After my recent reread of the Lord of the Rings, I also decided to watch Peter Jackson’s movies again. I didn’t get very far (yet), but I did get through the opening scene in the first movie. And that made me think of Sauron, and how he is portrayed in the movies and the books.
Surely, we see a brilliant villain in the character of Sauron. He is malevolent and devious, stopping at nothing but complete conquest. And yet, he is not entirely bad. He was once good and fell into the darkness as everyone else — no one is entirely evil in that world, or rather, no one began as evil.
The story and look into his history we get in the Silmarillion is really worth it, and I think that knowing that allows me to think a bit more critically of how Peter Jackson made him look in the movies, and I do not entirely agree with that way. The Sauron present in Lord of the Rings is only a part of the entire character, and I am not certain he is the better part (better as in more interesting).
Of Peter Jackson’s Sauron: I’ll start by pointing out that nowhere can we actually read that Sauron’s was as tall as they made him be. Indeed, there’s plenty to allow us to think that his human form looked as any man or elf would (at least in the earlier part of the Second Age before the Fall of Númenor). There is no reason to believe that his later malevolent form was any taller than that, and it seems to be just an easy way that Mr Jackson has followed : oh, he is the villain, let’s give him black armour and make him twice as tall as anyone else.
The black armour itself I do not object to: it is hardly likely that Gorthaur the Cruel would have worn anything else. The mace? Maybe. I am slightly uncertain about the weapon, although Melkor used a mace and it is not unlikely to have his apprentice follow in the very same footsteps.
Of Sauron himself, I quite enjoy him as a character. As I mentioned before, he appears now and then in Silmarillion and he is more instrumental there. He is also present in the Akallabêth, and we can see the more deceptive manipulative self of his in that record of the Second Age. I find that the Sauron we are confronted with in the Third Age, though being his own master, is the least interesting of these. This last one is solely bent on strength and power, and has seemingly lost the plotting side.
The Sauron of the First Age (that I would define and separate from the others by calling him Gorthaur) was an interesting creature. I like him best, and that solely comes from his encounter with Finrod Felagund where they fight each other. Indeed, the deceptiveness of this character makes him quite fun to read about. This same deceptiveness also works for him in the court of the kings of Númenor making that era quite interesting. It is somewhat of a loss that we lack that interesting side in the Third Age.
As a short aside, I quite like imagining what the force of Ar-Pharazôn the Golden must have looked like for Sauron to submit without trying to resist. That host must have been without equal at that time (or Sauron must have been so clever to know that submission would give him greater power — which is also very possible).
However, Sauron the Great is also of some interest in his multiple roles as the Necromancer and the Eye. The manipulations that he plays upon Saruman and others are no smaller than the ones in previous eras although we learn of these through other characters.
So, when we look at Sauron in his evil black armour and twice the length of man, let’s remember that he used to be graceful and elegant, and that his cruelty was of a different kind in a bygone era. And, yet, even he was not entirely evil for in the beginning it would have been difficult to distinguish what later became Sauron from what later became Gandalf.