When you think of The Lord of the Rings’ baddie Sauron, chances are a big, flaming eyeball comes to mind. Why wouldn’t it? The Eye of Sauron is one of the most iconic symbols associated with J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy — it’s even plastered on the cover of several editions of the books. The Great Eye also features heavily in Peter Jackson’s blockbuster big-screen adaptations, an ever-watchful flaming orb atop a massive stone obelisk.
2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies’ 20th anniversary, and we couldn’t imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we’ll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon’s Year of the Ring.
So, it makes sense that when the average Middle-earth fan thinks of Sauron, they think of him as a honking great peeper made of fire — but that’s not what Tolkien originally intended. Jackson and his collaborators made some significant changes to Sauron for the Lord of the Rings films, and they’ve colored how we’ve all pictured the Dark Lord of Mordor ever since.
The Eye of Sauron is a metaphor
If Sauron is more than the evil eye to end all evil eyes depicted in Jackson’s movies, just what the heck is he? Did Tolkien ever describe Sauron’s appearance in the books? And where does the Great Eye come into it? Like a lot of Middle-earth lore, it’s complicated.
Tolkien makes it clear that when Isildur cut the Ring from the Dark Lord’s hand, only his physical body died. His spirit lived on, and (according to Middle-earth’s meticulously detailed timeline) he spent the next thousand years or so recovering until he was able to manifest a new form. From here on out, Sauron is literally a shadow of his former self, but crucially, he’s also decidedly humanoid.
Of course, Tolkien injected a hefty dose of lyricism into The Lord of the Rings, and there are allusions to Sauron appearing as the Great Eye in the books. One particular passage in The Return of the King suggests that there really is a flaming eye perched atop Barad-dûr tower, at least temporarily.
However, just because Sauron occasionally goes full “flaming eye” mode, that doesn’t mean the Great Eye is the Dark Lord’s only form — and it’s certainly not the only one he can take. In The Two Towers, Gollum even recalls seeing Sauron’s four-fingered hand, which kinda shoots down the whole “just an eyeball” argument.
So how did the “Eye of Sauron” become such a big deal? Think of it as Middle-earth marketing. The Great Eye is the image the Dark Lord uses to brand himself and his armies, projecting an aura of omniscience. As propaganda, the Eye of Sauron is the most potent symbol in Middle-earth — and its effectiveness is built on the genuine power of Sauron’s gaze, literal and otherwise. But ultimately, it’s just that: a symbol.
Who needs symbolism?
The same doesn’t apply in the Lord of the Rings movies. Here, Jackson portrays Sauron almost exclusively as a flaming eyeball (save for the odd Second Age flashback), and there’s nothing metaphorical about it.
In Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring, Saruman proclaims that Sauron flat-out cannot take physical form (even a shadowy, finger-deficient one). This statement alone makes it pretty clear that Jackson believes the best Sauron can do for a body is a quasi-ethereal eyeball, and he clears up any remaining doubt in the commentary included with the Extended Edition home release. There, Jackson talks openly about his literal interpretation of the Eye of Sauron, lamenting that Tolkien lumped him, a filmmaker, with a villain “[who] is in the form of a giant eye and can’t really participate in the story to any great degree.”
Yet this misreading of Sauron’s true nature does little to hurt Jackson’s movies. As realized by Weta Digital, the Eye of Sauron still radiates exactly the level of menace Tolkien describes. One look at that cruel cat-eye pupil wreathed in fire and crackling with lightning, and you know you’re dealing with a dangerous, demonic presence. And if nothing else, the Great Eye makes for a more distinctive, less generic “dark lord” visual than the shadowy figure that Tolkien describes in the books (and which appears in Jackson’s later Hobbit films) — not to mention one that’s infinitely more memorable.
Jackson’s take on Sauron does have its shortcomings. The most infamous of these is what disgruntled fans call the “Lighthouse Sauron” effect: a handful of shots in The Return of the King where the Eye of Sauron projects a beam of light that scans the plains of Mordor far below. It … it looks goofy. Even when the beam finally lands on Frodo and Sam, they still manage to get away!
Reducing the archvillain of the saga into an ineffectual spotlight should have been enough to sink the entire Jackson trilogy. Yet many fans of the movies — even fans who know the original books inside out — seem cool with the Kiwi director’s less-than-accurate spin on Sauron, lighthouse and all.
So how did Jackson get away with such a radical departure from Tolkien’s text?
With Sauron, there’s more than meets the eye
In the end, it doesn’t really matter what form Sauron takes in The Lord of the Rings, as long as the Dark Lord plays his role in the story effectively. Whether Sauron is a dark phantom, a flaming eyeball, or something else entirely, his function remains the same: to provide an overarching threat to drive the narrative. In a sense, he’s as much of a McGuffin as the One Ring itself.
As far as the story itself is concerned, Sauron’s not there for our heroes to confront directly (although that nearly happened in previous versions of the film), even if his true form means that they actually could. Instead, he’s a perpetual, ominous presence in every scene. His menace, as a villain, lies primarily in the danger he could pose — that he could regain his power through the One Ring and become unstoppable — and that’s something a fiery eyeball can represent just as easily, perhaps even better, than a sinister shade.
All we need for Jackson’s Sauron-as-eyeball interpretation to pay off is to believe in the threat of Sauron’s relentless hunt for the Ring. And for the majority of the trilogy’s runtime, we do; so much so that, for most of us, even the Dark Lord’s embarrassingly half-assed search efforts late in the game are easy to ignore. Flawed or not, the unique aesthetic of Jackson’s Sauron is too great to resist, and the appearance of his incandescent eye bopping about atop an ebony pillar in other media — including parodies in South Park and The Lego Batman Movie — is a testament to how deeply ingrained it is in our collective pop culture consciousness.
Tolkien purists may argue that changes like those Jackson made to Sauron do the original story an injustice, no matter how successful the films were and still are. But then, the beauty of being part of Middle-earth fandom is that not everyone has to see eye to eye.