Perhaps more than anyone else, Gollum was the breakout character for Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved epic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. The first film in the series, The Fellowship of the Ring, shows Gollum only briefly in a flashback, when Gandalf is giving Frodo some background about the Ring of Power that he’s been tasked to destroy. But in The Two Towers, the second film (and book) of the series, Gollum’s character arc is tightly woven into the story, as he stalks and subsequently joins Sam and Frodo on their journey.
Actor Andy Serkis brought Gollum to life through innovative technology invented expressly for the films. In the books, Gollum is a tragic figure, but Serkis gives him a massive upgrade, epitomizing a sympathetic creature that has lost his true self to addiction and mental illness. Serkis’ portrayal marks the first time a CG character felt truly real in a film. So real, in fact, that in 2003, the MTV movie awards created a category expressly for Gollum, called Best Virtual Performance. When Oscars aren’t in the cards, mo-cap actors have to take what they can get.
Even though Peter Jackson delves into some of his backstory in The Return of the King, there’s still a lot to unpack about the character of Gollum/Sméagol. Here are 17 things you probably didn’t know about everybody’s favorite psychotic riddling fish enthusiast.
17. Gollum Revolutionized Mo-Cap
Before the advent of motion capture technology, actors would struggle to muster real human emotions in reaction to blank space. Animators would draw the characters in later, making guesses about movements and expressions rather than referencing an actual performance. Andy Serkis and his portrayal of Gollum are entirely responsible for the motion capture and performance capture industry we know today.
Since it was all so new, they continued developing the technology even mid-production. At first, they filmed the actors on location with a stand-in, and Serkis would later perform his scenes alone on a sound stage in a complex green screen setup. But by the time The Hobbit rolled around, they had streamlined the process, building a modified suit that accomplished everything at once, allowing Serkis to act alongside Martin Freeman (Bilbo). Today, Serkis runs Imaginarium, a full-fledged performance capture studio. They are also training a new crop of actors so that Serkis can spend a little more time upright on other passion projects, like stealing the show in Marvel movie trailers.
16. Gollum 2.0
The effects team on Lord of the Rings had already designed their CG Gollum by the time Andy Serkis was cast to play the crucial character. The Gollum briefly seen in The Fellowship of the Ring is noticeably different, and much less sophisticated than later incarnations. Once they saw the incredibly expressive faces that Serkis pulled during his performances, they knew they had to incorporate them into the film, and decided to do a full Gollum overhaul.
To mimic Serkis’ performance, they invented a whole new technique called combination sculpting, which tracks 964 different facial points. Since they were mid-production, they had to accomplish this in record time. After Fellowship’s release, Peter Jackson and co. decided that they wanted Andy Serkis to play Sméagol, Gollum’s original Hobbit-like form. It’s a good thing they went to all the trouble, because Gollum wouldn’t have had nearly the level of emotional impact were it not for Serkis’ now iconic performance.
15. Gollum is Grendel
Gollum may seem like a singular figure in literature, but Tolkien actually based the character on Grendel, the marsh-dwelling villain of the Old English epic poem Beowulf. While the poem doesn’t go into details about Grendel’s physicality, he is referred to as a “shadow walker”, and his backstory sounds awfully familiar.
A once-human outcast, Grendel’s body is twisted into a monstrous form through his years in exile. He emerges from hiding to murder patrons of a mead hall because he is tormented by their inaccessible merriment. Grendel is also the direct descendent of Cain, the biblical character who slays his own brother.
Gollum, meanwhile, begins life as a Hobbit called Sméagol. Consumed by the power of the One Ring, he kills his cousin, Déagol, and transforms into Gollum, as the ring corrupts and consumes him over several centuries. Both characters also speak in third person, and possess unnatural strength and lifespans. Most tellingly, Grendel also refers to his world as “Middle Earth” proving, once again, that there are no original ideas.
14. Tolkien ret-conned Gollum
In The Hobbit’s first edition, published in 1937, Gollum was quite different than the mad, ring-obsessed creature we know today. Tolkien originally wrote him as a jolly fellow who wants to award Bilbo the ring for correctly answering riddles. When the ring goes missing, Gollum is most apologetic, and he offers Bilbo a tasty fish as consolation.
When Tolkien began writing the Lord of the Rings trilogy, however, he wanted the ring to be the crux of the story. It no longer made sense for O.G. Gollum to be so casual about misplacing his literal reason for existence. Tolkien made some tweaks, sending a letter to his editor to include the revisions in The Hobbit’s next printing. But when his editor never got back to him, Tolkien panicked. In Fellowship, he implies that, since The Hobbit is Bilbo’s memoirs, it should be considered unreliable – the evil power of the ring compelled Bilbo to lie about its acquisition. Of course, Tolkien’s editor did eventually make the change, but it’s fun to re-read The Hobbit as a collection of overblown boasts.
13. Frodo Murdered Gollum…Almost
Mount Doom is already a pretty intense scene in The Return of the King, what with Sam and Frodo on the verge of death, stumbling up the mountain, and getting attacked by Gollum repeatedly. But Peter Jackson also wanted Frodo to be responsible for Gollum’s inevitable demise.
Right before he’s meant to throw the ring into the fire, Frodo is overtaken by its power and declares it for himself. With a sinister look, he slips it on his finger and disappears. But Gollum can see his footprints and leaps on him, biting off Frodo’s ring finger. Frodo, still under the ring’s power, attacks Gollum, and they struggle, teetering on the cliff’s edge. Originally, Jackson filmed Frodo angrily shoving Gollum, ring and all, into the fires of Mount Doom. But, since everyone shows Gollum mercy throughout the films, he decided it would make Frodo too unlikeable if he ultimately succumbed to murderous rage. However, Jackson did make Frodo’s motivation for attack ambiguous. Frodo only struggles to get the ring back, never explicitly completing his task by his own free will.
12. Gollum Was Good Once
Sméagol may have acquired the ring through the cold-blooded birthday murder of his friend and relation, Déagol, but he didn’t turn into Gollum right away. First, he returned to his village, presumably purporting no knowledge of his fishing companion’s whereabouts, and began secretly using the ring for nefarious purposes. Sméagol would spy on and steal from his friends and family. His behavior became increasingly spiteful and anti-social, until they could take it no more. Perhaps they also began to suspect him in Déagol’s disappearance. Finally, his grandmother took the initiative and banished Sméagol from Stoor-kind, triggering his transformation into full-on Gollum.
There is a theory that the potential for evil was in him all along, since he is the only ring-bearer, outside of Sauron, to commit murder. But up until the point that he found the ring, he was considered as friendly and fun-loving as the rest of his furry-footed kin.
11. Gollum’s Near Redemption
There’s a moment in The Two Towers, which plays less explicitly in the film adaptation, in which Gollum is a hair’s breadth away from reverting to his original Hobbity self. Throughout their journey together, Frodo and Gollum form a unique bond over their connection to the ring. In the decaying artist formerly known as Sméagol, Frodo sees his potential future if he doesn’t complete his task. In Frodo, Gollum sees his origins, and a possibility to find that person again if Frodo’s mission is successful.
Tolkein himself pinpoints this moment in a letter, stating that while Sméagol watches Frodo sleep, on the ledge at Cirith Ungol leading up to Shelob’s lair, he seriously starts to consider abandoning his betrayal plan and actually helping them with their mission, thus securing his own redemption. But Sam wakes up, and, fearing the worst, he asks Gollum what he’s up to. Gollum decides then and there that he is beyond redemption, and goes back to “sneaking”. Way to go, Sam.
10. Gollum Was a Trust Fund Kid
Sméagol was born into the most prominent family among the Riverfolk. His grandmother was the reigning Matriarch, basically the Elizabeth Windsor of Stoor. His well-to-do family lived near Gladden Fields, where he and his cousin, Déagol, encountered the ring during an ill-fated fishing trip. After murdering Déagol to claim ownership of his “birthday present”, Sméagol turned into an entitled bastard, using the ring to steal from, and spy on his fellow Stoor.
Incredibly, though they were wealthy and in high standing, his family ties couldn’t save him from rebuke. His grandmother, in an attempt to Make The Shire Great Again, was the one responsible for ultimately driving Sméagol into exile, after the ring corrupted him. Before his banishment, they had already re-dubbed him Gollum, in reference to the horrible swallowing sound that had begun emanating involuntarily from his throat. That sort of anti-social behavior will certainly get you barred from all the high-society galas.
9. Gollum Was Always Into Fish
Young, uncorrupted Sméagol was one of the Stoor, a line of Hobbits who were Riverfolk, and fishermen by trade. They made their homes along the Anduin River, priding themselves on the craftsmanship of their fine boats and fishing rods. By the time we meet Gollum in The Two Towers, he has lost the taste for nearly every type of food — with the exception of fish.
Though the Stoor probably did plenty of boiling, mashing, and stew making with their fresh catches, Gollum now prefers his seafood “raw and wriggling”. The only time we see him truly happy without his precious is when he’s diving into the Forbidden Pool, singing a cheerful song while he bashes a fish to death on a rock. This particular tune might be an original composition, but it could also be a variation on a song he knew long ago. And, as we well know, Hobbits are awfully fond of singing.
8. Gollum Has Always Liked Holes
In his more Hobbity days, his fellow Stoor knew Gollum as Sméagol, but even that isn’t his real name, as his birth name was actually Trahald. Sméagol was merely a nickname, likely given to him because of his dirty hobbies. The name Sméagol is an Old English word meaning “burrower”, you see, and Trahald was known for having a keen interest in “roots and beginnings”. He had a great preoccupation for diving into pools in search of hidden caves, and burrowing under mounds and tree roots.
Even though it was his obsession with the One Ring that ultimately drove him mad, and resulted in his exile, it sounds like he probably would have ended up living in a hole anyway. And not even the famously comfortable holes of his people, but a “nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell”. What can you say? The guy likes what he likes.
7. Gollum Is Basically A Heroin Addict
When Andy Serkis was getting into character, he thought a lot about Gollum’s motivation. This is a creature who is so obsessed with getting his fix that he has literally restructured his entire life around it. Serkis used this analogy as a way to ground the character in reality. He has repeatedly stated in interviews that he played Gollum like a junkie, with the ring as something that “controls him and he craves and obsesses over”. The schizophrenia and pathological lying are also prevalent in addiction behavior.
Serkis also plays Gollum’s onomatopoeic movement, inspired by Serkis’ cat puking up a hairball, as an involuntary hack brought on by guilt for killing Déagol, not unlike Robert Durst’s confession burps in The Jinx. On set, Serkis remained in character even during breaks, because he feared losing that realism if he dropped the act. So now you know who ate all the sashimi from the craft services table.
6. Riddles in the Dark
By the time Peter Jackson began filming The Hobbit in 2011, it had been nearly a decade since Andy Serkis had inhabited the role on set. The character had transcended his original performance, and it had been parodied so much that Serkis worried he couldn’t reclaim the old magic, that his performance would become “an impersonation of other people’s impersonations”.
Jackson knew that “Riddles in the Dark”, would be the lynchpin of The Hobbit films, so he absolutely had to nail it. That’s why it was the first scene they shot. They filmed the sequence on location, with Serkis in his gray-toned performance capture suit and Martin Freeman decked out as Bilbo Baggins. Normally, scenes are broken up, but to get everyone immersed in the world, it was shot like a stage play, wherein the actors ran the entire scene from start to finish over and over again. They shot from all the different angles you see in the film, and then everything was cut together in the editing room, and the result is easily the best thing about the film.
5. Gollum’s Five Century Long Tenure As Ring Bearer
There were only seven dwellers of Middle-earth to achieve Ring Bearer status. Sauron, the ring’s originator, had it for 1840 years before losing it in battle to Isildur. 2 years later, Isildur dropped it in the Anduin River for Déagol to find. Déagol held it for mere moments, until Sméagol murdered him and stole it. Bilbo himself had it for 60 years before reluctantly gifting it to Frodo at Gandalf’s behest. Frodo had it for 17 years, and finally, Sam had it for 2 days when he thought Shelob had killed Frodo. Phew, you get all that?
Sméagol/Gollum held onto the ring for 478 years, making him the second longest running Ring Bearer after Sauron. He was 589 when he died, meaning he spent 81% of his life obsessing over the Ring of Power. Because of their ring experience, the three Hobbits were granted passage to a realm that is basically Elvish Heaven. Poor Gollum’s reward was to burn in the hellish lava pit inside Mount Doom.
4. Gollum’s Famous Interrogator
When Gollum finally got around to leaving his Misty Mountains cave in pursuit of the ring, he had very little to go on. He knew the thief was Bilbo Baggins of the Shire, but the trail was otherwise quite cool. Instead, thanks to the ring’s lingering effects, Gollum was drawn toward Mordor, where Orcs captured him and brought him to Sauron.
Since one does not simply walk into Mordor, Sauron knew something was up. He wanted the ring back, and despite having been in hiding for centuries, he decided to handle Gollum’s questioning himself. That’s right, Gollum was one of the lucky (?) few to have ever seen Sauron’s physical form. The Evil Lord was so close that Gollum noticed his black hand was missing a finger – the one Isildur chopped off.
Pippin was pretty wrecked after briefly handling the Palantir – a magic orb that is essentially a direct line to Sauron. Imagine how terrifying the guy must be close up. No wonder Gollum gave up the goods so quickly.
3. Have Ring, Must Travel
The One Ring, ultimately under Sauron’s control, has a singular mission. It doesn’t mind stirring up some shit on its way home, but its endgame is being reunited with its master. That’s why, despite having been a perfect fit when he first picked it up, the ring falls off Isildur’s hand during his escape attempt from the Orcs in the Anduin River. That’s also why, after his people shun Sméagol, he retreats, not to the nearest hole, but to one far away in the Misty Mountains.
The Misty Mountains loom over Mirkwood forest where, while Gollum putters around his cave, Sauron’s spirit lurks in the forest, as he slowly regains his strength over centuries. Gollum is unwittingly in a holding pattern until Sauron is powerful enough to repo his greatest weapon. When Gollum loses his precious, it’s not an accident. Like Isildur before him, the ring intentionally slips away, in an attempt to hop onto the nearest escape hand. Perhaps that’s also why Bilbo never loses the urge to travel after returning home to Bag End with the ring.
2. Gollum’s Official Diagnosis: Schizoid Personality Disorder
Gollum’s psychosis may have been supernaturally borne, but it was, apparently, not outside the realm of mental possibility. A group of psychiatric students got together and diagnosed Gollum/Smeagol in a real world context. In a short, but detailed paper, published in 2004, a year after the release of the trilogy’s third installment, The Return of the King, Gollum’s mental affliction was identified as Schizoid Personality Disorder.
The students describe Gollum as a “single, 587-year-old hobbit-like male of no fixed abode” exhibiting “anti-social behavior, increased aggression, and preoccupation with the ‘one ring’”. They attempt to determine non-supernatural casualty, starting with what is known of his childhood. He has “no history of substance misuse, although, like many young hobbits, he smoked ‘pipe weed’ in adolescence”. In an attempt to “exclude organic causes for his symptoms”, they attribute his physical appearance to malnutrition (with his “extremely limited” diet of raw fish) and lifestyle. They also note that he is not symptomatic of schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder, but displays 7 out of 9 criteria for Schizoid Personality Disorder. The assessment is as sound as it is entertaining.
1. John Lennon Almost Played Gollum
At the 2003 Academy Awards, where The Two Towers was nominated in seven categories, Paul McCartney met Peter Jackson and revealed to him that in their heyday, the Fab Four had pitched a Hobbit film to Stanley Kubrick. Their version cast Paul as Frodo, George as Gandalf, and Ringo as Sam. John Lennon, meanwhile, was particularly keen to step into the tricksy role of Gollum.
Tolkien still owned the film rights at the time and was not a fan of the cheeky lads from Liverpool, so he nixed the idea. In 1969, Tolkien sold the rights to United Artists, possibly under the stipulation that they never let the Beatles anywhere near it. It seems unlikely that their version of the film would have been as epic as Jackson’s trilogy, but it’s comforting that they thought they could fit it all into one movie. One thing’s for certain: the soundtrack would have been killer.
Do you know any other bizarre factoids behind the most driven character in Middle-earth? Could a John Lennon Gollum have worked onscreen? Let us know in the comments.
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