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Saruman Should've Never Been Cut from 'Return of the King'
On Peter Jackson's baffling choice for the theatrical version
It might not be easy to remember now, but when the third entry of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings (LOTR) adaptation came out in theaters back in 2003, it was obvious that there was something missing from the 200-minute long theatrical cut: a scene that resolved the fate of Christopher Lee’s villainous white wizard Saruman and, by extension, that of his underling Grima Wormtongue (Brad Dourif).
The decision to remove the crucial 7-minute sequence from the theatrical release remains, in my mind, a glaring editorial flaw made in an otherwise virtually perfect major franchise picture.
In this article then, I want to revisit the cutting of Saruman, discuss why it occurred and why I disagree with the decision of the filmmakers.
Table of Contents
Theatrical Cut vs. Extended
FLASHBACK - December 2003.
The adaptation of The Return of the King, the final chapter in the Lord of the Rings cinematic trilogy, is about to be released in theaters. Like a lot of fans, I am eagerly anticipating it, despite my disappointment with the theatrical cut of The Two Towers.*
*Imo, the film suffered from being overstuffed, with very uneven pacing, and a lack of downtime between story beats. The extended cut of Towers was the movie that should’ve been released in theaters, as it created a much better balance between its various storylines.
And one of the things I’m looking forward to seeing is Saruman.
Performed masterfully by Christopher Lee, Saruman was a true scene stealer in the first and second installments of the trilogy. He essentially became the de facto main antagonist of Towers, and though that film ended with his armies being destroyed and his Isengard fortress besieged by the Ents, he was, per the source material, supposed to still have a crucial role in the third movie.
So, ROTK begins and - after a cool prologue showing the origin of Gollum - reintrodu-ces us to Gandalf and company arriving at a washed out Isengard. A short conversation between Gandalf and the ent Treebeard establishes that the powerless wizard is “locked in his tower” and must remain there under Treebeard’s guard.
Treebeard: “But there is a wizard to manage here, locked in his tower.”
Gandalf: “And there Saruman must remain under your guard, Treebeard.”
Gimli: “Well, let’s just have his head and be done with it.”
Gandalf: “No, he has no power anymore.”
Treebeard: “The filth of Saruman is washing away.”
So, it is established that Saruman is alive.
But he is then inexplicably never seen or mentioned again.
There is no surprise return at the end of the movie, no confirmation even in passing dialogue, as to what the White Wizard’s fate is. The Fellowship finds the palantir in the water, takes it and moves on to other things.*
*Presumably then, Saruman is still alive in the theatrical version’s continuity after all the stuff with Sauron and the Ring has ended, locked in his tower off-screen. Maybe he got a long sentence for war crimes. Maybe he gets some sort of food and water every now and then. Does the Isengard tower have a bathroom? It boggles the mind.
Even though I wasn’t exactly an expert in the how and why of film editing at the time, I had realized that something was amiss and started searching the net for information on whether or not Saruman and/or Christoper Lee was cut from the picture.
As it turned out, yes, there had been a 7-minute sequence with Saruman that was cut from the theatrical version of ROTK during post-production. In fact, the word had been out as early as November 7, over a month before the film’s release date, that the Saruman footage would be restored to the picture’s extended edition DVD.
As the restoration reveals, Saruman initially had a full scene that ended with him dying after Gandalf confronts him in Isengard.
Whereas in the theatrical cut, he remains locked inside his tower, here he comes out to speak with his enemies. Gandalf wants information, as Saruman was “in the ene-my’s counsel,” and the White Wizard is willing to trade it for his safety. Unfortunately, he makes the mistake of hitting and abusing his underling Grima one time too many, leading Grima to literally stab him in the back. Legolas shoots Grima but this doesn’t save Saruman, who falls to his death, dropping the palantir into the water.
Particularly interesting are some of the overlaps this scene has with its short theatrical equivalent. It uses the same shots/lines from Treebeard and Gimli, but has alternate footage and dialogue from Gandalf and the other characters.
Treebeard: “But there is a wizard to manage here, locked in his tower.”
Aragorn: Show yourself.
Gandalf: Be careful. Even in defeat, Saruman is dangerous.
Gimli: “Well, let’s just have his head and be done with it.”
Gandalf: No. We need him alive. We need him to talk.
Here, there is no dialogue from Gandalf about keeping Saruman under Treebeard’s guard, indicating that this was a pickup line meant to support the new plot point of Saruman being imprisoned. Instead, Gandalf desires to interrogate Saruman, as he has crucial information about Sauron’s plans.*
*This, in turn, raises some interesting questions about the plot of the theatrical cut. Like, did the Fellowship ever consider interrogating Saruman while Treebeard kept him imprisoned?
The confrontation, though perhaps a couple dialogue lines longer than necessary, is very well shot, acted, and edited. It is a great showcase for the talents of Christopher Lee and provides a fitting end to an amazing villain (not to mention his underling Grima). But more than that, it allows the film to feel like a truly complete experience.
I will elaborate on this point later.
First though, let’s consider the rationales behind the cutting of Saruman. Why was the sequence deleted? What was the reasoning? Was the decision justified?
Rationales for Cutting Saruman
As usually happens, different individuals offer slightly different explanations for the cutting of Saruman. The earliest article I’ve been able to find on the subject is a November 7 post by Harry Knowles on the independent film news site Aintitcoolnews.
The post reports that film critic Drew “Moriarty” McWeeny (who today runs the greatnewsletter here on Substack) learned from a confidential source that the scene was being cut due to pressure from New Line Cinema and that Peter Jackson was fighting against the cutting.
“Then, this week... the story began to leak further. No longer just to me, but Moriarty caught wind of it, and as Moriarty often does... He became profoundly upset… He decided to continue poking around and he found a very direct source that told him that the cut was made due to pressures from New Line & that Peter was extremely upset about this and was fighting New Line left and right.”
This claim, however, is contested by Jackson himself, who states to Harry Knowles in an email interview that the decision was artistically motivated:
"The trouble is, when we viewed various ROTK cuts over the last few weeks, it feels like the first scenes are wrapping last year's movie, instead of starting the new one. We felt it got Return Of The King off to an uncertain beginning, since Saruman plays no role in the events of ROTK (we don't have the Scouring later, as the book does), yet we dwell in Isengard for quite a long time before our new story kicks off.
"We reluctantly made the decision to save this sequence for the DVD. The choice was made on the basis that most people will assume that Saruman was vanquished by the Helm's Deep events, and Ent attack. We can now crack straight into setting up the narrative tension of ROTK, which features Sauron as the villain."
Jackson’s claim here is a tad confusing though, given that in the film, the idea that Saruman is “vanquished” is never really established, as he is still alive and imprisoned in the Isengard Tower. (Though perhaps by “vanquished” he means to say that Saruman’s armies are gone and the man himself is no longer a threat/has no power).
However, Jackson then suggests that the main reason was the pace of the film.
“It was causing us pacing problems in the theatrical version, but with the Extended Cut just coming out now, fans can see this great little scene. Thank God for DVD, since it does mean that a version of the movie, which has different pacing requirements, can be released later… This was done by us. There were no studio cutting notes. We now have a movie with a pace that fells ok for it's theatrical release.”
From this, it would seem that Jackson was primarily motivated by the inherent durational restrictions of theatrical exhibition. Even though he had no direct orders from the studio, he thought the movie was too long for theatrical release.
In other interviews, Jackson places more emphasis on the fact that the scene was initially intended to be placed at the conclusion of the preceding LOTR film The Two Towers. As the scene felt out-of-place following the climactic battles of the picture, the director decided to cut it and move it into the opening of ROTK.
However, he then felt that the scene’s ties to Towers dragged ROTK down, delaying the actual beginning of its story.
“It seemed like an anticlimax,” Jackson said. After that film’s elaborate battle in Helm’s Deep, the director said he felt audiences would want “to finish off the film as quickly as we could.”
“As it is, it didn’t work in the theatrical cut of ‘Return of the King’ either, because it felt like we were finishing off last year’s movie instead of jumping in and setting up the tension for the new film,” Jackson said.
Source: The Idaho Statesman, December 19 2003, p.72
“The irony is that the scene was shot for The Two Towers and Saruman, his character, was never in The Return of the King… It’s a very good scene, but when we tried it in Return of the King it felt like we were finishing off last year’s film and I wanted to use the first seven or eight minutes at the beginning to establish the tension for this story. But the scene will be on DVD.”
Source: The Daily Telegraph, 09 December 2003, p. 21
By far the most elaborate explanations were provided on the ROTK Extended Edition DVD in the behind-the-scenes Appendices documentaries as well as the audio commentary tracks. Here is what Jackson, writer Phillipa Boyens, and (on a separate track) producer Mark Ordesky state about 11 minutes into the picture:
“...what we ultimately felt was a problem, because we -we had to have the scene because of the palantir, that was really the main reason why our characters had to go back to Isengard, it wasn’t to deal to Saruman, we felt that that’s obviously why Saruman was deleted out of the theatrical version… it was about Sauron, as the villain of this film. And, when we were thinking about the opening and the overall length of The Return of the King, this was a sequence we were always just worried about. And, for a long time, the thinking was : well is there a way that we don’t have them return to Isengard? Can they pick up the palantir somewhere else? And then we couldn’t figure out a way to do that. And so then the idea came - well, they can go to Isengard but they don’t encounter Saruman… That was a tough decision… We ended up just doing what we could to push the theatrical version of the film along on a speedy pace. ”
“It is very much going backwards in terms of the storytelling and we were so conscious of that. It needed to be providing fresh information, it needed to be moving the story onwards, so we attempted to do that within the pickups. Really, what we were trying to do was pin the tension on the possibility that Saruman knows something that Gandalf needs to know, that thing that he knew was Denethor, and that Denethor was a grave danger… But in the greater scheme of things, that was just us desperately trying to make a scene work that really was still going backwards and really wasn’t driving the story forward.”
“...ultimately, the rationale behind it was that… this is your Film 2 Villain, and the destruction and flooding of Isengard was essentially his destruction, so therefore to commence your third film with your Film 2 Villain, at least in the theatrical cut, was a difficult pacing issue.”
Based on these comments, another reason for cutting Saruman was to better focus the story of ROTK on Sauron, who emerges as the final villain of the trilogy. The scene was seen as detracting from the final film’s actual plot, rather than advancing it. And, of course, the Hollywood rule of thumb is that every scene must advance the plot.
Overall, the filmmakers make some good points about the need to remove Saruman’s death scene. From their perspective, it neither fit as the wrap-up to Two Towers, nor did it quite work as the opening of ROTK, at which point there was a desire to leave the events of Towers behind. Excising it helped accelerate the pace and kick off the proper story of ROTK much more quickly.
But even so, I find that there were more reasons to actually leave the scene in the theatrical cut, rather than make it an exclusive element of the extended edition.
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Why the scene shouldn’t have been cut
Reason #1: Pacing in the LOTR films has never been perfect
First of all, I think it’s important to note that pacing in the LOTR films, both in their theatrical and extended incarnations, has never really been entirely consistent.
The theatrical cut of Fellowship of the Ring is great for the first 2 hours and 10 minutes or so, but the movie begins to sag after the events of the Mines of Moria, which feels very much like a climax to the picture. Once Gandalf the Grey falls with the Balrog, and the film introduces the Elves of Lothlorien, the pace grounds to a halt and the excitement dies down. Thus, the final third of Fellowship is easily its least interesting even if it builds to a strong conclusion.
The 3-hour theatrical cut of Two Towers is all over the place when it comes to pacing. It often feels overstuffed, lacking breathing room and there isn’t a very good flow between the different storylines it tells in parallel. The extended edition largely remedies these pacing issues at the cost of increasing the runtime by about 43 minutes. In this case, one might say Jackson chose to sacrifice good or steady pacing to keep the film closer to a theatrically acceptable running time. [But the film still maintained everything absolutely crucial to the plot.]
What both instances evince is that good pacing wasn’t always a priority for Jackson in the case of the first two movies. In turn, pacing didn’t seem to concern audiences and critics all that much. Both Fellowship and Towers were critically lauded and became box office successes. So, by the time we get to ROTK, it’s pretty much a given that audiences wouldn’t care all that much about the pace of the picture.
That is, most ROTK viewers were willing to sit through the previous 6 hours, inconsistently paced as they were, so would they mind an extra 7 minutes?
In this context, the notion that it was necessary to prioritize pacing in the case of ROTK’s Saruman scene does not seem all that justified.*
*At the same time, I must admit though that of the three theatrical LOTR cuts, ROTK’s is hands down the most well-paced and consistently interesting one.
Reason #2: Removing Saruman Disrupts the Films’ Unity
One of the guiding principles in American mainstream film construction is ‘unity.’ Basically, it refers to the idea that every element in a movie “has a specific set of functions… and no element is superfluous.”This tends to directly influence how screenwriters approach a picture at the development stage and how editors shape it during post-production.
Every single element you introduce in a movie, be it an individual scene or even a single line of dialogue, must serve some sort of greater purpose in conjunction with the other elements. Every single plot point must pay off, every mystery has to be resolved. Every single thread must have the right amount of time devoted to it to play out successfully, not too much and not too little.
When a picture has everything necessary and nothing extraneous, we could say it is fully unified. Ideally then, a movie should aim to bring all its elements together into a single whole, allowing everything to play out in a way that feels natural, neither too slow nor rushed. The editing in such cases is completely invisible and unobtrusive, while the picture as a whole feels complete. Phrases like “every scene must advance the plot” and “you have to kill your darlings” all emerge from this principle.
When a plotline or character is dropped, or connective tissue between scenes is missing, the unity of a picture is disrupted and the viewer’s immersion in its reality becomes weakened. This is precisely what happens due to the cutting of Saruman, both in the course of ROTK and the larger macro-structure of the LOTR trilogy.
Quite simply, Saruman was too big of a character in the earlier chapters to simply vanish from ROTK. The very logic of the storytelling throughout the first two movies demands that he receive some kind of resolution. Instead, he is left as a loose end, a dropped narrative element that makes ROTK - and by extension LOTR as a whole - feel incomplete.
What makes his absence stand out all the more is the fact that ROTK otherwise has nothing missing that is essential to the story it is telling. Heck, Jackson goes so far as to include multiple epilogues that give a proper sendoff to every major character.* I’m pretty sure even a casual viewer that has seen all three theatrical cuts could feel easily that Saruman is missing and so is, if briefly, taken out of the movie.
*One could argue Gimli and Legolas, whose epilogues were filmed yet not included in any of the cuts and remain unreleased deleted scenes, were shortchanged but you wouldn’t really know those scenes were missing when watching.
Reason #3: The Scouring of the Shire is not adapted
Finally, it’s important to consider the fact that Saruman’s death in Isengard was created in part as a substitute for an unadapted chapter of the ROTK novel called “The Scouring of the Shire.” In the books, Saruman largely leaves the story part way through Two Towers only to make a surprise reappearance alongside his underling Grima Wormtongue towards the end of ROTK.
After the One Ring is destroyed, Frodo and the other hobbits return home only to find it under the occupation of a small force led by a mysterious man known as “Sharkey.” The hobbits fight and take back their home, then confront Sharkey, who is revealed to be Saruman. The weakened ex-wizard, bent on vengeance, attempts to unsuccessfully kill Frodo, after which the hobbits decide to let him go. However, Grima then slits Saruman’s throat after having had enough of his master’s taunts and abuses.
Jackson had made the choice early to not adapt the events of the Scouring, though they are hinted at during a vision Frodo has in Fellowship of the Ring. Consequently, the fate of Saruman was transposed unto the Two Towers chapter “The Voice of Saruman,” combining the events of the two into one sequence in the adaptation.
As a book reader, I can’t help but feel misled by Saruman’s disappearance at the beginning of the ROTK film, as it looks like setup for his surprise return at the end. That it doesn’t happen only serves to further foreground the complete absence of the character and increase the resulting sense of disappointment.
I am not a fan of fidelity criticism and don’t believe it is correct to evaluate an adaptation only through comparison to its source material. However, I’d argue that Jackson owed it to the audience to resolve Saruman’s fate either by adapting the Scouring chapter or by including the alternate resolution in lieu of it.
The theatrical cut does neither, and consequently suffers for it.
All in all, I’d say the pros of including Saruman outweigh the cons.
Even if the Saruman sequence had made the theatrical cut of ROTK somewhat slower, it would’ve improved its overall unity and sense of cohesion. Without the resolution the theatrical ROTK, the LOTR trilogy as a whole feels weirdly incomplete, a largely coherent narrative with a small yet noticeable hole in its side that never fully closes.*
*Kinda like Frodo’s wound from the morgul blade. It’s always just… there, you know?
Given how much box office the extended cut has generated thanks to the recent 19.5 year anniversary screenings, I’m more than certain audiences at the time would’ve been happy to sit through 7 more minutes of the White Wizard.* Perhaps removing it in a way is what’s best for ROTK. But it isn’t what’s best for LOTR.
*This is not to say that I think the theatrical cut should’ve been over 4 hours. There are about 10-15 minutes of additional footage that I believe should’ve been in the theatrical cut on top of the Saruman sequence. But the extended edition as a whole is far longer than it needs to be.
But what do you think? Should Saruman have been in the theatrical cut? Was deleting him the right choice on Jackson’s part? Were you surprised or baffled that he wasn't there when you saw the film or were you aware going in? Please leave a comment! (Or perhaps a note.)
David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, 7th Edition (New York: McGraw Hill, 2004), 65.