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Oo, Those Awful Arcs!
(With no apologies at all to Edmund Wilson)

Part VI: Co-Dependent till the End

I thought I was done with this series of essays a few years ago - bet you thought so, too... But watching all three movies again lately made me realize I'd forgotten someone pretty important.

I'm sure I wasn't the only person who sat through the first viewing of Sméagol's "Go away and never come back," triumph over his dark side, thinking, "Now there's a relapse waiting to happen." And, knowing the basic story ahead of time, it wasn't too hard to guess what would trigger it. Sméagol hadn't gotten rid of his dependency, he'd just switched it from Gollum to Master. The movie-makers said they'd purposely patterned the character at least somewhat as a drug addict, but they were considering the Ring his addiction. And that's probably true for Gollum, but not for Sméagol. Poor, poor Sméagol is more of a co-dependant than an addict. Like a woman who goes from one toxic relationship to another because she can't bear to be alone, Sméagol doesn't believe he can survive without someone taking care of him. "We survived because of me!" may or may not be true, but Sméagol believes it. If he could have reached the point of simply saying, "We don't need you any more" without also saying "Master takes care of us now," he might have made a clean break. But by the time he took up with Master, that ability was almost gone - in fact, his temporary triumph seems to come with the realization that Master can, indeed, do for him what Gollum had been doing: allowing him to survive.

This isn't to say (!) that a relationship with Frodo is toxic. But when one partner in a relationship believes he can survive only with the help of the other, the connection isn't healthy. In the movies (as opposed to the book), both sides of this relationship have their hopes for it dashed; but while Frodo has the ability to move on without that hope, Sméagol retreats to his former dependency on Gollum. Gollum is never far below the surface, though. We get a glimpse of him during "We mustn't let him have it," at the Black Gate. So even in the movies we get a glimpse of what's behind Tolkien statements that although he sees Sam's interruption of Gollum's near-repentance as the most tragic event in the book, he still doubts that Gollum could have become strong enough to overcome his lust for the Ring.

Book-Frodo isn't static, but he doesn't have the steep learning curve of movie-Frodo, who's starting out at a much younger age and so at an earlier level of personal development. Tolkien said Sam was a more interesting character than Frodo, because Frodo was necessarily too "high-minded" to be very interesting. Movie-Frodo is a good kid, but the highmindedness takes awhile to develop - much of it through his changing relationship with Sméagol. I'm not going to try to guess how much of the following discussion is based on the screenplay, how much on the directing, how much on the acting, and how much on what I read into any one or more of the above, but it makes for an interesting study of movie-Frodo's own character arc.  

One thing we can attribute to the acting, because Elijah talked about it in an interview, is the step shown in the first picture in this page's lefthand border. Elijah said he saw the moment when Frodo decides to use Gollum to find the Black Gate as Frodo's loss of innocence. Frodo's not free to just "get rid" of Gollum as Sam would like to, because his first concern has to be the Quest. Without Gollum, they could end up wandering in the Emyn Muil forever; with his cooperation, there's a chance of success. Book Frodo has already moved beyond this idea of sheer utility, but that's another essay.*

Perhaps the most fascinating Frodo/Gollum scene in the movies (there's no parallel to it in the book) is the one shown in the second picture in the border. That particular screencap is part of an amazing shot that shows Frodo in perfect synchronization with Gollum as Gollum turns away from him, a visual comment on Gollum as Frodo's shadow side and/or mirror reflection (and a very different take on this idea). At the beginning of the scene, Frodo's angry with Gollum, from the viewpoint of a Ring-bearer who hears what sounds like a threat to his possession of the Ring. He calls Gollum "Sméagol" almost as a taunt - but Gollum hears it differently. The effect of hearing his real name is a reconnection with the part of himself that was Sméagol, and seeing that effect take place deepens Frodo's understanding of him. The bond gets closer at the Black Gate, when Frodo says "He's been true to his word" when deciding to take Gollum's offer of another way. Of course, Frodo doesn't have much choice if he wants to continue the Quest - in either the book or the movie - something Sam doesn't seem to understand in either.

There's a bigger breakdown in communication between Sam and Frodo in another scene that occurs only in the movie - because it's only the younger movie-Frodo who seems to have a need to know that he'll be able to "come back" to his former self after he's rid of the Ring. From the beginning, book-Frodo doesn't expect to survive the destruction of the Ring, so what he might be like afterward is a moot point and he doesn't dwell on it. In the scene that leads into the film version of "Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit," movie-Frodo doesn't seem to have yet reached the full realization that the Quest is a one-way trip (he seems to accept this in fits and starts during the second and third movies, which is most likely how it would actually happen under the circumstances). Sam doesn't understand that when Frodo says, "I have to know he can come back," he's talking as much about himself as about Gollum. So when Sam says that it's impossible to help Gollum, he doesn't realize that he's saying the same about Frodo's hopes for himself - a very real source of at least some of Frodo's anger in that scene.

After the encounter with Faramir (in the movies), the Gollum side is in complete control until the end. Like Gandalf's death, the movies put Sméagol's downfall on Frodo's shoulders more than the book does. In the movie, when Sam accuses Gollum of "sneaking," that's exactly what he's been doing; there's no scene of near repentance, interrupted tragically by Sam, as there is in the book. Frodo's "betrayal" at the Forbidden Pool does the entire job.   

If I go to my self-appointed question in these essays - does Gollum's character arc work specifically within the world of the movies - I'd say it does. So does Frodo's changing relationship with him, although it's very different from the book. In one way, that relationship goes full circle within the space of LotR:TTT; Frodo begins with some pity but mostly a decision to use Gollum for the sake of the Quest, then develops more of an understanding of Gollum which becomes tied to his own hope of being able to "come back," and ends with a return to a more utilitarian connection. But, in a sign of good character development, it's not really a circle but a spiral. Frodo's gone from a fear of no return, through hope, to acceptance of a lack of hope. The script allows this to happen, but judging from the very different comments on the "just a feeling" scene by Elijah and the screenwriters, IMHO it's Elijah who makes it happen.

At the end of LotR:TTT, "Gollum's Song" is a perfect - and perfectly chilling - statement of Gollum's thought process at that point and throughout LotR:RotK. When the trilogy's put together into the one movie it really is, that song's immediately followed by the prologue to LotR:RotK, which lets us in on how delusional some of that thought process is: "No faithful friend was ever there for me."  In keeping with the movie's shift of blame completely to Frodo, he's the only one being referenced in the "you" throughout the song: "You are lost. You can never go home." Which is exactly what Frodo is beginning to understand.

*From the essay titled  "Playing with Fire"  in the LotR as a Catholic and Religious Work section of the website:
One of my favorite glimpses into Frodo's spiritual growth comes in a single line of dialogue in "The Taming of Sméagol." Immediately after he's told the absent Gandalf that he pities Gollum and will not kill him, Frodo says, 'But yet I am afraid.' He doesn't allow Gollum to live because he considers him a safe companion, but because - dangerous as it is - it's the right thing to do... Sam doesn't quite understand that in deciding to let Gollum live, Frodo isn't ignoring the danger but accepting it.


Copyright 2008 by Trudy G. Shaw
Permission to publish on other websites is granted, provided that this copyright notice and an active link to this site are included.

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