May 13, 2015

The Dol Guldur Sequence That Almost Was

It's well known that Peter Jackson's films are in a constant state of flux up until the last minute (literally!).  Scripts, designs, edits, sound, schedules and even the number of installments of a series have been changed very late in the production process.  It's not surprising then to learn that the famous (or infamous depending on your viewpoint) White Council scene went through some major and interesting revisions in the years leading up to release...

Until the Extended Edition of BotFA comes out the best source I've found for researching this scene is Weta's fifth and latest Hobbit Chronicles book.  One of the earliest chapters of that volume features Dol Guldur and the White Council's assault.  Interspersed between the (stunning) pieces of artwork are some quotes by the designers and artists that, in addition to shedding light on their design process, reveal some interesting clues to earlier or alternate versions of that scene.  Below are six major points I took special note of:

Palantir Visions

Remember this image of Gandalf released in a banner poster for Desolation of Smaug?

No?  Well that's OK, it has been quite a while.  Back when it was released it caused a bit of a stir among some Tolkien circles.  The object in question is that spherical object held by the headless statue.  Many took it as a (not so) subtle hint that a Palantir would make an appearance in the film.  But, as we already know, that didn't happen (EE?).  However, at one point in the story Sauron did show the captured Gandalf terrifying images as Weta's designer Gus Hunter explains,
"Peter asked me to work up idea for a vision Gandalf would see in a palantir of Smaug leading an army of Orcs.  I put hundreds of Orcs and their war creatures in the picture, massing for war with pyres and destruction, making it look like the end of the world.  Smaug is in the middle, commanding the armies or flying above them in a cloud of smoke..."    

The idea and images are very reminiscent of some major battles from the Silmarillion when dragons command armies of orcs.  Hopefully this material will be put into the upcoming Extended Edition.  It addresses the major hole in Sauron's ambiguous master plan to conquer Middle-earth as shown in the theatrical cuts (why did he send an army in DOS to claim Erebor when Smaug already had it under his control?)

Elf Armies

While it can be easily inferred that Lothlorien elves were present when the fortress of Dol Guldur was finally overthrown by Galadriel and Celeborn during the War of the Ring in the year 3019 T.A., it seems as if Tolkien imagined only having the White Council present for this first confrontation while the story of The Hobbit was unfolding in the north.  However, at one point early on Daniel Falconer imagined some new Lothlorien Elf armour designs featuring a full face mask.  He also talked about including Celeborn dressed in "platinum-silver".  Now that would have been something!  However, PJ apparently felt that this needed to be a different kind of battle (and rightly so), something that could be unique compared to the many other battles in BotFA and the entire Middle-earth Saga.

"Dance of Death"

An ominous title.  That's how the legendary Tolkien artist John Howe described this confrontation.
"I imagined the Ringwraiths' approach and attack might be a sort of grim ballet, with black blades held out horizontally and heads bowed (I would love to hear them chanting as they come), in keeping with the solemn rage that the Necromancer feels at having the fight carried to his very stronghold.  Then the battle would explode into a grim dance of death with Elrond, Galadriel and Saruman.  They would be dressed in their funeral vestments - long flowing robes heavy with embroidery and decayed finery, and clad in their forge-black armour."

His imaginative description immediately brought images and sounds of the end of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring to mind.  The sequence in the final film was well choreographed, but I love John Howe's description of the fight as a dance.  If Peter Jackson had adopted this vision of the encounter I can only imagine what Howard Shore's score might have sounded like.  Instead we have mostly held chords and some choral chanting muted in the background beneath the vociferous sound effects.  

Earendil and Gil-galad?!

Tolkien's descriptions of the actual physical manifestation of magic in Middle-earth are very abstract, so you can imagine the challenge PJ & Co. faced when trying to depict that on screen.  In one of the more enlightening quotes Daniel Falconer recounts some of their earlier ideas:
"We offered up ideas for how the confrontation might play out.  Azog was going to be there to harvest Gandalf's Ring of Power.  Philippa [Boyens] talked to us about Galadriel protecting herself and the prone Wizard from Azog through the power of her Elven Ring, Nenya, which would manifest flashes of fallen Elven heroes like Gil-galad or Earendil whenever tried to strike her.  He couldn't touch her."

 It's an interesting idea, but it certainly would have been a challenge to depict on film and explain within the Middle-earth universe.  Why and how would Nenya be able to "summon" or call upon Gil-galad, Earendil or Celebrimbor to help?  I suppose the fact that the spirit of each elf remains tied to Arda even after their physical death could explain their appearance, but the whole idea is a little far-fetched.  (And by the way, Earendil never really "fell".  Just the opposite!  In the Silmarillion story Venus is actually a Silmaril that Earendil carries in his ship across the sky each night.)

It's also worth noting that Azog was supposed to be present for this scene.  In the final film we instead see a a different orc torturing Gandalf (who features an earlier design for Azog).

Bunny-Sled Chase and Beorn!

Peter Jackson and Co. were able to utilize Radagast's (in)famous bunny-sled in minor role in this last film, but at one point it was to be featured prominently in another major chase through Dol Guldur.  Not only that, but Beorn was to be present as well!
"As we shot it, the escape from Dol Guldur had Gandalf still quite badly wounded, being evacuated from Dol Guldur by Radagast on his sledge.  There was a pursuit through the castle ruin with its broken staircases and bridges, a perilous chase culminating in them bursting out of the fortresses's crumbling lower levels and into the forest again at ground level.  At one time Beorn was going to be present, a captive of the Orcs.  It was an opportunity for Radagast to show some heroics." - Alan Lee

It sounds like quite a sequence from Alan Lee's description!  My guess is that it was probably cut to keep the audience's attention focused on Galadriel's confrontation with the Dark Lord, but perhaps we could still see it in the extended cut.  The presence of Beorn also raises many questions of its own, but it does explain his odd inclusion in a LEGO DoS set:

Staff Confirmation

As was confirmed in interviews over the past few years, Gandalf "inherits" Radagast's staff early on in BotFA after his own was destroyed in DoS.  However, the transfer was never actually included in the the theatrical cut.  However, Alan Lee explains when this should take place:
"Gandalf's staff was lost when he was taken by the Necromancer, but Radagast gives his friend his own when they part company after the rescue in Dol Guldur."
In the theater I fully expected the staff to be given when the two parted ways at Radagast's house.  I can only assume it was cut for brevity (it's really not that important in the grand scheme of things).  Hopefully that's another thing we'll see in the EE.

There are other minute conceptual changes presented throughout the Dol Guldur segment, but those are larger ones I found to be the most interesting.  Did any of the others catch your eye?  Let us know in the comments!

When you're finished I highly encourage you to check out the Hobbit Chronicles books from Weta if you haven't done so already.  If you're interested in the Middle-earth movies or film conceptual artwork in general they'll be an invaluable treasure trove of artwork and information.  There are 5 (1/2) volumes currently available and the sixth should be arriving later this November.  They're available to order from Weta directly and you can find them at most major online book retailers.  Most physical Barnes and Noble and Target locations should also have the latest volume on the shelves, but be sure to call ahead or check online first.


  1. Do you have all the books?

    1. Yes, I've bought or received all the Weta Hobbit Chronicles books (from Amazon or Target) over the past 2 years. They're some of the only Weta items that don't cost a small fortune!

    2. In the movies, the ringwraiths seem to be able to disappear and reappear, unlike the movies. And they can't fall off the cliffs. What do you think?

    3. Thanks for the comment!

      There's not much info Tolkien gave us in the books about their movements aside from when they're cloaked in black. I think their depiction in BotFA was primarily from the imagination of the filmmakers. Their "flashing" and ability to almost jump or fly up the cliffs (almost unhindered by gravity) was an attempt to emphasize their otherworldliness. They're not fully part of this world. They're neither dead nor alive, but just continue in a kind of twilight world, sustained by the power of their rings.

      There's also the question as to why they appear different in BotFA than their appearance in AUJ and FotR. In this latest film they're much sharper and don't "glow" bright white. I don't think there's a fully logical explanation story-wise, but one could suggest their power or strength grows and wanes in accordance with Sauron's power and/or proximity.

  2. Hi there,

    very nice article.

    What do you think about Necromancer on the stairs (in the main trailer) and that Nenya defends Galadriel who is on the floor, very exhausted? I suppose before final confrontation.

    1. Thanks for the comment Tiberius!

      Sauron on the steps (as seen briefly in the main trailer) was probably from an alternate version or possibly just an alternate shot.

      Yes, I think most of Galadriel's "magical" power and strength comes from Nenya.