The Nazgûl in Print and on Film

Paul R. Potts

I’ve been reading The Fellowship of the Ring to my family as a bedtime story, bit-by-bit, usually half a chapter at a time. I’ve read the books before, but reading it again after seeing both the theatrical and extended versions of the first film multiple times, and listening to the commentary of the writers and director, brings into focus some of the differences between book and film.

In the film, the assault at Weathertop is intense and violent. The wraiths are very solid, physical beings. They go up in flames in a very satisfying way. It is only in “wraithworld,” when Frodo dons the ring, that they appear ghostly, and he can see their forms as once-great kings of men.

In the book, the sequence is somewhat different. The hobbits and strider are clustered around a blazing campfire. Strider at first does not even see the wraiths as they approach Frodo. Merry and Pippin simply collapse face-down in terror. The wraiths are ghostlike, and difficult to see. It is not precisely clear how Strider drives them off, but I believe they allow themselves to be driven off, believing that they have accomplished their goal.

In the film, the flight to the ford is very dramatic. The wraiths are very physical, not ghostly at all, with heavy black robes and nasty, black, articulated armored gauntlets. There is a high-speed chase where Arwen carries Frodo, while the wraiths pursue her, their nasty black hands reaching for Frodo, who by this point is completely incapacitated, drooling green slime and breathing like a dying asthmatic frog.

In fact, he does die, or nearly die, on the far bank; Arwen has to give him some of her Elvish mojo, the “grace of the Eldar,” to keep him alive. He passes out, and we see his point of view in which he is bathed in white light.

In the book, the whole lead-up to the crossing of the Ford of Bruinen is strangely sluggish. Tolkien devotes paragraph after paragraph to the twists and turns of the landscape, as it frustrates the party’s ability to make rapid progress. While the wraiths are converging on Weathertop, Strider recites a portion of the Lay of Luthien. While Frodo is wounded and the party finds Bilbo’s trolls, Sam recites a comic poem. There is not an enormous sense of urgency. In fact, we find out that the wraiths themsevles are not urgently pursuing Frodo — they know that he has been wounded with a Morgul-blade, and they believe that it is just a matter of time before he falls under their control. They do not think there is any need to pursue him further physically, although they seriously underestimate his resistance to the Morgul blade, and by the time the party reaches the ford, they are desperate to keep him from entering Rivendell, where he will be beyond their power.

Frodo bears his wound for seventeen days, and it has healed over after the first few days. The wound is not infected in the usual sense, but in the film we get a glimpse of a diseased-looking open wound. Frodo’s arm and shoulder become numb and cold, but he is not in danger of dying in the physical sense. The wraiths attempted to “pierce his heart” with the Morgul blade, which would have turned him into a wraith, but missed, because of his toughness in resisting them. There is a splinter of the blade still in the wound, working its way inward, and it eventually takes all of Elrond’s skill to remove it (this important point is not mentioned in the movie, although Gandalf does state that the wound will never fully heal). The sickness that the wound inflicts on him is more psychic than physical in nature. By the time he crosses the ford, he is not dying physically, but instead his will to oppose the wraiths is nearly at an end, and he is on the threshold of becoming a wraith himself.

Then, of course, there is the use of Arwen. This is a controversial move among Tolkien fans. I actually completely approve of the expansion of Arwen’s character; her relationship with Aragorn comes to life, and the expansion of her very minor role in the book into a full-fledged character brings to life a story which, in the book, is mostly confined to a brief account in Appendix A of The Return of the King. It also serves to bring to life the sorrow of the elves. In the book, it is all right for someone to simply expound upon the elves, but Jackson and his writing team wisely decide to show us, not just tell us, about this. The story of the love between Arwen and Aragorn echoes those key moments in the history of Middle Earth in which elves forsake their immortality to bond with mortals; these relationships are among the most interesting and dramatic parts of The Silmarillion and The Book of Lost Tales. I love the sequence in which Arwen, riding towards the Gray Havens at her father’s command, has a vision of her future children. The flash-forward to Aragorn’s death, his aged body replaced by a beautiful tomb bearing his likeness in statuary, and her eventual surrender to mortality in the empty woods of Lothlorien is just magnificent. Her torment over her choice or mortality is beautifully presented. But — and I believe this is a key factor in why I don’t dislike these changes — Jackson and the writing team here rearranged and expanded a role, rather than changing existing key elements of the story.

In the book, it is Glorfindel who comes to Frodo’s aid, and who helps to defeat the wraiths. Now, it makes a certain amount of sense to eliminate Glorfindel from the movie. He has little or nothing else to do in the rest of the story. Tolkien’s portrayal of him makes him seem a bit silly — with bells on his saddle as if he were one of Santa’s elves, but then, somewhat incongruously, he is revealed to Frodo as a powerful and frightening elf-lord. (In the film, we see instead Frodo’s first vision of Arwen, in which she radiates light and he sees her as she appears in the spiritual realm.) The character of Glorfindel makes sense if you’ve read The Silmarillion — he is a ancient high elf, who beheld the light of the trees — but there is nothing in the Lord of the Rings itself to adequately explain why he does not fear the wraiths. Instead, Arwen states outright that she does not fear them, and we have to go with that and with Frodo’s vision.

The storyline is further simplified — Aragorn and the hobbits have nothing to do with the physical victory over the wraiths. In the book, the wraiths are confronted with the terror of the magical flood before them and Glorfindel the elf-lord, together with Aragorn and the hobbits brandishing burning firebrands behind them. Everyone gets into the act.

The changes to the story also take away the opportunity for Frodo to demonstrate what “stern stuff” the hobbits are made of. Even on the verge of psychic (if not physical) collapse, Frodo rides Glorfindel’s horse — he is not carried — to the ford. He defies the wraiths to the last, calling on them to go back to Mordor, until terror overcomes him and his strength gives out. This show of defiance, and the psychic burden that Frodo carries from his wound, is somewhat lost in Jackson’s treatment.

Jackson is very good at articulating inner conflict in dream sequences and visions — I think he could have used some of that skill to tell this part of the story with a little bit more subtlety, perhaps showing us Frodo’s point of view as he gradually succumbed to terror and stood on the “threshold” of the other world himself. We would come to understand that “wraithworld” was not an on/off switch that Frodo activates when putting on the ring, and that he in fact was half in “wraithworld” by the time he reached Rivendell, and indeed that he could never quite free himself of the psychic wound which the Morgul blade inflicted upon him.

This could have allowed the story to retain the sense of urgency which Jackson and the writing team decided, quite rightly, was required for the film form, while making the wraiths even more frightening and Frodo’s situation even more perilous than simply the risk of expiration due to green slime disease on the far shore of the Ford of Bruinen. Maybe the next time The Lord of the Rings is filmed, this aspect of the story will be explored with a bit more subtlety.

Ann Arbor, Michigan
February 2005

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