I think it’s important to say up-front that the role of Frodo would be an immensely difficult one for any actor, regardless of their experience or talent. In a film setting, this character has almost the sole responsibility of communicating to the audience the awesome and malevolent powers of the Ring. It is through Frodo and his struggle of the will with it that we get to see the Ring’s effects and why it must be removed from the world, and this struggle is entirely on the mental and spiritual plane. Therefore, the actor portraying Frodo has a nearly insurmountable task before him: notwithstanding some tangential assistance from the likes of Boromir, Denethor, Saruman, Gandalf, Galadriel, Sam, Gollum, and Aragorn, Frodo must bear the lion’s share of the job to show us what the Ring does to its Bearers (as well as those around him) and to maintain it as a real, present, and rapidly growing threat across three massive films. No mean feat, that.
Unfortunately, Elijah Wood largely fails in this task, though it’s probably fair to say few would have done much better in his place. The fault mainly rests with Peter Jackson’s decision to cast him and the equally poor decision to cut the character’s age in half in the process. This is something Jackson himself admits somewhere (in the Appendices to the film, I think, not that he considers it a mistake), and the ramifications are far-reaching. No actor in their early 20s would be capable of comprehending let alone conveying the immense spiritual burden carried by the Ring-bearer. Wood tries admirably, aided along the way, we can assume, by his cast-mates and the directing staff, but the task is simply too tall an order for him at that stage in his life. He has surely developed as an actor in the more than 10 years since, although Wilfred probably isn’t a reliable gauge for this kind of thing. This is no reflection on Wood’s abilities as a performer himself, mind you, but rather on the decision of the director to use a particular actor who may “look the part” wonderfully (another fact Jackson admits openly), but be entirely ill-suited to delivering what is crucially needed from the character in order to serve the larger storyline.
This is not to say Wood did nothing right: he delivered several compelling moments throughout the trilogy, especially in the earlier stages when the demands against him were less weighty. His reaction to Gandalf’s fall into the abyss is one of the very few times I’ve ever really felt my heart wrenched as the protagonist shouts “NOOOOoooo!” (in case you’re wondering, the Star Wars Episode III attempt ranks about 10 billion places below Wood) and his scene with Sam in the boat at the end of FOTR is equally touching, but it is on the larger field where he comes up short. As Stanislavsky rightly observed, an actor’s ability to portray various experiences and emotions is inextricably tied to their own life experiences, and so the decision to cast Wood in this role was a poor one. Again, Frodo’s highly personal struggle with the Ring is, in a very real sense, a direct struggle with Sauron himself and one of the primary (if not the primary) manners in which we the audience see his will at work in the world and understand the nature of the Enemy as well as his motivations and how things would look if he won out in the end. The ability to portray this compellingly and believably has a direct impact on the audience’s buy-in to the fantasy, and this is at least in part why many critics panned both Wood’s performance as well as the films generally – praising them for their overall visual spectacle but lambasting the superfluous nature of the core emotional content – because Frodo’s effectiveness as an actor is directly tied to the films’ effectiveness as a story. The fact that Sauron never appears in person (another book-driven concept Jackson toyed with abandoning, and now you know why) makes Frodo’s conflict with him via his Ring all the more critical. To be ineffective in this function is to, practically speaking, make a movie without a chief antagonist thereby reducing the stakes and robbing the film of at least some of its potential. Looking frightened and breathing heavily are no substitutes for a true emotional experience, the means by which audiences connect with characters – fantastic or otherwise. The book and films may be set in a time and place we cannot reach, but the joy, pain, sorrow, tears, happiness, and love they experience are the same emotions we know from our own lives, and it is through them an audience experiences its catharses.
As an aside, this is related to why the falling action in ROTK seems so perfunctory and why many audiences unfamiliar with the book were confused as to Frodo’s decision to sail into the Uttermost West. Without the believable conveyance of spiritual torment and physical suffering Frodo continues to experience even after the Quest is achieved, it seems illogical the character would forsake everyone and everything for which he undertook the Quest to save in the first place. Frodo’s lines at the Grey Havens (“We set out to save the Shire, Sam. And it has been saved, but not for me.”) fall flat not because they aren’t well-delivered by Wood but because Wood has been incapable of setting up the trade-off. Jackson’s ham-handed attempts to help address this with extra-Tolkien lines (“How do you pick up the pieces of a broken life?”) do nothing to resolve the underlying problem: that his choice of Frodo simply isn’t at a point in his own life where he can appreciate the depths of loss and sacrifice to which the character has committed.
In short, Wood’s performance was the best we could expect from him at that age and it is unfortunate he was placed in a position where he was doomed to mediocrity. It’s hard to tell whether Jackson perhaps didn’t fully appreciate the task set against his Frodo or maybe didn’t grasp the implications of his casting decision, but the end result was a diminution of the emotional impact of his films. Without a fuller spectrum of life experiences to draw from at such a young age, Wood appears out of place next to Ian McKellen, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, and even his contemporaries like Sean Astin and Billy Boyd. In many instances, a “weak link” can be compensated for through other members of the cast, and some of that certainly happened in Wood’s case. Sadly, though, Frodo’s challenge is so internal and specific to him and bears such an incredible amount of the epistemological weight that Jackson’s casting choice does a significant disservice to some of the story’s chief themes.
Master of Toons