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Aragorn From The Lord Of The Rings Was Almost Completely Different

There are many, many faces that make up Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy — as to be expected when the titular fellowship of the first film, "The Fellowship of the Ring," contains nine protagonists. Among them are Ian McKellen's Gandalf with his big beard and bushy eyebrows, Elijah Wood's baby-faced Frodo, Orlando Bloom's stoic and graceful Legolas, and John Rhys-Davies' humorous yet loyal Gimli. And then, of course, there's Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn, the returned king of Gondor. 

Many of the actors have become inseparable from their on-screen equivalents in the eyes of viewers, and Mortensen is no exception. The Danish-American actor brought a unique and beloved version of the character to the silver screen. From his quiet wisdom to his daring swordsmanship to his fierce loyalty, Mortensen's Aragorn is a perfect picture of the reluctant leader called to lead. He's the epitome of a wise, capable king willing to risk it all and give everything for his people. And yet, for all that Mortensen has come to be associated with his role in "The Lord of the Rings," he actually wasn't Peter Jackson's original choice for the part. In fact, he wasn't even on the cast list when the cameras started rolling for the first days of filming.

The part of Aragorn underwent a last-minute recasting

Dominic Monaghan, who plays Frodo's friend Merry in the epic fantasy trilogy, reflected on the huge casting change in a 2021 interview with the Manchester Evening News. When Peter Jackson and company originally cast the films, it was the Irish actor Stuart Townsend who was chosen for the role of Aragorn. Townsend prepared for filming and even flew down to New Zealand to start shooting in the idyllic countryside that would soon become synonymous with Middle-earth. But he was gone a week later, reportedly due to Jackson deciding Townsend just wasn't right for the role. "We were all stunned," Monaghan said.

But it had nothing to do with Townsend's acting — the problem came with his age, as Viggo Mortensen later explained in an interview (via Yahoo Entertainment). Despite being "a great actor," Townsend was just 27 years old when he arrived on set. This may not sound too young for a warrior character, but it was difficult to see the venerable, aged wisdom of the 87-year-old Aragorn in the face of a twenty-something actor from Ireland. In fact, for comparison, Townsend was the same age as the youthful hobbit actors surrounding him on the set.

It was a similarity that didn't look right to Jackson, and he made the difficult decision to recast Aragorn even as filming was beginning. Even then, as he restarted his search — this time looking for an older actor — Mortensen wasn't the next person in line for the role. The director had already offered the job to multiple big-wig celebrities, including Russell Crowe and Daniel Day-Lewis (via Yahoo Entertainment). Of course, at the time, Jackson wasn't a world-famous director. He was helming a project in a fantasy genre that was still in its infancy, and the big-name actors turned the role down. So his search for an older face finally led Jackson to the lesser-known Mortensen, who got a call after Townsend had been let go.

Viggo Mortensen initially hesitated to take the role

As Viggo Mortensen revealed in his interview with Yahoo Entertainment, when he got the call offering him the role as Aragorn, the actor hesitated. He felt "awkward" about the sudden change so late in the production process and waffled back and forth about whether or not to take the gig. But a family member famously helped to tip the scales in favor of accepting the part (via Collider). Mortensen's son, who was an avid fan of J.R.R. Tolkien's writings, convinced his dad to take on the gargantuan role of the exiled king, launching him into the global spotlight in the process.

Mortensen said he immediately headed south and arrived in New Zealand to start filming. While he had a lot of catching up to do, he was able to start with some non-verbal scenes, including the fight sequence with the Black Riders on Weathertop and the shot where he's seen smoking in the corner in the Prancing Pony (via Yahoo Entertainment). "I was grateful that I wasn't thrown right into a dialogue scene," he recalled. But once he warmed up to the role, he settled right in. 

Mortensen went on to share that he later ended up running into the man he replaced several years after the films were completed, crossing paths with Stuart Townsend by chance. Thankfully, any previous awkwardness seemed to have dissipated by then, as Mortensen said, "I did run into Stuart briefly on the street and said hello. He seemed like a very nice guy, and he's obviously a very fine actor. It's just one of those things that happens in our business, you know?"

The situation certainly was unfortunate for Townsend, and we'll never get to know what his iteration of the character would have been like. But it turns out that regardless of the actor playing him, the Aragorn that Peter Jackson imagined is also quite different from the one fans of Tolkien's books see charging around Middle-earth.

Peter Jackson's Aragorn is still different from Tolkien's

It doesn't matter if you're talking about Viggo Mortensen's actual portrayal of Aragorn or Stuart Townsend's potential version of the member of the Númenórean royal family. Whatever way you slice it, Peter Jackson's on-screen adaptation of the exiled king is quite different from J.R.R. Tolkien's own breakdown of the character in several ways.

Some of these changes are minor. For instance, Mortensen's iconic beard is non-canonical. This was clarified by Tolkien in a letter to a fan in 1972. In addition, the book "The Nature of Middle Earth" definitively states that men normally had beards, but due to a racial characteristic unique to Aragorn's bloodline, he doesn't have any shaggy scruff.

Other differences in the transition from Tolkien to Jackson's adaptation are more significant. For instance, the register of "The Lord of the Rings" is from the perspective of hobbits — their presence in most of the scenes provides the reader with a relatable viewpoint from which to engage with the story. This means that in the books, Aragorn comes across as a larger-than-life character who is able to save the day and is a confident and fearless leader, because that's how the hobbits see him. In Jackson's films, though, Aragorn is brought down to a level that the viewer can personally relate to. This dramatically changes the feel of the character, reducing him to an insecure and uncertain man who struggles to decide what he should do when it comes to his calling to be king.

Both of these versions are fascinating and compelling in their own way, and even some Tolkien purists will admit that Mortensen's older, more down-to-earth, experienced vibe is great — even if it's completely different from the source material.