile these two wolves within us — and within the films themselves, too.
It’s in this spirit that we take a microscope to one particular sequence I’ve obsessed over since I was an impressionable Hobbit-lad in 2003, bursting with anticipation in my theater seat as The Return of the King unfolded before me. The parting of Sam and Frodo, where the bond between our two lovable leads shatters due to irreconcilable differences (assisted by a third-wheeling Gollum), best represents the singular dichotomy at the heart of these cherished adaptations. Again and again, bold swings of blockbuster filmmaking crash against Jackson’s B-movie storytelling quirks.
The end result is uniquely fascinating.
The entire affair between Frodo, Sam, and Gollum on the Stairs of Cirith Ungol seems straightforward at first glance. The possessive and consuming nature of the Ring has almost completely overtaken Frodo, leaving him susceptible to manipulation and whispered suspicions. Gollum’s treachery compels him to chuck the last of their precious Lembas bread and frame Sam for the crime. And poor Samwise, well-meaning to a fault, bumbles right into Gollum’s trap by offering to bear Frodo’s burdensome Ring himself. Cue the fraught confrontation, Sam’s ineffectual defense, and Frodo’s two harsh words that broke all our hearts: “Go home.”
But a cursory look at this scene unearths the strands fraying just below the surface. Author/video essayist Lindsay Ellis once amusingly coined the phrase “Forced Peej Conflict”, which describes a specific kind of plot contrivance Peter Jackson frequently relies on when adapting aspects of Tolkien’s work that (theoretically, at least) won’t translate smoothly on-screen. The go-to method, apparently, is to inject otherwise frictionless storylines with character conflict — like, say, our hero banishing his best friend thousands of miles from home over misunderstandings about bread, choosing to remain alone with a loathsome creature very obviously up to no good — and hope that playing up the momentary, visceral sensations will compensate for any gaps in narrative or emotional logic.
Reader, it does not.
As big a departure as this is from Tolkien’s book — and it is, in case non-book-readers haven’t caught on — the real pitfall of this scene is how very little of it makes any dramatic sense. Instantly, Frodo’s likability takes a debilitating and almost unrecoverable hit. (Siding with Sméagol’s redemptive potential over Sam’s well-established devotion will do that!) Meanwhile, the inherent tension in the Sméagol/Gollum duality is completely sapped, as his betrayal turns into a foregone conclusion. Suddenly, at the most crucial juncture, the main thread of the trilogy feels hamstrung.
The biggest casualty, however, is none other than our favorite bodyguard/gardener. This seemingly reverse-engineered outcome requires Sam to remain inexplicably passive in the face of Gollum’s obvious villainy, act uncharacteristically violent to justify Frodo’s reaction, and, most egregiously, look really slow on the uptake (even Elijah Wood and Sean Austin poke fun at this in the cast commentary track).
Sam knows he’s innocent, but he meekly goes along with Frodo’s commands even if it means breaking his promise. Extremely questionable! He begins his long journey home only to stumble across their missing food, theatrically swelling with rage and motivation to save his dear Frodo because he… now has visual proof that he did not, in fact, mistakenly eat their own food and forget about it? …Sure.
So why isn’t this a bigger deal-breaker than it is? Why didn’t audiences revolt en masse and chain themselves in front of LA’s Dolby Theatre to prevent The Return of the King from sweeping all those Oscars? It’s simple, really: Peter Jackson’s repeated efforts to drum up tension through utter nonsense — on some lizard-brain level of human consciousness — work anyway.
As illogical, non-canonical, and awfully strained as the set-up to these pay-offs may be, Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens sure as hell know how to deliver. Pippin’s insipid “plan” in The Two Towers (which, oops, renders one of the oldest beings in Middle-earth a gullible fool) is easy to forget because the subsequent March of the Ents delivers tenfold. Likewise, King Theoden’s weirdly self-defeating attitude towards Gondor (and his inexplicable reversal in The Return of the King) is but a blip on the radar in the face of the majestic lighting of the beacons.
It’d be convenient to dismiss these as missteps stemming from changes to the source material, but it’s not quite that straightforward. Throughout the trilogy, Jackson and his co-writers prove they intuitively understand that shortcuts and trade-offs are sometimes necessary in translating novels to visual language. One could argue that the figurative cost-to-benefit ratio doesn’t come out in Jackson’s favor at times, but what makes art so wonderfully complex is how striving for greatness commingles with the inherent flaws of the artist(s).
However much we roll our eyes at blatantly padded action sequences or contrived attempts to raise stakes, these foibles are precisely what makes this fantasy epic as distinctive, idiosyncratic, and downright weird as it is. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is still fostering discussion and withstanding scrutiny today, nearly 20 years after it arrived in theaters. The results speak for themselves.
Nothing diminishes Sam’s crowd-pleasing hero moment, returning with Frodo’s sword Sting and the Phial of Galadriel in hand, ready to save his best friend from the arachnid incarnation of evil itself. It’s precisely the kind of triumphant, heart-on-its-sleeve catharsis we come to this trilogy for in the first place.
And that’s the ace in the hole The Lord of the Rings movies always carry. For as tempting as it is to fixate on unforgivable departures from the text, it’s through these creative gambles that Jackson & Co. leave their indelible marks on a nigh miraculous adaptation. This one bizarre scene, nestled within a much larger saga, serves as a microcosm of the most rewarding adaptation we could’ve hoped for, teaching a downright Tolkien-esque lesson — however unintentionally — in appreciating the occasional stumble in the pursuit of success.