Sauron’s Achilles Finger
One of the most problematic features of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings is its depiction of the Dark Lord Sauron. A lot of people harp on how Saruman says the big baddie cannot “take physical form” (good luck putting on your ring, in that case) and how the rest of the movie acts like he is literally a floating eyeball-spotlight at the top of Barad-dûr. I’m not going to harp on that, I’m going to harp on the prologue.
The beginning of the first movie is the only time when we see Sauron actually wielding the One Ring. Such a depiction has to be successful; it sets up the conflict that motivates the entire rest of the movie. If Sauron recovers the ring, here is a taste of what will happen. It should be terrifying. The complicated-but-accurate approach might be to show Ringbearing Sauron and his empire as both old and powerful: primordial evils from a time of legendary prowess and deeds. Such a being could be matched and defeated only by the equally legendary might of Elves and Men in their days of glory — now long since vanished from Middle Earth. But we only have about ninety seconds to do this so it’s probably fine to just make Sauron scary.
But is he scary? Let’s take a look.
This scene has its ups and downs. I like Sauron’s armor, though there’s something a little silly about the way he tosses soldiers around. But the biggest problem is that the Dark Power, the Lord of the Rings himself is cut down — neutralized and disembodied for millenia — by one guy flailing around with a broken sword. To me, this is not threatening, not scary. Sauron poured much of his power into his ring, to be sure, but so much so that if it’s disconnected from him for a split-second his whole body goes off like a runaway science project? Is that what we should expect to happen if Galadriel takes off her ring? Or Bilbo Baggins for that matter? Rather than giving him great power, Sauron’s greatest creation seems to have given him a giant Achilles hand. At least when Bilbo wore it he was invisible!
Imagine that Frodo had failed, nabbed by orcs or something, and Sauron had recovered his dainty. Then the Lord of the Rings rides out to battle, merrily swinging around his mace, tossing soldiers left and right. Does anyone really think that Legolas couldn’t have shot the finger off at two-hundred yards and called it a day?
Having Sauron be crippled by the loss of the ring is at odds with his portrayal as a martial superman. While he is a great and terrifying warrior, that strength should come from his nature as a primordial evil spirit, not the ring. The ring he made to extend his power: to become immortal, and to dominate others, particularly those with rings of power themselves. With the ring returned to him the devices of his foes would be laid bare and their powers ebb, his bickering armies gain strength and purpose under their master’s absolute authority, and Sauron’s own presence and force of will become as they were in legends: few could withstand him. The fear of Sauron is not that he will come to your house and crush you, but that his strength, cunning, and desire to rule will overmaster the forces of good.