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Holy cannoli, did John Noble play Denethor as a complete and utter fool in The Lord of the Rings movies. Indulge me a brief recap. Denethor was openly abusive to Faramir and favored Boromir. His military strategies were, to say the least, delusional (retaking Osgiliath?). He called for his troops to abandon their posts and "Flee! Flee for your lives!" until Gandalf whacks him a good one upside the conk and takes over as commanding general for Gondor. There's of course the part where Denethor enjoys a nice meal as Faramir and Gondor's troops ride to their certain deaths, and when Faramir returns to Minas Tirith, gravely injured, Denethor decides that the most appropriate course of action at that time is, naturally, to burn himself and Faramir alive.

But. . . I honestly don't remember Denethor being so brutal and uncaring in the books. Was Denethor villified for the films and, if so, why? Was he really so cold and uncaring to Faramir while favoring Boromir so openly in the books?

How drastically did Lord Denethor's characterization change between LOTR canon and the movies?

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    For me the bigger character change was Faramir - his insistence on taking the hobbits to Minas Tirith was a total change from the book and completely out of character. Théoden changed completely as well. – Daniel Roseman Mar 3 '12 at 13:53
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    I haven't seen the movie, but that does seem like a fair description of Denethor in the book. Perhaps a bit exaggerated for the screen, but true to the character, and the immolation episode is directly from the book. – user56 Mar 3 '12 at 17:04
  • @Gilles +1 for you not having watched the movie! – MadTux Apr 30 '13 at 18:08
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In the movies they took elements of Denethor and exaggerated them to the point of becoming a caricature of the character from the book. While the various elements were there (favouritism towards Boromir over Faramir, dismissing a Dunedain from the North as being King of Gondor, dislike of Gandalf), he was generally sane, in control and competent in the books until he believed Faramir was going to die of the Nazgul's dart. After that he went a bit crazy, but at least he had motivation to do so then.

Peter Jackson amplified all these traits and ended up with someone over-acting and jumping off buildings. I was disappointed to be honest, but I felt Denethor (in the books) is one of the more interesting character arcs that we get to see, showing the perils of despair during war.

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    I hesitate to put this in the answer, because most of it is speculation but an interesting sidenote is that practically all of Denethor's issues can be tracked back to Aragorn and the time he spent in Gondor as Thorongil, under Denethor's father, Ecthelion II. Ecthelion came to regard Thorongil as a son, and Denethor found himself jealous of this. As a result Denethor preferred Boromir, who reminded him of himself, over Faramir who took more after Thorongil. Similarly Gandalf would have been friends with "Thorongil", adding another reason for Denethor to dislike him. – dlanod Mar 4 '12 at 0:02
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    Fully agreed! Denethor is a complex character, but I can empathize with his line of thought. When all is lost, why not despair (in the tragic tradition)? And who is this upstart from the North, come to claim the throne of Gondor? In contrast, the Denethor from the movies is impossible to empathize with, since he is a charicature. – Andres F. Mar 4 '12 at 0:45
  • +1 for not complaining about making a change for the movie and instead explaining why the change is just a simplification of the book character. I get so tired of people complaining about movie vs book. Of course the books will have a deeper story, they are not constrained by time. – Justin C Mar 6 '12 at 4:17
  • I can't say I like what they did in the movie (somewhat in general, though specifically in this case), but I get why they did it - a verbatim filming of the LotR would not have worked without six movies and only appealing to existing fans of the books. However I also think that in this case they could have handled it much better. – dlanod Mar 6 '12 at 4:49
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    @dlanod Gandalf mentions in the book that Denethor preferred Boromir despite the fact that they were not alike: "...he will speak most to you, and question you much, since you can tell him of his son Boromir. He loved him greatly: too much perhaps; and the more so because they were unlike." (Chapter 1, RotK). That his issues started with Thorongil is still an interesting theory... – morganpdx Jun 5 '12 at 20:40
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Denethor was under the influence of Sauron/Saruman by using a palantir stone that he used unbeknownst to others. I believe Gandalf explains this in the books, that the stones do not lie, and that Denethor was skilled in using it, but someone like Sauron can easily bend the truths as to make Denethor's situation seem hopeless. Which is what we see in the movie.

As you will recall, Pippin was ensorcelled by Saruman's stone, after Gandalf had captured it. Likewise, Aragorn challenged Sauron through the palantir, to force a confrontation and draw attention away from Mordor, so that Sam and Frodo could reach Mount Doom and destroy the ring in peace.

There are a lot of subtleties in the books that never made it into the movie. Frankly, the movies did not do justice to the books.

  • I don't think Denethor was directly influenced by Sauron as Saruman was. – Dharini Chandrasekaran Mar 3 '12 at 2:28
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    @DhariniChandrasekaran I did not say that he was. – TLP Mar 3 '12 at 3:32
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    Good point. As great as the movies are, the books are far, far, far better... – BBlake Mar 3 '12 at 16:34
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    @DhariniChandrasekaran Denethor was influenced by Sauron. He wasn't influenced into acting for Sauron, he never perceived Sauron as anything but his worst enemy, but Sauron caused him to believe that he could but lose and fighting was useless. – user56 Mar 3 '12 at 17:06
  • @Gilles Agreed. I thought TLP hinted at Denethor's actions being influenced by Sauron. My bad. – Dharini Chandrasekaran Mar 4 '12 at 2:30
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This Wikipedia article superbly tells you exactly how much was altered from the book to the movie.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denethor

I presume it was for dramatization that Jackson changed his character so much.

In the book he always came across to me as favoring Boromir, but not so much that he outright hated Faramir. He wasn't evil in the books, just depressed by losses upon losses and what images he saw in the Palantir (twisted by Sauron).

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    Agreed. He even has some wise opinions in the books. Denethor is clever, just on the verge of total breakdown. He doesn't hate Faramir either -- he wants to burn him out of despair and misguided love! – Andres F. Mar 3 '12 at 3:21
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    I think it hurts the dramatization. Instead of being an alternate line of policy, backed by the wisdom found by the magical Palantir, Denethor comes off as such a nutjob that you wonder why anyone follows him. It makes it too easy for Gandalf to take over and makes it too easy for Pippen to defy him and save Faramir. – Oldcat Jan 29 '14 at 21:48
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It was close enough, at least his openly favoring Boromir (see quotes below).


The reason Denethor was this way wasn't entirely his character, but the effects of looking into Sauron-influenced Palantir.


First, Faramir/Boromir:

'Yet a Halfling still,' said Denethor grimly, 'and little love do I bear the name, since those accursed words came to trouble our counsels and drew away my son on the wild errand to his death. My Boromir! Now we have need of you. Faramir should have gone in his stead.'

...

... in Boromir whom he loved best. (Gandalf to Pippin).


And later, in direct exchange with Faramir:

'So be it!' cried Denethor. 'But not with your death only, Lord Faramir: with the death also of your father, and of all your people, whom it is your part to protect now that Boromir is gone.'
'Do you wish then,' said Faramir, 'that our places had been exchanged?'
'Yes, I wish that indeed,' said Denethor. 'For Boromir was loyal to me and no wizard's pupil. He would have remembered his father's need, and would not have squandered what fortune gave. He would have brought me a mighty gift.'

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    Damn, DVK, how do I disable that notifier of yours? – TLP Mar 3 '12 at 2:12
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    I think the characterization is all wrong in the movies. He comes across as a cruel buffoon, while in the books he is wise -- it's just that he is collapsing. Also, it's made clear he actually loves Faramir. He is just bitter about losing Boromir. Movie version Denethor is a total miss, sadly. – Andres F. Mar 3 '12 at 3:23
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    @AndresF. Movie version of Lotr is a total miss. =) Everyone is a buffoon except Gandalf and Aragorn. I was especially disappointed with how inane they made Pippin, Merry and Treebeard. – TLP Mar 3 '12 at 3:31
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    As I recall, they were serious and resourceful, confronting Frodo about his secret and real partners in "the fellowship", and at the end, helping restore Shire. Nothing like the two juvenile rascals in the movies. Sam was simple, although in a much more charming way than in the movies. – TLP Mar 3 '12 at 14:34
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    @DVK Pippin doesn't strike me as a fool. He does foolish things, but sometimes shows wisdom as well. Pippin's oath of loyalty to Denethor is regarded as a risky but good move by Gandalf... in the books. This is because Gandalf regards Denethor as a wise and powerful lord, if misguided in his grief, and a heartfelt oath is a good thing. Whereas everything Gandalf does in the movie is show scorn at Denethor, when not physically attacking him. – Andres F. Mar 4 '12 at 0:41

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