Sam Gamgee’s choice, from book to film

After last week’s diatribe, I thought I’d go for something lighter and fluffier this week. It hasn’t turned out to be quite as fluffy as hoped, but at least it’s got nothing to do with Donald Trump.

It’s generally agreed that on the whole Peter Jackson and his screenplay-writers made a pretty good job of adapting The Lord of the Rings for the screen. (The Hobbit has met with less acclaim.)

This post is of course my individual opinion only, and anyone can disagree. There are also spoilers for both book and films.

The film settings of Middle-Earth are wonderful, almost beyond praise. The casting, in my view, is excellent. Aragorn, Gollum and Gandalf in particular look exactly the way surely anyone imagined them. Other characters, such as Boromir and Legolas, may not have been the way everyone imagined beforehand, but in retrospect could not have been any other way.

There is actual dialogue in Elvish.

Some of the changes in the plot, such as the removal of the Scouring of the Shire and Tom Bombadil, were very understandable, and probably a good thing. I’m not too keen on the Aragorn-is-dead plot, or the falsely-accuse-Sam-of-stealing-lembas detective-story section myself, but others may like them.

The changes in characterisation annoy me  more. Faramir and the Ents are less pure-minded than in the books, and more importantly, major changes are made to Aragorn’s motivations (to make him more hesitant) and Frodo’s behaviour (to make him more corrupt). Presumably this is to add nuance, because everyone being too good is well known to be boring.

Many of the book’s moral and dramatic points are retained and emphasised, and are done well and powerfully. But I’d like to complain, for a few paragraphs, about one that isn’t.

There is a moment towards the beginning of the third film, where Frodo has been poisoned by Shelob, and Sam thinks he’s dead. Then orcs approach, find what Sam thought was a corpse, and disclose that he is in fact alive. Sam of course sets out to rescue Frodo.

Anyone who has read the book knows that this sequence of events misses out Sam’s agony of decision, told in the chapter “The Choices of Master Samwise”, where he chooses to continue the quest, and take the Ring. I would guess that the screenwriters did it this way (both in the theatrical release and in the extended edition) in order for the reader to empathise with Frodo’s horror when he wakes up in the tower, realises that the Ring is gone, and despairingly assumes that the Quest has therefore failed.

It’s understandable that they wanted to maximise this, but we lose a scene that is not only moving and powerful, but also possibly unique.

In the book, Sam, whose devotion to Frodo is without limit, believes that he’s dead. He has to decide on his course of action, and he considers four options. He thinks of killing himself (Suicide! Sam!), seeking out Gollum to take vengeance, sitting by the body until orcs come and get him, or continuing with the Quest. Rather endearingly, it takes him a long time to realise that continuing with the Quest means taking the Ring.

His decision to continue is explicitly referred to (by him, afterwards, when he thinks he was wrong) as a choice between “head” and “heart”. (“You fool, he isn’t dead, and your heart knew it. Don’t trust your head, Samwise, it is not the best part of you”). It is also referred to (by the narrator) as “altogether against the grain of his nature.”

How many thousands of characters, in literature, TV and films, are presented with a choice between head and heart! “Head” usually represents self-interest, but can also be duty/conscience/the rules, or plain common sense. “Heart” frequently represents love, romantic or other, but can also be intuition (maybe divinely inspired), or innate kindness or other good moral quality. Luke Skywalker follows his heart when he abandons the computer system and relies on the Force. Mr Darcy follows his heart when he falls in love with Elizabeth.

One of the most famous, and powerful, examples of this choice, is in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (chapter 31). Huck feels guilty that he has helped to deprive a poor widow of her valuable property, and decides with prayer to write a letter informing her how to regain that property, her slave Jim. But then he remembers his friendship with Jim, until : “I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, for ever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’ – and tore [the letter] up. It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said.”

Every reader cheers.

This is a parody of a religious conversion, and for me it retains its power to disturb, because Huck never changes his view that his actions are wicked, and contrary to conscience; and that his choice is irrevocably to be a wicked person. Love triumphs over goodness.

That was a diversion. But my point is, that in these debates, Heart versus Head, Heart is always right. Just occasionally it is better to choose obedience or discipline over self-indulgence, vengeance, or recklessness (Harry Potter should have thought before dashing off to rescue Sirius), but it is always better (in a story) to choose the loving, the off-beat, the instinctive, over the cold rule-bound system. Heart always wins.

This would be a dangerous rule to live by, but I cannot think of any exceptions to it (maybe you can?) except one.

Sam Gamgee.

Sam himself, as I said above, thinks afterwards that he made the wrong choice (made under a mistake as to the facts). And somewhere in my memory I’ve read someone commenting that he was indeed wrong.

But this is surely nonsense. If Sam had not taken the Ring, the orcs would have found it, and almost certainly the Quest would have failed. Not quite certainly, because of Divine Providence. But almost. Sam thinks logically and morally what to do, and despite being, as he knows, not the brightest character in the story, he chooses to do his duty, and go against his nature. So he saves the world.

He gives himself no credit, and although Frodo does when they meet again, the story’s attention quickly moves on to Frodo’s avaricious demand for the Ring’s return, and away from Sam’s struggle.

It is also ironic that Sam’s action in taking the Ring would have been wrong and disastrous in any other circumstances and perhaps by any other character. “Not if I found it on the highway would I take it,” says Faramir, implying that it’s not just a question of taking what’s not yours. The Ring would corrupt anyone, and indeed it tries to corrupt Sam but fails. And surely he is protected, not merely, as the narrator says, by his humility and his love for Frodo, but also because of the purity of his motive; just as Bilbo was (partially) protected from harm “because he began his ownership of the Ring… with Pity” [for Gollum].

I am glad that there is at least one character in fiction who thinks that it’s not always best to trust your feelings, and that we were given brains and rules for a reason. I do wish the makers of the film had left this bit in.

(Actually I’ve thought of another exception – Jane Eyre’s decision to leave Rochester. Bother. This also is a powerful passage, and one for which Jane has been criticised by people who think that Love Conquers All – “I will keep the law given by God, sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad – as I am now.”)

Any more?

Love from the PPI Blogger

  • Stephen Hall

    10th February 2017 at 12:52 pm Reply

    Being the Jane Austen scholar that you are, you will be able to tell me how Sense and Sensibility fits in to this narrative!?

  • Philippa Linton

    22nd April 2017 at 6:38 pm Reply

    I’ve been meaning to comment on this for some time, Penelope, as a FB acqaintance and fellow Tolkien fan. Excellent post – Sam totally did the right thing in taking the Ring and determining to go on with the Quest. It is one of the bravest actions in the entire story, from one of the bravest – and most selfless – characters. I love this scene in the book. Tolkien puts Sam in a very dark place here.

    “I’m not too keen on the Aragorn-is-dead plot, or the falsely-accuse-Sam-of-stealing-lembas detective-story section myself, but others may like them.” Oh goodness, no. LOL. I’m not a purist: I thought that axing Bombadil was the right thing to do for a film narrative, and I agree (in principle) with expanding Arwen’s role (as uneven as it was). But changes that don’t make sense irritate me, and substituting one of the most powerful scenes in the book – Gollum’s near-repentance on the stairs of Cirith Ungol – with a ridiculous spat over lembas is one of the things that annoyed me most. 😉

    But there is much I enjoy about the films. Visually, they were superb: each character pretty much looked exactly as they should do. I adore Ngila Dickson’s costume design.

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