I observed a curious difference the other day, while watching Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Two Towers, between the theatrical cut of the film and its extended edition.

In the extended edition, Gollum suffers more physical abuse than he does in the theatrical cut.

The best illustration of this difference occurs in the latter half of the two films, when Gollum encounters Faramir, a military captain from the kingdom of Gondor. Having previously undergone something of a moral transformation (more on that later), Gollum was, until recently, leading Frodo (“Master”) and Sam (“Stupid, fat hobbit”) into Mordor, there to rid themselves of the evil One Ring. Crossing through the realm of Ithilien, however, the three run aground of Faramir—Gollum badly so. Frustrated in his attempts to wring satisfying answers from Frodo and Sam, Faramir turns to Gollum and subjects him to a more…thorough interrogation.

The theatrical cut spares us most of the details of this questioning. The scene opens with a shot of Faramir’s men hurling Gollum to the floor, and in the next Faramir advances. Within moments Faramir has his answers. On we go.

The extended edition, by contrast, lingers over the minutiae of the meeting. Although identical to the theatrical cut in terms of its basic architecture and relevance to the plot, this version of the scene includes an additional ten seconds of footage, during which Faramir’s men viciously work Gollum over before his questioning. So, while Faramir looks pointedly in the opposite direction, his soldiers let loose with fists and feet, throwing, kicking, dragging, and punching their prisoner into a terrified, sniveling submission.

With the exception of these ten seconds, I do not tend to associate torture with The Lord of the Rings. In fact, I would not be shocked if, when the time came to whittle the movie down to a modest three hours, it was Faramir’s enhanced interrogation techniques that recommended this scene for the editor’s axe. Gollum’s treatment here is genuinely disturbing.

Yet I would suggest that it is precisely because it disturbs that this scene should have remained. The theatrical cut suffers for the absence of Gollum’s torture.

Partly, Gollum’s torture helps to clarify his narrative arc. By far the most fascinating character in the films and books—I’d argue that without Gollum The Lord of the Rings would have been merely good, not great, and finally forgettable—Gollum undergoes his most profound transformations in The Two Towers. Driven at the outset by his hatred of the hobbits and by his lust to recover the One Ring from Frodo, Gollum comes to evince a kind of loyalty and even a certain companionability toward Frodo after Frodo shows him kindness. I especially associate this shift with Frodo’s recalling him to his true name, Sméagol. Reminded of the person he was before the Ring’s corruption, Gollum is reborn and for some time gambols about as laughing, playful Sméagol.

When Faramir enters the picture, however, Sméagol vanishes. Apparently betrayed by Frodo, who surrenders him to Faramir, who in turn has him savagely beaten, Sméagol finds confirmation not of his rebirth, but of the failure of his rebirth. In his torture, he confronts not the self that merits dignity and decency, but the one deemed nasty and bad—that has always been deemed nasty and bad. Hence, it comes as no surprise to us, who have seen the torture-scene and can situate it in this narrative of transformation, that The Two Towers ends with Gollum, not Sméagol, and that Gollum is once more plotting the downfall of his hobbit-companions.

I find another reason for the inclusion of Gollum’s torture in the theatrical cut. Despite his manifest slipperiness and villainy, it would be hard, I think, to watch Gollum’s brutalization and believe that he deserves it. That he “has it coming.” Something about the torture offends our notions of permissibility and fairness, and we, like Frodo, feel a queasy sort of pity.

Only, unlike Frodo, the pity provoked in this scene has less to do with Gollum as he is, wretched and cringing, and more to do with the booted feet that strike him.

This pity urges us, finally, to reflect on an uncomfortable truth. Although we often prefer to credit an individual’s pettiness or meanness to that person alone—chalk it up to bad character, perhaps—Gollum’s torture reminds us of the hand that we the good, we the kind and generous-minded, have in producing “bad character.” We call forth the best and worst in each other. Kindness shepherds Sméagol into the open. Cruelty shows him the door. And lest we seek refuge in the extraordinary violence directed at Gollum (“Well, I’d never torture anyone”), we should remember that “extraordinary” means nothing without “ordinary” and that small, pedestrian acts of violence often precede big ones. Thus we must recognize the continuity that exists between Faramir’s treatment of Gollum and, say, the view of Gollum which sanctions this treatment, a view enthusiastically endorsed by none other than the golden-boy of The Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee: “There’s naught left in [Gollum] but lies and deceit.”

Viewed against the streets of Dallas, Baton Rouge, and St. Paul, where unsubtle language and uncharitable thought have helped to yield such ugly fruit, Gollum’s abuse—both physical and rhetorical—may yet have a lesson for us.

But so does, I think, the end of Gollum’s story. For despite Sam and Frodo, despite everything Faramir has done and the Ring has wrought, despite even Gollum himself, Gollum becomes the unintending savior of Middle-earth—an agent of and witness to that grace which is outside us and which uses us, even in our very worst.

And that, as Gandalf says, is an encouraging thought.

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