When adapting any great work of literature, or even one that is just mid, filmmakers and visual artists will be forced to make changes big and small for any myriad of reasons. Sometimes it is due to the economy of storytelling in a truncated form—such as the famous example of Scarlett O’Hara’s number of children shrinking from three to one in Gone with the Wind. Other times, the changes are made because the requirements of a visual medium shifts the structure of the story; like showing the massacre at Hardhome by ice zombies in Game of Thrones instead of simply reading about it in a letter. There are even times when the filmmaker wants to put a modern spin on the text. This would be how every Dracula now is a sexy rock star god.
But then, dear reader, there are times when the filmmaker or screenwriter sees an opportunity to faithfully adapt a text while also improving upon it. Many of the changes made by director Peter Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens in The Lord of the Rings trilogy have become such examples, particularly with the story’s third and final volume, The Return of the King.Ever since its release 20 years ago this month, The Return of the King has been celebrated, revered, and also critiqued by various elements of fan culture. At a gargantuan 201 minutes (and that is just the theatrical cut), the film rather miraculously transfers J.R.R. Tolkien’s mammoth climax for the story of Frodo and the One Ring into a coherent and satisfying Hollywood epic. Along the way though, Jackson and company made changes to the source material that plenty of fans to this day debate. From smartly eliminating Tolkien’s denouement-turned-detour in the Scouring of the Shire to the admittedly more head-scratching subplot where Arwen suffers a wasting illness as Sauron’s powers grow, there are no shortage of changes in Return of the King.
Yet one of the subtlest amendments in the third film is also among the best adjustments Jackson ever made: he recognized perhaps even more clearly than Tolkien that Samwise Gamgee (played with affable affection by Sean Astin) was the hero of the story. And two decades later, it’s time to give the Shire’s greatest gardener his due.
Removing a Cliffhanger In Order to Add Conflict
In truth, this change began in the second film in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Two Towers. Like a lot of readers of Tolkien, I left the theater in 2002 perplexed as to why Jackson chose to omit the actual climax of Tolkien’s second volume. It’s the sequence where Frodo and Sam are lured by the treacherous Gollum into the lair of Shelob, an enormous spider who stings poor Mr. Frodo and would have devoured him if not for the heroic deeds of Sam. Alas, despite Samwise’s best efforts, Frodo’s comatose body is captured by Orcs, leaving the fate of the Ring-bearer in complete doubt on the last page of the book.
The Two Towers’ screenwriters elected to leave this sequence entirely out of the film, saving it for part three. Meanwhile they invented a climax for Frodo, Sam, and Gollum, with the trio being waylaid in the ruined city of Osgiliath during its siege, which is intercut with the second film’s even bigger battle at Helm’s Deep. This change was made for a few reasons, not least of all because Jackson obviously wanted to increase the stakes and scale of the Battle of Helm’s Deep. Likely intercutting that fight with what was Jackson’s ultimate horror movie flourish—Frodo caught in Shelob’s web as the slithery thing crawls ever closer to his fresh warm blood—would have wreaked tonal havoc on The Two Towers‘ finale.
In retrospect though, a more substantial reason for the change was that Jackson wasn’t only saving the spectacle of Shelob for The Return of the King, but he was also saving this sequence for a film that would fully explore the importance of Samwise Gamgee to the mission with a three-hour long character arc—and expand on how it was written of by Tolkien.
Indeed, the most controversial change in The Return of the King after the deletion of the Scouring of the Shire is a subplot Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens invented out of whole cloth. Before entering Shelob’s catacombs or even Mordor, Gollum (Andy Serkis in a groundbreaking motion-capture performance) successfully drives a wedge between Sam and dear, sweet Frodo (Elijah Wood). This is accomplished via several scenes of Luciferian whispers in Mr. Frodo’s ear about why Sam is an untrustworthy, fat hobbit who covets the One Ring. Finally, Gollum frames Sam for eating the last of their lembas bread.
Completely bewitched by the paranoia induced from the One Ring and Gollum’s general sneakiness, Frodo turns on Sam, ordering his hobbit subordinate to walk all the way home alone and in shame. He shall go on with only Gollum.
For some fans, this is contrived melodrama, creating a rift where none existed. But that reading is not quite right. What Jackson and company did was expand on a brief moment that occurred in Tolkien’s prose, but like many of the more dramatic flourishes of the book, then went vaguely underdeveloped beyond the paragraph it occurred in. On the page, Frodo does have a momentary doubt about Sam when the two are reunited inside a fortified tower on the wrong side of the Mordor border. In both film and novel, this is the scene that occurs after Sam rescues Frodo from the Orcs, who captured the latter while he was under Shelob’s poisonous spell.
In the book, Tolkien briefly departs writing the chapter from Sam’s point-of-view in order to explain that when Sam offers to continue carrying the Ring for his master, he ceases to appear in Frodo’s mind’s eye like a friend. For a fleeting moment, the Ring’s influence causes Frodo to think Sam is an Orc trying to steal the precious! He immediately, however, recognizes his folly and apologizes to Sam for his rude outburst. And that is the end of that.
At the risk of committing Tolkien sacrilege, many of the sequences from “Book Six” of The Return of the King about Sam and Frodo in Mordor are repetitive and absent of internal conflict. So while this brief flash of Frodo’s growing weakness to the One Ring serviceably foreshadows his capitulation to its power in Mount Doom, it also squanders a moment of dramatic tension and does not serve Sam as well as it could.
The screenwriters of The Return of the King correct this missed opportunity, starting by having Frodo’s paranoia blossom a little earlier and for him to fully turn on Sam when the servant offers to carry the Ring for the master. Drunk on power and Gollum’s alternative facts, Frodo betrays the only friend he has left in the world, mirroring actual elements of drug addiction that Wood used to inform his interpretation of Frodo’s waning strength. It makes their journey much more emotionally fraught and sets the stage for Sam’s finest moments….
Sam, the One Ring, and at the End of All Things
As with Tolkien’s literary Lord of the Rings, Astin’s Samwise Gamgee proves his devotion and goodness by having the wherewithal to recover the Ring before Orcs claim what he thinks is Frodo’s dead body. And upon learning that Frodo is not dead, Sam uses the Ring to sneak into their fort like a regular Ian Fleming character and rescuing Frodo from their clutches. In the book, it’s all exciting, but the dramatic heft of what Sam achieves is treated almost like a foregone conclusion. He is repeatedly described as a servant doing right by “his master.” While leaving the novel open to an interesting reading about British classism, it seems to almost throw away the most intriguing revelation: Sam carries the burden of the One Ring in this portion of the novel better than Frodo ever did.
Admittedly, Sam only carried the Ring for hours or maybe a day, versus it being Frodo’s weight to bear for nearly a year. Still, Sam proves to be a more compelling hero in Return of the King than Frodo does. And the movie leans hard into this fact.
It does so first by compacting all of Sam’s best moments into one film, beginning with his ferocious rescue of Frodo from Shelob’s clutches. Secondly, the film has Sam go back to rescue Frodo on his own initiative after being sent away. He returns as a friend instead of a servant. This makes their bond feel viscerally stronger, if also admittedly a modern anachronism separate from Tolkien’s views on class and duty. It also clarifies something even Frodo (and therefore Tolkien) admits: Sam is the bravest and noblest of hobbits.
Onscreen this is self-evident because Sam not only comes to Frodo’s rescue, but upon finding his friend alive, Sam is the one who leaves the scene with a moment’s pause and a shadow of doubt. When Frodo turns cold and snatches for the Ring in Sam’s hand, Sam hesitates. While there isn’t a line of dialogue spoken, it is all over Astin’s face that his character is doubting the resolve and fortitude of Frodo. He sees the desperation of an addict and in his bones knows this poor hobbit probably should not carry the Ring another moment. So it is against Sam’s better judgment when he hands the Ring back to Frodo.
This doubt again creates a more fluid and subtly evolving dynamic between the two hobbits, providing a messier humanity for both actors to play as the characters are rushed along to Mount Doom. And when they get there, the most heroic moment whereupon Howard Shore’s score swells is not Frodo entering the cavernous mouth of the inferno, but Sam decreeing to Frodo’s broken body that if he cannot carry the Ring, then “I CAN CARRY YOU!” Shore even at long last revives the Fellowship’s triumphant leitmotif, now with a choir, as Sam is forced to battle Gollum on Frodo’s behalf as the story reaches its crescendo.
These elements occur in Tolkien’s prose, but in an adaptation a filmmaker must decide what to dramatically emphasize. And here, at the end of all things, the emphasis is on Sam’s selflessness and heroism. It’s wise, because—if we are again to court blasphemy—the actual climax of Frodo’s journey is ultimately letdown. At the end, he succumbs to the One Ring’s seduction and becomes Gollum in all but name. He even loses a finger to the little wretch as they fight over the Ring, and the guy once called Smeagol bites Frodo’s digit off before accidentally hopping his way into oblivion (in the film Frodo pushes Gollum into the lake of fire while trying to wrestle the Ring back).
There is a dramatic irony at the heart of Tolkien’s reasoning; he reminds the reader that both Bilbo and Frodo’s choice to spare the wretched Gollum proved that broad salvation can be achieved through an act of personal Christian charity. By being merciful and kind to even those who most would view as beyond redemption, Frodo/Bilbo inadvertently saved the world since Gollum’s lust for the Ring accidentally causes its destruction. The smallest of us, or most pathetic, indeed made a difference. Nonetheless, the story arguably still confirms that, no, really, Gollum is beyond the point of redemption, and we are just lucky this imbecile was clumsy enough to take the Ring with him on his way into the flames.
While I do not think this is Tolkien’s intent, my personal reading of Frodo is that he failed his greatest test and was found ultimately as morally compromised as Gollum.
Of course Tolkien is aware of Frodo’s fallibility; he wrote it in to the most pivotal moment of the book, and later decides to end the novel not on Frodo saying goodbye to his friends as he travels into the West, but on Sam returning home to the family he built because the Shire didn’t burn. Nor did any of Middle-earth.
But just as Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens recognized Tolkien might have left in the superfluous character of Tom Bombadil in The Fellowship of the Ring because the author elected not to revise his first draft after losing interest in Tommy, they also recognized that Tolkien is suggesting Sam is the most heroic character at the end of The Return of the King. And as with removing Bombadil entirely from the films, the screenwriters decided to better emphasize Sam’s heroism so his final happy ending reaches its full potential.
It is Sam alone who never loses faith in the Fellowship, even after those left behind before him had moments of doubt and even Frodo succumbed to Gollum’s nihilism; it is Sam who wields the One Ring the most freely and justly; and it is Sam at the end who has the greatest strength of character, culminating with him carrying Frodo’s devastated body up the slopes of that awful mountain. He is the one who gets to return home.
Sam is the true hero of The Lord of the Rings, and Jackson’s The Return of the King put that front and center.