Tolkien’s painting proves Sauron is terrifying
Bring JRR Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings on the big screen had a colossal number of challenges. Any perceived changes to the text would cause a backlash among fans, but transposing the story meant making such decisions by default. Nowhere is this more important than Sauron, the saga’s ultimate villain, whose physical description in the books was always very vague. Director Peter Jackson and his team needed to manifest this idea to a mass audience unaccustomed to such abstractions.
They got a little help from Tolkien himself, who was both a painter and a writer and whose art inspired his famous epic in many ways. This includes a rare image of Sauron himself that mirrors the terrifying face Jackson ultimately conjured up for the film. It goes beyond the visual portrayal of the character and how Jackson conveys his power and influence, while certifying that the director’s cautious approach turned out to be the right one.
Sauron lacked physical form in the the Lord of the Rings books, at least as far as descriptors are concerned. He was originally a Maia, one of the spirits that created the world and whose ranks included wizards such as Gandalf and Saruman. The dark spirit Melkor has corrupted him – in a loose variation of Lucifer’s Downfall from lost paradise – and, like Lucifer, his first appearances were marked by deception. The Silmarillion depicts him as a shape-shifter, even appearing as a snake at one point, and he managed to trick the elven smiths into teaching him the magic of ring-making by disguising his true form. He was called “Annatar” in this form – Elvish for “Lord of Gifts” – which is how he will apparently appear in the next rings of power series.
His essence, however, remains spiritual and, like Gandalf, his various appearances were merely manifestations of a very different being. Once he lost the One Ring, his ability to take physical form became limited, though it was not entirely eliminated. He took on the guise of a necromancer during the events of The Hobbit and ruled South Mirkwood in secret before Gandalf drove him out. (This was the explanation for the wizard leaving the dwarves on their quest to slay the dragon Smaug.) He then returned to Mordor, where he manifested as a giant burning eye atop his tower. It is known that he never made an actual appearance beyond that in the events of The Lord of the Rings, though its dark influence can be felt everywhere. According to Tolkien’s estate, it was a deliberate decision to let the reader imprint whatever terrifying qualities he wished upon him.
by Jackson the Lord of the Rings the movies had their work cut out from the start on that front. An eye hovering above a tower doesn’t cut the kind of towering figure like, say, Darth Vader or Thanos. Still, Jackson’s Sauron was meant to serve the same purpose as these later villains, though he’s more of an idea than a character. This includes his first appearance in the film’s prelude, which depicts him as a large humanoid figure completely encased in black armor. It’s powerful and effective: delivering a splash of effects as he tears through the ranks of men and elves who oppose him while expressing to new fans just how dangerous he can be. Jackson could then pivot to the imagery of the fiery eye and the notion of Sauron as a more diffuse presence without losing the nature of the threat.
The armored figure is also very much in line with Tolkien’s vision, as shown in a watercolor by the author himself. According to Tolkien’s estate, it was painted in 1954 as the dust jacket design for the soon-to-be-published book. The king’s return. It depicts Sauron as a figure in black with a glowing red eye, reaching out with a clawed hand across the landscape of Middle-earth. Although abstract and unfinished, it contains a lot of information. Sauron’s clawed fingers, for example, are positioned for delicate work – like snatching the Ring from its hiding place – rather than waving or cutting. A burst of fire appears to emerge from above him, and ridges on his head represent a helmet, while a trio of black slashes above him suggest spears or weapons of war. And yet it remains abstract enough to keep the details hidden and let the viewer fill in their own details as Tolkien intended.
It was enough to give Jackson and his team a good idea of what to do next, as well as set the mood they wanted for their central villain. Tolkien’s artwork informed other aspects of the production, such as the Gates of Moria and the specifics of the Dwarvish and Elvish languages, which were duplicated exactly on screen. His haunting sketch of Sauron conveyed much more abstract emotions, which required something different than just copying them. It’s a sign of how the the Lord of the Rings the films have succeeded by the way they have taken up this challenge.