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Geek Rant: Lord of the Rings: Movies Made Gandalf An Idiot

Updated on June 11, 2017

It is a foregone conclusion that when filmmakers adapt a book for cinema that changes take place. To retell the storyline of a novel on screen proves difficult enough and if any screenwriter or director attempted to make a movie adaptation into a blow by blow recreation of a story, the film would likely fail. Film and literature are different animals, the minutia of a novel offers the tools for imagination as a canvas, palette, and paints offer the artist a chance of imagining a masterpiece for a reader's mind. Cinema envisions the written word to paint it on a screen, usually for the means of pure relaying of information or entertainment, a journey from print to picture. For those reasons, certain sacrifices need to be made to allow the continuity of the main narrative to flow through the standard three act structure, plus a blockbuster movie needs a little extra dazzle and sensationalism. Therefore, the duel between Dumbledore and Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix seems more even matched than in the book. The TV series of Game of Thrones diverged far from the book from season five onwards - Ramsay Snow marrying Sansa Stark, for example, never happened in the book. American Psycho is tame in cinema form, compared to its original novel counterpart and MTV's Shannara Chronicles often told a different story from the books. Although there are often many occasions where those who produce an on-screen adaptation drop the ball in many severe ways and my opinion, this is precisely what Peter Jackson did with Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings movies.

The story of Gandalf is that he arrived on Middle-Earth in the Third Age as a group of five men known as The Istari, or more commonly, wizards. Saruman appeared first as the mightiest and most aggressive of the wizards, establishing himself swiftly in the Tower of Orthanc in Isengard, directly creating a focal point of opposition should a weakened Sauron return. Saruman soon fell under the sway of the Palantir housed in Orthanc however, Sauron manipulating him to create armies while brainwashing Saruman into thinking he wished to wield the One Ring for himself. Saruman's darkening heart is another element that alters in the films; they portray him as merely a willing servant of Sauron, when in fact, Sauron - an expert in coercion - fooled Saruman into thinking he wished to supplant Sauron. Next came Radagast the Brown, who was the most attuned to nature of his fellow Istari, it was Radagast's concerns about the dying of Mirkwood near the old fortress of Dol Guldur that prompted the White Council to rise against an emerging Sauron there. Then appeared the so-called "Blue Wizards," who vanished more or less as soon as they arrived, disappearing into the East, either corrupted by Sauron or blending into society.

Lastly came Gandalf, turning up at the Grey Havens, a late arrival due to humble demeanour and fear of Sauron, he sought a desire only to do good and entering Middle-Earth meant openly inviting conflict. All five of The Istari were Maiar, beings who were lesser gods among the divine Ainur and possessed varying levels of power, some of which rivalled even the greater gods (Valar), such as Queen Melian of Doriath, whose girdle kept even Morgoth, the mightiest Valar's hordes at bay. Sauron (originally named Mairon) is also among the strongest of these beings, hence Morgoth recruiting him as his lieutenant. So in the Third Age, as elven power dwindled and the weaker willed men spread further across Middle-Earth, the Valar sent five Maiar, concealed as five old male wizards. When Gandalf did arrive, he was the most veiled of The Istari, hiding the bulk of his power beneath a man bent by age, caring and wisdom. Gandalf's original name in Valinor was Olorin, as a Maia associated with the Valas Manwe, Varda, Irmo and Nienna, they considered him the wisest of the Maiar. Manwe felt it vital that Olorin go to Middle-Earth and when he arrived, Cirdan the Shipwright, possibly the oldest of the elves remaining outside the Blessed Realm, gifted Gandalf with Narya, the Elven Ring of Fire.

Herein lies Peter Jackson's maltreatment of Gandalf in my opinion, the most he credits the wizard for is a realistic battle with the Balrog; otherwise he seems to exist as a stayed old man that offers snippets of wisdom. In the extended version of Return of the King, Gandalf even quails before the Witch King as the forces of Sauron besiege Minas Tirith on the Pelennor Fields. True, the Witch King is a mighty being, but he remains a twisted wraith soul of a mortal man perverted by the power of the strongest of the nine rings, facing a Maia. At the end of Return of the King, Gandalf boards the ship to Aman and Narya is visible on his finger, so potentially, Gandalf wielded that ring while at Minas Tirith. He returned as Gandalf the White with more of his power unveiled, add to this the strength of the fourth most powerful Ring of Power - as well as having dismissed several Nazgul with ease before the battle - Sauron's lieutenant offered no obstacle. By the time Frodo and Sam scaled Mount Doom, only Sauron outstripped Gandalf in might, Galadriel possibly coming a close third.

Returning to the Balrog. Only those versed in Tolkien's extended universe beyond Lord of the Rings understand just what a big deal fighting it was. A Balrog is far more than a fiery beast; the name Balrog means 'Demon of Might,' each Balrog originally a Maiar, corrupted by Morgoth in the Elder Days. For that very reason, it was vital for Gandalf to make that stand on the bridge of Khazad-Dum, because in no uncertain could he allow the Balrog to escape of Moria, hence: "you cannot pass!" Releasing a Balrog into Middle-Earth would almost become like having a second Sauron unleashed and it would either ally itself with the Dark Lord or set itself up in opposition, either way, Middle-Earth would face certain ruin. Also, the appendices in Return of the King offer insight into the timescale of the War of the Ring, it took Gandalf ten days to slay the Balrog - as it was more or less two lesser gods duelling atop a mountain. Furthermore, a deleted scene in Return of the King shows Gandalf thrown into doubt by the Gatekeeper of Barad-Dur about the fate of the hobbits, until Aragorn beheads the Gatekeeper, assuring Gandalf with his faith that Frodo and Sam live. In the book, Gandalf terrifies the Gatekeeper, causing him to retreat and in The Two Towers, when he appears before Gimli, Legolas and Aragorn, as they prepare to move from Fangorn, Gandalf scans the horizon, seeing "farther than even Legolas". From this action alone, Tolkien implies that Gandalf is monitoring Frodo's progress from afar, but couldn't intervene outright, because that would risk drawing Sauron out into direct combat. And a Gandalf the White armed with Narya against Sauron would make the ten-day duel with the Balrog look like a drunken girl's catfight! It is Gandalf's actions that precipitates the success of Frodo's quest to Mount Doom, though viewers of the movie only see a sage, sometimes irascible, wise man, that had one moment of glory in Moria and some furied swordplay.


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