We were all saddened by the passing of Christopher Lee this week and since he was so amazing at playing villains, I thought we could compare two of his most iconic roles to learn what goes into making a stellar antagonist! This post will analyze the differences between Saruman and Count Dooku.
We all know Saruman was the better villain, but the question is WHY?
So let’s look at what made Saruman so awesome in his archetype and then see how Dooku measured up in those same qualities.
(Disclaimer: Though I’ve read the Lord of the Rings books, I’m working off the Lord of the Rings movies, simply because I’m much more familiar with them.)
There’s a build up for Saruman. The first wizard we meet is Gandalf and we get a strong sense that this character is powerful.
All of a sudden, the Ring comes into play and now we’re faced with a situation not only makes Gandalf visibly afraid, but which he admits he cannot handle on his own.
He has to travel to see the “head of his order” who is “both wise and powerful.” When we meet Saruman, he isn’t just some wizard we’re told is a big deal, we personally FEEL that he’s a big deal as a result of our relationship with Gandalf. Since we respect Gandalf, we identify with his fear of the Ring and automatically trust his esteem for Saruman. Because of how powerful we assume Gandalf is, we can only wonder what the head of his order must be like.
All this lays the groundwork for the next stage the development of Saruman as a villain.
Very soon after we meet Saruman, he betrays Gandalf and takes him prisoner.
Not only does is this a betrayal of a character we deeply care about, but Saruman does this at a crucial moment. Frodo desperately needs Gandalf, and to an even greater degree, Middle Earth needs him. With Saruman’s new allegiance, not only has Sauron gained himself an extremely capable ally, but that ally has captured one of the biggest obstacles to the cause. Not only is Gandalf powerful in his own right, but he’s the only other person in Middle Earth besides Frodo and Sam who knows about the Ring and the possible return of Sauron.
Saruman has dealt quite the blow. And ALL of it happened within the first few minutes we met him.
While we’re on the topic of his alliance with Sauron, Saruman’s goals are not just hypothetical to us. We saw what Sauron was like when he was at the height of his power. We witnessed what it took to overthrow him.
All of this has been further reinforced by Gandalf’s reaction to finding the Ring. We know exactly what to expect if Saruman succeeds and we have a very real fear of it.
Lord of the Rings does an amazing job building up what it means to ally yourself with Sauron. We get a strong sense early on that you’d have to be a complete fool to think that Sauron would share his power with you. We see the kinds of disgusting lifeforms who side with him. We see those who give into his tools of temptation getting themselves killed or becoming monsters.
The amount of greed you’d need to let yourself be blinded by everything we’ve seen is off the charts. Yet we see that greed in a man whom we were told was so wise.
We see the company he begins to keep.
We even see the corruption he inflicts on his environment.
Saruman’s evil comes in the form of signs we can both see and feel. We don’t have to imagine or assume, it’s happening right in front of us.
Last but not least, Saruman is portrayed as a strong, capable villain. He beats Gandalf in a one on one staff battle (which counts for a lot in the wizard world apparently?. From causing avalanches on Caradhras to building an army of mutant super orcs, he more than shows that he’s a force to be reckoned with.
Count Dooku doesn’t make an appearance in Attack of the Clones until an hour and fifteen minutes into the movie.
When something like this happens, it’s a sign that you did NOT succeed in the cardinal “show, don’t tell” rule. Chances are, all the groundwork you laid for this villain occurred through exposition instead of action.
Sure enough, the first real mention of Dooku is Padme’s insistence that Dooku was behind the assassination attempt that we saw at the beginning of the movie. We don’t see him, we just hear him talked about. Not only do we have zero context for Padme’s accusation, but it’s even dismissed by the other characters as nonsensical. Count Dooku used to be a Jedi, he wouldn’t do that. He has “always avoided any kind of conflict.”
So… this guy is NOT a threat then. Great. Then I will move forward assuming he’s not a threat.
Thumps up, George. A fine first impression for your movie’s villain.
Dooku used to be a Jedi, then he wasn’t. He’s one of the Lost Twenty who left the Jedi Order. How do I know this?
Conveniently, there is a monologue explaining it in the middle of a scene that has literally nothing to do with Dooku whatsoever. (Note: this monologue ends with this actual transition: “Well, I’m sure you didn’t call me over here for a history lesson. Are you having a problem, Master Kenobi?” Just. Wow.)
There was an unfortunate and undoubtedly dramatic event in the past where Dooku left the Jedi Order. But we don’t see any of it.
In fact, we don’t see Dooku doing ANYTHING wrong until the Geonosians capture Obi Wan halfway into the movie. What follows is the first clear indication of how we’re supposed to feel about this villain. Dooku walks into the room and Obi Wan shouts: “Traitor!”
Thanks for telling us, Obi.
Dooku’s cause could not be more abstract and meaningless. No groundwork has been laid for what the unity of the Galactic Republic means, so why would we care if there’s a Separatist movement? Other than, of course, obvious historical associations…
The whole thing is confusing. Palpatine is playing the politicians against each other by having Dooku supporting secession, which IS a threat apparently, but also is really just a puppet cause for Palpatine to leverage more power for himself? What would happen if Dooku got what he wanted? Or… apparently Dooku’s right that the Senate is corrupt if they’re being manipulated like this, so maybe Dooku is right? Which means what? Why does he want to secede again?
Dooku’s goals do nothing for the audience. It’s too unclear and complex. We’re shown no consequences whatsoever for any of the possible outcomes.
The worst we see from Dooku’s personality when we do finally meet him is his attempt to weasel out of stating his true intentions when he’s talking to a captured Obi Wan. He’s a politician. A little slimy and underhanded. The company he keeps isn’t the really bad guys, but just the pathetic wusses from the first movie.
Here’s a good rule of thumb:
Good villains make us point at say, “THAT is WRONG.”
Even ambiguous villains are at their best when we vehemently condemn them one moment and then question ourselves the next.
After the blatant superficial villain of Darth Maul in the first movie, the writers were clearly going for something more subtle, but they ended up not giving us ANYTHING to hate or fear. Dooku was too inactive for us to feel anything towards him.
Even here, Dooku falls short. After Darth Maul’s double sided lightsaber, we were all expecting something extraordinary, but all we got was a regular lightsaber with a curved hilt.
Not very exciting.
The only thing he has going for him is Force Lightning, which is definitely cool. But even though he’s the first Sith we’ve seen use it besides Palpatine, it is ultimately something we’ve seen already. And at the end of the day, it’s used much more as a vehicle to demonstrate how powerful Yoda is than to show much about Dooku.
You guys didn’t see a problem that? Nothing at all?
Dooku was a filler villain. The movie needed an antagonist, so they cooked up an antagonist. The personality he received wasn’t filled with any particularly strong vices like greed or two-facedness. Since his cause was a stepping-stone cause that we weren’t supposed to care about in and of itself, we didn’t, and therefore we didn’t care about him either. Everything interesting about the character wasn’t shown but just referenced to us through narration.
On the other hand, Saruman was carefully crafted for us even before we met him. So much of the character was built off of our relationship with Gandalf, his foil. Our knowledge of Sauron and our emotional relationship with him was fully integrated into making us fear his number one crony (which Attack of the Clones had a clear opportunity to do with Dooku and Palpatine, but failed to take advantage of). Every action Saruman took was relevant to plot, often in ways that shocked us. We were given display after display of what Saruman’s villainy consisted of in a real visceral way.
Not even the great Christopher Lee could save the pathetic flub that was Count Dooku. It just goes to show no matter how much flashiness and talent you layer on top of a bad story, it won’t help. Nothing can replace quality storytelling.
The Lord of the Rings series was a huge part of my development as a writer, but even before Saruman, as a kid, I’d known Christopher Lee as the Man with a Golden Gun. He was a real film icon and his loss is a big hit to the industry. He will be sorely missed on the big screen.
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