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Return of the King’s Greatest Book Change Made Sam the Hero of the Story

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.

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