The Tragedy of Gollum

Samantha Reynolds gives us her contribution to the 25th Anniversary Miruvor issue: an essay on the portrayal of Gollum in Jackson’s film trilogy.

When Peter Jackson and company set out to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings, they had the monumental task of putting a beloved and almost sacred novel on screen. As it is written, it is ill-suited for the silver screen – not at all following a conventional film story. What’s more, they had to contend with the difficult and elusive character of Gollum Producer Rick Porras said that ‘if Gollum didn’t work, it all [the films] just would have fallen apart, it would’ve been like a house of cards.’

The case can be made that they were successful. Jackson managed to create the films to critical acclaim, winning a number of awards and even sweeping the Academy Awards with the final film. However, despite the success of the films, they did not correctly portray Gollum. The filmmakers spent a lot of time at the front end and back end with the digital effects to get Gollum’s physical characterisation right, and while they certainly achieved what they wanted, his physical characteristics and mannerisms, they failed to achieve the tragedy of Gollum that so resonated with Tolkien.

Tolkien ‘[was] most grieved by Gollum’s failure … to repent.’ That is ‘the tragedy of Gollum.’ While the filmmakers characterised him correctly, by changing six key scenes they missed the point of him as the chief tragedy of The Lord of the Rings in the way Tolkien had envisioned, and by doing so, they cut the heart out of Gollum in favour of drama. He is the only main character who has a chance of being a hero but has no redemption whatsoever.

It would be unfair and incorrect to say that they completely missed the mark with Gollum. Tolkien describes him as having a ‘large head,’ ‘scrawny neck,’ long arms and legs,’ clammy fingers,’ ‘thin lank hair,’ with ‘pale eyes’ and ‘sharp teeth.’ The filmmakers certainly managed all that.

His voice is ‘creaking’ and ‘hissing.’ He ‘croaks,’ he ‘whines,’ he ‘whimpers,’ he ‘shrieks,’ and makes the miserable ‘gollum’ noise in his throat. All of the vocalizations that Andy Serkis makes could be, and should be, described with those words. The writers managed to imitate the speech patterns, making good use of: the plural in which Gollum refers to himself, the pluralisation of nouns such as ‘hobbitses,’ his frequently reference to Frodo as ‘nice master,’ the use of ‘yes, yes,’ the ‘baby talk’ his incomplete and half-formed sentences (as Jane Chance puts it in Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power), among other idiosyncrasies.

He ‘paw[s] at [Frodo],’ moves on ‘all fours … crawl[s],’ he ‘move[s] quickly, with him head and neck thrust forward, often using his hands as well as his feet,’ he ‘grovels,’ –all of these things the on-screen Gollum does as Serkis captures the physicality.

They even got the duality of Gollum and Sméagol. While they do not recreate the scene from the book exactly, the idea of Gollum and Sméagol having a conversation as two separate entities is something they make use of. In The Two Towers they have two scenes, one in the middle called ‘Gollum and Sméagol’ and one at the end called ‘Gollum’s Plan,’ where Gollum and Sméagol speak in two different voices as two distinct persons. Tolkien only shows this once at ‘The Passage of the Marshes’ where Gollum and Sméagol get into an argument about the Ring and Frodo. For now it is enough to say that the filmmakers captured the essence of what Tolkien was doing in how they physically and linguistically portrayed Gollum.

The point of all this is that the filmmakers did an excellent job at making their on-screen Gollum look, sound, and move like Tolkien’s Gollum. They gave him the same backstory, the same entrance, quite a few of the same scenes (most notably the ‘Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit’), and still had him die in Mount Doom. But there are six key scenes in the film where they deviated from what Tolkien had written and in doing so changed Gollum’s tale for the worse, lessening his emotional impact.

 

The first three scenes are found in The Two Towers: ‘Gollum and Sméagol,’ ‘The Forbidden Pool’ and ‘Gollum’s Plan.’ These three scenes can be lumped together because they all share a defining characteristic: a conversation between the distinct entities of Gollum and Sméagol. In ‘Gollum and Sméagol,’ the pair go back and forth about their relationship before Sméagol gets rid of Gollum. In ‘The Forbidden Pool,’ Sméagol is weeping and Gollum is comforting him and the animation goes so far as to have Gollum patting the weeping Sméagol on his back. In ‘Gollum’s Plan,’ Gollum and Sméagol resolve to bring Sam and Frodo to Shelob to have her kill them so that they can take the Ring for themselves.

The next three scenes are in Return of the King. The first is ‘The Parting of Sam and Frodo’ where Frodo, having been mislead by Gollum, send Sam away, back down the stairs. The next is ‘Shelob’s Lair.’ In it, Frodo tells Gollum that he is going to destroy the Ring which is what causes Gollum attack to him. Sam is not present as Gollum had gotten Frodo to send him away on the stairs. The final scene is ‘Mount Doom’ where Gollum attacks Frodo and Sam. In this scene, Sméagol confesses that he lied about his promise by the Ring to serve Frodo.

 

All six scenes are taken from passages, more or less, in the books. It bears noting the differences.

The first set of three takes a scene from ‘The Passage of the Marches’ in the book, which Tolkien referred to as ‘the debate in the slag hole,’ where Sméagol and Gollum discuss taking the Ring for themselves, using Shelob to do it, but walking away without having made a decision together about it either way. The filmmakers took that scene – or in ‘The Forbidden Pool’ scene in the film, the concept of it – and spread it over two scenes. The key differences being that in the book there is no resolution reached and that the two distinct characters are not seen conversing like that ever again.

The ‘Parting of Sam and Frodo’ appears nowhere in the book. Instead, there is a moment on the Stairs of Cirith Ungol where Gollum changes and Sméagol is no more.

‘Gollum looked at them. … A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee–but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.’

Frodo then stirs and wakes Sam who accuses Sméagol of ‘sneaking’ and calls him an ‘old villain.’ It says, ‘Gollum withdrew himself … The fleeting moment had passed, beyond recall.’ Sam does apologize for it. When Frodo awakes, he learns what Sam has said to Gollum and tells him, ‘Don’t take names to yourself, Sméagol. It’s unwise, whether they are true or false.’ This is nothing like the film.

The ‘Shelob’s Lair’ scene is also completely different than the book. Tolkien never actually has Frodo tell Gollum what he’s going to do to the Ring. Also, at the end of Shelob’s lair, Sam is present and he fights Gollum off, not Frodo. What’s more, what Frodo is going to do with the Ring is not the reason why Gollum snaps. But that will be gotten to shortly. The ‘Mount Doom’ scene is similar enough in the book, but nowhere does Gollum say, ‘Sméagol lied.’

 

This might be seen as nitpicking. The films are enjoyable, did well at the box office, and well during awards season, a rare trifecta for any film to achieve. The writers even had good reasons for changing what is the key scene for Gollum and Sméagol and creating ‘The Parting of Sam and Frodo.’ Philippa Boyens said during the Extended Edition DVD commentary, ‘We really felt the lack of dramatic development in this situation. … [T]his sort of journey up the stairs where all it’s about really is how tired they are and how cold they are and how hungry they are, is actually, um, not that interesting in terms of film.’ And she would be correct if this scene was about walking up stairs.

This is the moment when Gollum wins and Sméagol disappears forever.

The filmmakers made a mistake when they changed this scene. Actually, the mistake begins far earlier in the second film when the audience is given their first Gollum/Sméagol conversation at ‘Gollum and Sméagol.’ Sméagol was able to get rid of Gollum at that scene, he was able to have resolution in that inner debate. Sméagol is not supposed to win that conversation. What’s more, he and Gollum are not supposed to reach an agreement to give Frodo and Sam over to Shelob at ‘Gollum’s Plan.’

The way Tolkien wrote it and later spoke about it, for Sméagol to have conquered Gollum so early at a time like ‘Gollum and Sméagol’, he would have had the strength of character to help Frodo destroy the Ring. Sméagol is still procrastinating in the slag-hole. He has not gotten rid of Gollum and never gets rid of him in the book. Had he gotten rid of Gollum in the slag-hole, he would have been able to deal with Sam on the stairs saying that he is ‘sneaking.’ Had he been able to do that, Gollum would not have allowed Shelob to try and eat Frodo and Sam, Gollum would have gone with them to Mordor, and his conflicting love for both Frodo and the Ring would have see him ‘voluntarily cast himself [and the Ring] into the fiery abyss’ at the Cracks of Doom.

Gollum would have been the hero. He could have been redeemed.

But that is not what happens. Instead, because Sméagol does not get rid of Gollum at the slag-hole, because Gollum has been allowed to stay in the picture, the scene on the Stairs is a scene that, years after publication, moved the author ‘very powerfully.’ He was ‘most grieved by Gollum’s failure (just) to repent when interrupted by Sam.’ This scene is ‘the tragedy of Gollum who at that moment came within a hair of repentance–but for one rough word from Sam.’ This scene is not, as Boyens put is, ‘how tired they are and how cold they are and how hungry they are.’ It is the culmination of the struggle between Sméagol and Gollum where in Gollum wins.

Had they not deviated from the slag-hole scene, they might have been able to preserve that. But instead of building to it by allowing Gollum and Sméagol to battle it out as they do in the book, they go for a black and white dichotomy of Gollum and Sméagol that destroys the internal build to the Stairs.

In the book, after the slag-hole scene, Tolkien does not write another scene like it. Instead, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell when Gollum appears or when Sméagol appears. Prior to that scene, there are ‘rules,’ if they can be called that, as to who is in control. It is fairly clear that Sméagol is in control by the use of the ‘I,’ kindness towards the hobbits, and, to some extent, calling himself Sméagol: such as in ‘The Taming of Sméagol’ where ‘his voice and language change’ and he says ‘I don’t want to … I can’t … I am,’ when Sméagol promises to serve Frodo saying ‘I promise,’ when he would ‘paw[…] at Frodo,’ ‘Sméagol promised,’ or ‘Sméagol is hungry now.’ It is also fairly clear when Gollum is in control by use of his ‘baby talk,’ adding ‘s’ to things, referring to himself in the plural, repetition, and, generally, saying ‘my precious’ all as being fairly clear signs of that: ‘It hurts us, it hurts us’ or ‘Yess, yess, nice water. Drink it, drink it while we can.’

After the slag-hole scene in chapter two of the fourth book of The Lord of the Rings, Sméagol uses ‘I’ or ‘me’ in only three other instances in the rest of the 8 and a half chapters of that book and not at all in Return of the King. It becomes increasingly difficult to know which of the two is in control because both sets of ‘rules’ are used at the same time. For example, when Gollum/Sméagol is helping Sam cook for Frodo in ‘Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbits’ he says, ‘Stew the rabbits! Spoil beautiful meat Sméagol saved for you, poor hungry Sméagol! What for? What for, silly hobbit? They are young, they are tender, they are nice. Eat them, eat them!’ He is being kind, he is not pluralizing either himself or other things, but the speech is juvenile and there is repetition. So is this Sméagol or Gollum? It is unclear and this happens all throughout from the slag-hole to the Stairs until finally, after one last, internal debate, Sméagol wins until Sam rebukes him and ‘The fleeting moment … passed, beyond recall.’ Then Sméagol is gone. He does not show up again in the story. Gollum has won the internal struggle. If Sméagol had won, he would have stopped at least Frodo from going into Shelob’s lair based on his promise and love for him, but because he does not it is clear Sméagol is gone.

By adding an additional two scenes of the dichotomy between Sméagol and Gollum, the filmmakers cheapen the struggle Gollum goes through. By having Gollum and Sméagol resolve to send Frodo and Sam to Shelob, they rob Gollum and the audience of the tragedy of his moment on the stairs as well as the potential for Sméagol to be redeemed. At the point in the film, he is doomed. And by having Gollum, on the steps on Mount Doom say ‘Sméagol lied,’ they negate the internal struggle entirely and assimilate Sméagol into Gollum which further cheapens it.

What’s more, by turning into Gollum after Frodo reveals to him that Frodo is going to destroy the Ring it pays, if possible, too much heed to the Ring and not enough to the humanity of Gollum. It was not the Ring that kept Sméagol from repentance, from redemption–it was his reaction to Sam. It speaks to the power of words, of how people characterize themselves and what they believe about themselves based on words.

In summation, while Peter Jackson and company captured the characterization and mannerisms of Gollum very well, they did not correctly portray Gollum and failed to achieve the tragedy of Gollum that so resonated with Tolkien. By changing six key scenes they missed the point of Gollum as the chief tragedy as the only main character without redemption in The Lord of the Rings, completely disregarding how Tolkien envisioned it, and by doing so, they cut the heart out of Gollum in favour of drama. While there is a difference in how one tells a story on screen and how one does in  novel, the filmmakers made unnecessary, fundamental changes to the character of Gollum that changes his story and character. He is the only main character who has a chance of being a hero but has no redemption whatsoever.

 

Bibliography

 

‘The Cast Commentary.’ Performed by Andy Serkis. The Lord of the Rings Extended Edition: The Return of the King. Directed by Peter Jackson. New Line Cinema, 2003.

‘The Cast Commentary.’ Performed by Andy Serkis. The Lord of the Rings Extended Edition: The Two Towers. Directed by Peter Jackson. New Line Cinema, 2002.

Chance, Jane. Lord of the Rings : The Mythology of Power. Lexington, KY, USA: University Press of Kentucky, 2010. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 18 February 2015. Copyright © 2010. University Press of Kentucky. All rights reserved.
‘The Director and Writers Commentary.’ Directed by Peter Jackson. Screenplay by Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. The Lord of the Rings Extended Edition: The Return of the King. Directed by Peter Jackson. New Line Cinema, 2003.

‘The Director and Writers Commentary.’ Directed by Peter Jackson. Screenplay by Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. The Lord of the Rings Extended Edition: The Two Towers. Directed by Peter Jackson. New Line Cinema, 2002.

                The Lord of the Rings Extended Edition: The Return of the King. Directed by Peter Jackson. Screenplay by Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. Performed by Andy Serkis. New Line Cinema, 2003.

                The Lord of the Rings Extended Edition: The Two Towers. Directed by Peter Jackson. Screenplay by Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. New Line Cinema, 2002.

‘The Taming of Sméagol.’ Produced by Rick Porras and Barrie M. Osborne. The Lord of the Rings Extended Edition: The Two Towers. Directed by Peter Jackson. New Line Cinema, 2002.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Compiled by Humphrey Carpenter. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981, 221.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of  the Ring. 1965/1966 ed. Vol. 1 of The Lord of the Rings. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1954.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Two Towers. 1965/1966 ed. Vol. 2 of The Lord of the Rings. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1954.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Return of the King. 1965/1966 ed. Vol. 3 of The Lord of the Rings. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1955.

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