Denethor: If the Steward of Gondor is a difficult character to fathom in Tolkien’s books, the movie version of Denethor is even more cryptic. The way Jackson presents him in his script, we get the impression the imperious leader of Gondor is overcome by too many cares: the loss of his beloved son (“He loved Boromir. Too much, perhaps.”), the burden of rule, and the apparently inevitable destruction of his realm all conspire to slowly rob Denethor of his sanity and drive him to a despairing murder/suicide. There is certainly some grounding of this reading in the book, but an audience sees John Noble’s Denethor teeter incoherently between rage, despair, confusion, incompetence, love, and hubris so quickly and without apparent reason the effect is nothing short of bewildering.
Tolkien’s Denethor is a proud and stately ruler of a realm under siege. These have not been easy times, and the Steward’s own personal faults only complicate things further. Driven by a growing need for information about the dangers he is sworn to defend against, Denethor risks the palantir of the White Tower to spy on his foe. Sauron, wily demi-god that he is, allows Denethor to believe he has the strength of will to wrench the seeing-stone from the Dark Lord’s control. This plays perfectly into Denethor’s already latent belief that the race of Numenor is a superior one with the might to challenge the Enemy himself. This, of course, is foolishness borne of pride, and Sauron succeeds in “editing” the information Denethor does gather through the stone, showing him always the immense power of Mordor. This causes Denethor to believe more and more completely that the cause of defense is hopeless, until what he regards as Faramir’s utter failure to seize the Ring when it comes within his grasp finally overthrows his mind. The Steward of Gondor may have still been redeemed, had he brought a bit of humility to the fight, but Denethor is one of those people who clearly believes in the inherent superiority of certain people over others, naturally with himself very high in the food chain. His straightforward refusal to “bow to this Ranger of the North, last of a ragged house, long bereft of lordship” is perhaps the most obvious manifestation of his greatest sin as he elevates himself above the King of Gondor – a claim he notably does not think is even very important (“even were his claim proved to me”). With these types of qualities Sauron is quite at home, and it is only a matter of time before Denethor’s mind is shattered and he nearly brings ruin on his own house.
The Denethor we see in Jackson’s films played by Noble is (and maybe has to be) somewhat different. The character gets very little time on-screen, but his role is nonetheless an extremely important one. Aside from the obvious connections to his sons and their parts in the great events of the Third Age, Denethor is yet another vessel by which the audience experiences Sauron’s evil power, lending personality, purpose, and intent to the shadowy Enemy in his Tower, far away. Noble’s Denethor, however, appears in contrast to David Wenham’s Faramir (as I discussed in the previous post), who comes to his embracement of death more or less rationally. Denethor appears to have simply been driven mad by the bewitchments of Sauron, which is a decidedly less impactful choice. It’s also not grounded in the source material, which is doubly unfortunate.
Evidence of my assertion is seen in some of Jackson’s extra-Tolkien lines and moments, most notably when Movie Denethor sees the Host of Morgul on his doorstep and says to himself, “Theoden has betrayed me!” Denethor has already stated he knows Theoden is headed for Gondor (“I know who rides with Theoden of Rohan.”) and Gandalf very plainly told him to light the beacons and call for Rohan’s aid and he refused (we know he knew about Gandalf’s little movie-scheme because we saw the camera shot where Denethor glowers his disapproval when Pippin scales Mindolluin to light the first beacon), so why would he suddenly speak as if Rohan had willfully stabbed him in the back? This defies logic and, therefore, illogic (i.e., genuine madness) must be the explanation. This downgrades the character, however, because Book Denethor’s descent into hedonism via prideful stubbornness and ambition is a far more compelling story, albeit one that must be handled carefully in order to be understood and appreciated, especially in film.
Jackson’s approach is rather ham-handed, even going so far as to insert a small sequence where Denethor hallucinates and pictures Boromir approaching him only to have the mirage fade into Faramir. The only sensible conclusion, based on Jackson’s repeated hints (“The rule of Gondor is mine, and no other’s!” “All is turned to vain ambition!” “Boromir was loyal to me, and not some wizard’s pupil!” “My line is ended!”), is that Jackson’s Denethor is solely focused on the perpetuation of his ruling lineage. This tunnel-visioned idea made Boromir’s death more than he could bear, since he had no trust in Faramir. We are left to assume this is because Boromir was “less apt to [Gandalf’s] hand,” and therefore more willing to do as his father bade him, but it also doesn’t square with Denethor lamenting the end of his line only when Faramir lies dying (but not dead – which is important to gleaning the character’s mental state as well) before him.
Having seen bits of other, commendable work Noble has performed, I think it likely this odd turn as Denethor was forced upon him by a) Jackson’s personal interpretation of the character, b) the often-clunky process of transitioning a literary masterpiece into film, or c) both of these simultaneously. Other choices by Jackson also serve to further diminish the character, especially when Gandalf pummels him with his staff in full view of the entire City. This strains credulity, to put it mildly, and has the uniquely undesirable effect of creating comedy where there should be none. It is also entirely out of character for both Gandalf and Denethor, to say nothing of the thousands of people watching the exchange. In the end, whatever the cause of Denethor’s diminution, the result is a far less nuanced Denethor, from whom we are able to learn very little.