Before the review of The Return of the King, let’s take a look at one final adaptation snub, and it’s the biggest of them all (at least in my opinion)—The Scouring of the Shire.
What is it?
After the destruction of the ring (um… spoiler I guess) and Aragorn is crowned king (Oh come on, that’s the title!), the Fellowship finally departs Gondor. They make various stops along the way, including Rivendell to visit Bilbo. While for some writers, this sort of ending would fell drawn out and overlong, Tolkien obviously still has a story to tell. He obviously knew how to be concise—just look at The Hobbit where the return journey is briefly skimmed over in the last chapter.
Upon stopping in Isengard, Gandalf discovers that Treebeard has fallen to Saruman’s trickery and has let him go. The company later discovers him on the road, a pale shadow of the powerful wizard he used to be, traveling like a beggar with Grima Wormtongue, who he continues to treat horribly.
After visiting Bree and finding that it was not unaffected by the war, Gandalf departs the company of Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin and goes to visit with Bombadil. Gandalf warns them that the Shire may not be as it was when they left, but that they too have changed and will be ready for it.
Upon returning to the borders of the Shire, the hobbits learn that the Shire is under new leadership. No one is admitted after dark, hobbits are now either in submission to the new leadership or in jail, everything is rationed and the simplicity of before is gone. Bill Ferny, a mysterious man of Bree is now in league with the evildoers, and everyone speaks of a mysterious “chief” and the ruffians that work for him. Everyone assumes this chief is Frodo’s wily cousin Lotho Sackville-Baggins.
Finding refuge in the house of Tom Cotton…
Finding refuge in the house of Farmer Cotton, the hobbits learn of what has happened, and Merry and Pippin lead a fight against the ruffians, banishing them and winning The Battle of Bywater. An intentional point is made to not spill hobbit blood, as the hobbits merely fell victim to a greater evil. Frodo, now mostly reserved and suffering from his wounds (emotional and physical) is the one insisting on this throughout. It would have been easy to put Frodo back to square one, or at least relieved that he is now done with the ring, but he never fully recovers and is mostly out of focus in the battle.
Coming finally to Bag End, Frodo and company find out the true identity of the Chief—Saruman. Even still, Frodo doesn’t attempt to harm Saruman, telling him simply to leave. He starts to leave with Wormtongue, but stabs Frodo unexpectedly. However, the stab is stopped by Frodo’s mithril coat and Frodo again offers Saruman to go, even telling Wormtongue he can stay, as he has done no evil against hobbits. Saruman then reveals that it was Wormtongue who murdered Lotho (and even implies that he might have eaten his corpse), upon which Wormtongue murders Saruman and is immediately shot dead by hobbit archers. Sure, the Shire is eventually rebuilt, but things will never be the same.
It’s an absolutely fascinating part of the story, and I’d probably even call it my favorite portion. It refuses to just have a traditional happy ending with all the hell the characters have been put through. The ring has been destroyed, but it brought so much evil to Middle-earth, and not all of that can be undone. More than that, it is the final pathetic act of a desperate villain. Saruman has fallen so far that this is clearly just an act of petty revenge, something he even admits after Frodo refuses to raise a hand against him. It’s just so vain to beat Frodo to his own home and try to defeat him there, and it’s a perfect arc for Saruman.
Also, it continues Tolkien’s theme of evil eventually self-destructing. Saruman isn’t brought down in some huge battle or heroic siege, but by his own put-upon servant. His own cruelty has finally caught up with him, and the hobbits even pity him upon his death.
Why Is It Cut?
Because the filmmakers don’t know good writing when they see it.
Okay seriously, on the surface, I could see someone wanting to cut this because the destruction of the ring is what the story has been leading to… but for me, that’s the kind of the point of this chapter. It’s hinted at, but it’s not entirely expected. It’s one of the many things that elevates The Lord of the Rings above other great journey stories. The characters aren’t the same and home is not the same. Plus, it’s a perfect wrap-up to Saruman’s story.
Ralph Bakshi never made the second half of his adaptation, so who knows what he would have done? The Rankin/Bass adaptation doesn’t even feature Saruman, so this obviously isn’t there (gotta fit those 15 songs in there). Peter Jackson shows destruction of the Shire in Fellowship when Frodo looks into the Mirror of Galadriel, but she does not guarantee he is seeing things that will happen. There is no Scouring of the Shire in his Return of the King, but at least in the extended cut, we get a wrap-up of Saruman’s story.
An early scene in Return of the King shows Gandalf, Aragorn and others riding to Isengard, where they find Merry and Pippin and confront Saruman, now imprisoned in the tower that was once his. This is inspired by a scene that was in The Two Towers book, but it mixes some of the Scouring chapter in there too. After Gandalf commands Saruman’s staff to be broken, Grima stabs Saruman from behind, causing him to plummet onto a set of spikes… because EXTRA DRAMA. Alright, it’s overly dramatic, but it’s still a very well executed scene.
What I find odd is that Legolas immediately shoots Grima dead after this. Just a minute ago, Theoden was talking with Grima and giving him another chance, and then Legolas just kills him. What was the point in that? Maybe it was going with the theme of the book where Frodo doesn’t want Saruman’s blood shed regardless, but why not tell us this?
Sadly, it’s not a Scouring of the Shire scene proper, but at least we get to see what happens to Saruman. It’s unquestionably Christopher Lee’s best work in the trilogy, as he uses his voice to win power over people instead of merely telling armies to fight. I’ll even admit the fall from the tower looks pretty great.
Still, it’s a shame this interesting little story never got adapted to film. There is a BBC radio adaptation that included it in the story, but that’s really the only one. Losing the chapter cuts a lot out of Merry and Pippin’s stories, which is a shame too, because maybe Peter Jackson could have made them something more than comic relief (but probably not).
Next week, it’s my review of The Return of the King.