Tolkien Geek

Blogging J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" and other aimless pursuits.


Top Ten Casting Choices For Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" (Part I)

The result of Peter Jackson's efforts to translate J.R.R. Tolkien's work to film has been met with both cheers and jeers. There are some fans who completely hate them and there are also a few that love them more than the book itself. Most of us are somewhere in the middle.

Some of the performances, in my opinion, were not only superb but how good they were had as much to do with the actual casting choices as they did with the portrayals themselves. In several cases, the actor or actress chosen for their particular role redefined my understanding and appreciation of the character. So here's the first half of my list for the Top 10 Casting Choices. Keep in mind they are not necessarily the Top 10 performances (though many are). It's also extremely difficult to limit it to ten, but that's the way it goes. It's totally subjective, I know, and I'll list the reasons why I think they are.
So here we go...

Christopher Lee

as Saruman

There was probably no bigger Tolkien fan among any of the actors than Christopher Lee. He knew the book backwards and forwards. The guy could recite the "One Ring To Rule Them All..." verse in the Black Speech without missing a beat. He had always dreamed that one day he would be a part of a film project for The Lord of the Rings and having worked with such directors as Tim Burton and George Lucas he probably knew how special these films had the potential to be when he got the call from Peter Jackson. He was, however, a little disappointed that Jackson hadn't considered him for Gandalf. But after the director explained how expanded the role of the White Wizard was to be, he signed on to be Saruman. And, honestly, as talented an actor as Lee is, he wouldn't have been as believable as Gandalf. His long history of playing classic bad guys prepared him well for playing the cunning and ruthless Saruman. But if there is one qualification that makes Lee perfect for the role it's his deep baritone voice. Now whenever one reads Tolkien's dialogue in the chapter "The Voice of Saruman" it's impossible not to hear Christopher Lee's own melodious voice.

Bernard Hill

as Theoden

As with many readers, the King of Rohan was always an old man in my mind. The way Theoden was written, he seemed to be past his prime even after the spell of Saruman via Wormtongue was lifted by Gandalf. Bernard Hill brought a strength and a vitality to the role the made Theoden more heroic. We never get a sense of Theoden's loss in Tolkien's "The Two Towers" over the death of Theodred. In the film, Hill conveys the full emotion of a man who has outlived his son when he breaks down at Theodred's gravesite, covered with Simbelmyne. He was as a man who had been locked away in a prison only to find upon his release that his flesh and blood had been taken from him before he had a chance to tell him one last time that he loved him. As a parent, I can really connect to that and I applaud Jackson (and Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens) for writing that scene. Hill's Theoden stared into hopelessness on the Field of the Pelennor. He looked death in the face and defied it. When he passes on he is at peace, looking upon the loving face of his niece. It was not the death of an old man who's time had come but one of a great leader who gave his all for his people. Very powerful.

Billy Boyd

as Pippin

Before the films, I never really had a clear idea in my head what I thought either Merry or Pippin looked like, so whomever filled those roles would become the template my brain used for a visual. Both Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd did terrific jobs in these roles, but in my opinion Boyd stands out more. A lot of fans complained that the younger hobbits (as well as Gimli) were too often used by Jackson for comic relief. But when you watch the films - as long as they are - in one sitting, frankly you need an occasional light moment to break up the tension. Boyd's puckish disposition certainly filled the bill in the that respect. More than that, however, he brought a range to the hobbit that was worthy of the literary counterpart. "The Return of the King" in particular, gives Boyd a chance to shine. Two scenes especially stand out in my mind: when Boyd sings at the request of Denethor (offset by Faramir's futile charge against the Orcs at Osgiliath) and his discussion with Gandalf during the siege of Minas Tirith about what lies beyond this world. The development of Pippin's character really stands out between the second and third films.

Cate Blanchett

as Galadriel

Tolkien describes the Elves as looking ageless - both ancient and youthful at the same time. I always had a tough time visualizing this - until I saw Cate Blanchett as Galadriel. Perhaps I'm influenced by her previous portrayal as Britain's Elizabeth I, but Blanchett definitely knows how to play a Queen. Tolkien's description of Galadriel's personality borders on the creepy. There doesn't seem - for me - to be enough warmth in her. Through Cate Blanchett, however, Galadriel is as engaging as she is mysterious. Jackson has one major opportunity to illustrate for the non-fans in the audience the nobility and wonder of the Noldor Elves. By choosing Blanchett as Galadriel, he scores a home run in this respect.


Brad Dourif

as Grima Wormtongue

It would have been very easy for Jackson to rely more on Weta's make-up talents than an actor's performance to convey how distasteful Wormtongue is. Brad Dourif, however, is one of the premier character actors in film today. In the books, it's easy to write him off as simply a miserable creature enslaved to the power of Saruman. But Dourif is able to remind the audience that underneath the loathsome exterior is a man with very human qualities. Imagine Wormtongue as a faithful servant to the King who has always been seen as a miserable wretch because of his appearance. He longs for Eowyn, knowing he can never have her. But when opportunity presents itself he has the chance to turn the tables on those who have scorned him in the past and he chooses to betray his own people for the chance to fulfill his selfish desires. It's the dream of every unpopular kid in high school. This is the kind of underlying subtext that an actor like Dourif can communicate with a simple look. And before he is killed in the end, he's even able to elicit a bit of sympathy from the audience.

That's the first half of the Top Ten Casting Choices. To see choices 1-5 go here.


At 1:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gary, I have decided you are truly a geek. But that's okay. I accept you as you are. :)

At 2:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm...all very good.

I'm going to disagree with number one, I just know it.

At 5:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bernard Hill is probably my third favorite actor in the movies after Mckellen and Astin. He gets a lot of very poetic and memorable lines (many straight from the books), especially in The Two Towers, and he NAILS every one of them!

Also, while Pippin is a bit sillier than he is in the books (though you gotta love it when he says "Where are we going?"), I very much enjoyed seeing him mature over the next two movies, especially in RotK. I love how him and Merry are the second ones to charge at the Black Gate.

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At 3:22 PM, Anonymous Rattenhoofd said...

Well-written, spot on article! The only surprising element on my part is that I feel exactly the other way around about Galdriel. In the books, she comes off as warm and more appreciative of Gimli to me (whom I feel she treats as a goodhearted but dumb child in the movie), whereas she continuously creeps me out in the movie, even when showing her friendly smile.


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