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Who’s Spiking Who?

It's official. Saruman dies during The Two Towers in a very unique way, via the magic of cinematic adaptation.

We have proof of exactly what was going on in the now notorious photo that appeared in a Wellington newspaper last August. It showed a bedraggled, upended white wizard lanced clean through on a massive spiked wheel. Poor sod.

Like wildfire in a dry prairie, speculation ran far and wide among the online Tolkien community upon the photo's first appearance. Was it Gandalf the White? Was it a post-staff-sundering Saruman who got pushed out of a window by an angry Wormtongue? Who was being spiked–the actor or us fans?

The answer we got from Sir Ian McKellen on his website was a playful non-answer. He said in his Grey Book entry of 8 August 2000: "No, it's not me, although I was filming on the same location yesterday. Nor, as some have speculated, is it Christopher Lee." I for one don’t blame him for obfuscating–it wasn’t him or Lee, but rather it was Lee’s stunt double. Fans were altogether stumped by Sir Ian’s comments and the continuing furor even reached the ears of the banal major media, who found it all mildly amusing. Now we can put those doubts to rest.

If you pause to think about it, it’s clear that this spiked wheel incident is a bit of physical comedy that pays homage to Lee’s remarkable oeuvre as Dracula from the glory days of the Hammer Studios. It must have seemed funny to Mr. Jackson to have Dracula get a stake through the heart one more time. Actually, it is a funny idea especially if you’re a cineast at heart. I wonder that the fan sites didn’t pick up on this immediately.

The particular Call Sheet that has proved so illuminating is official and did indeed come from Three Foot Six Ltd.(click here to see it) Now you may be asking, "How did a Call Sheet with this kind of information leak out?" Well, it's not surprising really. You could look in half the garbage cans in Wellington and find more of the same. There are many hundreds of discarded Call Sheets and other bits of paper that are tossed out after filming (Here's a tip for all our NZ Spies: trash digging is a noble enterprise!).

The Call Sheet tells us what they were filming that day, on what set, and the particulars of what the scene required: ‘As Saruman turns on the wheel, the Palantír drops from his hand and into the water.’ We have only one conclusion to make: Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh have altered Saruman’s original death found in Tolkien's pages. The implication for the films’ overall story is not immediately clear, but you can connect the dots with what evidence we have.

My take on it: There will be no Scouring of the Shire in the films.

We are faced with the extinction of what I think is a key moment (flavors of Tom Bombadil). If Mr. Jackson decides Saruman will meet his demise in the second film, after the Ents’ destruction of Isengard, then we certainly won’t have the chain of events found later in the story! There will be no Saruman to infiltrate the Shire and assert control over Lotho and the other hobbits.

Also note that Christopher Lee (who plays Saruman) was not even present at the rural location for Hobbiton. I understand he showed up in NZ after filming was done at those sites and the entire Hobbiton set had been razed to the ground. Since his work was contained at the Wellington studios, where does that leave the opportunity to film the Scouring?

Having Saruman die like this is just a tad unpalatable (in terms of the script). I make this point based on my knowledge of Tolkien’s work. What seems in the novel to be an over-long dénouement is really one of the most crucial points the Professor is trying to affirm: that not all innocence can be protected, and the evils of the world at large will come home to you if you ignore them. This Wizard-kebab seems rather an unreal, Disneyfied way to deal with a villain (and we all know how much Tolkien detested the Disney Studios and their work). When a major antagonist is killed by an "act of God" instead of at the hand of a specific character the first thing I wonder about is the antagonist’s "personal accountability." Let’s say hypothetically that if Saruman dies from:

  1. falling out of a window
  2. a bolt of lightning
  3. tumbling off a cliff

or any of those things, Mr. Jackson is basically telling his audience, "OOPS! These accidents just happen, folks. Saruman’s not really responsible for his ultimate fate." The purist in me wants to stamp his feet and gnash his teeth at this plot device that lets heroes walk away without getting their hands dirty. However, if the traitorous wizard were pushed out of the tower of Orthanc, that would be different.

But I digress.

There’s another possibility that was suggested to me. The Wellington studio once contained internal and external sets for "Bag End," some of which were precisely sized to make Elijah Wood seem much shorter than he truly is. Let us assume Mr. Jackson fully intended to film all the scenes necessary for the Scouring of the Shire, and was able to complete key shots with Lee and Brad Dourif at the studio… right at the front door of Bag End.

Maybe he filmed everything he needed, and then on review decided he couldn’t use the shots. Filmmaking is mercurial, after all, and strange things happen. It’s not uncommon to shoot a hundred hours of film with only two making the final cut. By that time it was too late and Lee had already gone to work on Star Wars Episode II over in Australia. If Mr. Jackson were stuck with unusable footage (for whatever reason) and could not recreate the scenes, what could he do? He would have to sit down with Fran and re-write a new death for Saruman.

This line of reasoning gives the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt and it makes sense given how quickly things change during a busy shoot. We would not want to think he would carelessly cut out such an important sequence without good reason. Did the studio suits pressure him into the change? Did he fear that the translation from page to screen would not fare well, becoming cinematic mud in an otherwise quickly paced tale? All this lies within the realm of guessing. Perhaps now that the Wizard-kebab has been so widely publicized it will never even end up in the movie. Maybe it was a red-herring all along, meant to drive us batty and increase free publicity for the project. Feast on that, all you conspiracy theorists.

Bottom line: we must accept these things as part of the adaptation process. We must wake up to the reality that cinema, being a completely different idiom of storytelling, requires a completely different handling of the material. This might be hard to do, I admit, but the payoff is clear. Quell the little voice inside that says, "Don’t change that character! Don’t remove that plot thread! It’s too important!" and you will probably enjoy the films much more. We die-hard Tolkien nutcases would do well to keep that in mind.

Just chant to yourself every day, twice a day until you are soothed and your breathing returns to normal:

This is not MY film–it’s Peter’s film.
This is not MY film–it’s Peter’s film.

I’m convinced that my plot guesses are accurate but there is no real way to know, save that Mr. Jackson himself should break his own contractual agreements with New Line and fess up. But that’s not bloody likely!

Much too hasty,


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Past Limbs
An Open Letter to the Screen Actors Guild
Review: The Return of the King
Kingly Proof
For the Love of Arwen
The Atlantis Connection
Noble Is As Noble Does
Send in the Penguins
War! What is it Good For?
In Defense of Philippa Boyens
Movie Review - The Two Towers
The Final Word
Very, Very, Very Impatient
Book Review: The Annotated Hobbit
Finding a Hobbit’s Voice
Conversation with a Newbie
Inside Information
The Silver Lining
Movie Review - Fellowship of the Ring
Where the Stars are Strange: Part V
Where the Stars are Strange: Part IV
Where the Stars are Strange: Part III
Where the Stars are Strange: Part II
Where the Stars are Strange: Part I
The Spectacular Cannes Footage
Comic-Con International 2001
An Open Letter to Jeffrey Wells
The Shadow of Racism
All About Sam
The Game’s the Thing!
Who’s Spiking Who?
The 2000 Vote: Gandalf or Saruman?
Tolkien’s Greatest Hits
Return to The Furthest Reaches
The Furthest Reaches
True Fans, Truly Obsessed
"Yes, Elanor, there really is a Gandalf"
…And In the Closet Bind Them
Welcome to Merchandising Hell
In Defense of Escapism
Out on a Limb Home


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