It’s hard to overstate the soaring achievement of Peter Jackson and company in The Return of the King, the third and final chapter of their historic adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. To call it the grandest spectacle ever filmed is no exaggeration; it may also be the most satisfying third act of any film trilogy, completing what can now be regarded as possibly the best realized cinematic trilogy of all time.
In a genre that never before had a single really good film, Jackson and his collaborators have produced three outstanding films telling a single epic story. In a way, their achievement parallels that of Tolkien himself, whose monumental trilogy was also the first in its class, and in some ways has never been equalled.
To these accolades I would add one more: Jackson’s The Return of the King has replaced The Fellowship of the Ring as my favorite in the series, and is arguably the best of the three. Certainly it’s the most ambitious; it may also be the most emotionally affecting, and perhaps the most flawless.
Its faults, such as they are, are generally of omission, not commission. Compared with the first two theatrical releases, no characterization or locale in The Return of the King is as troubling to me as, for example, Galadriel and Lothlórien in Fellowship, or Faramir and Théoden in The Two Towers. Granted that the extended editions of the earlier films go a long way toward redeeming their problems, with The Return of the King there are only missing moments and events I hope to see restored, not disconcerting characterizations I hope to see redeemed.
The Return of the King also displays some of Tolkien’s most overtly Catholic themes and motifs. Frodo, walking his via dolorosa bearing a great burden on behalf of the whole world, has here his moments of greatest resemblance to Christ, while also decisively embodying human failure and dependence upon divine providence and grace. Also, in the confrontation with Shelob, deferred from The Two Towers, Frodo has a kind of death and resurrection.
Aragorn, the hidden king who is finally revealed in glory, is another messianic figure; his journey down the Paths of the Dead echoes the Harrowing of Hell, while the oath-breaking spirits whom he there confronts, who must expiate their treason before they can rest in peace, suggest a kind of purgatorial state.
For Tolkien fans, this film, and this trilogy, is a treasure. For all Jackson’s reimaginings and elaborations, for all he does and does not do, Tolkien’s saga is in these films honored beyond all reasonable hope.
Certainly it’s Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings as much as it is Tolkien’s. The director’s fingerprints are everywhere, notably in his flair for the hyperdramatic. Jackson’s fundamental instinct is always to ramp up the drama and conflict to the nth degree — never to use ten orcs if a thousand will do, nor to let a character die a sudden death if it can instead be a big action set piece.
Sometimes this results in a brilliantly heightened reimagining of Tolkien’s work, as when in The Two Towers Gandalf’s rousing of Théoden becomes something much more like an exorcism, with Saruman leagues distant physically thrown back by Gandalf’s assault. Something similar happens in Return of the King with the Paths of the Dead: It’s not the way Tolkien wrote it, but it ingeniously represents the essence of the episode in the movie’s own cinematic idiom.
Other times, Jackson’s contribution is simply to transform what Tolkien wrote into spectacularly exciting cinema. For example, in Fellowship Jackson (and the Weta effects wizards) transformed the confrontation between Gandalf and the Balrog into an immense set piece described by Jeffrey Overstreet of ChristianityToday.com as "the greatest thirty minutes of action adventure ever filmed." Likewise, in Two Towers the siege of Helm’s Deep only a year ago seemed the most spectacular siege sequence of all time — but now, astonishingly, seems a mere skirmish measured against this film’s siege of Minas Tirith and battle of the Pelennor Fields.
One might say that, in translating Tolkien’s work to the screen, Jackson has transposed it into another register, that of the Hollywood action-adventure. Yet the spirit of Tolkien’s work is honored in the transposition — imperfectly, yes, but brilliantly and transcendently in what it accomplishes, from the Shire with its bucolic charm to Gollum’s emaciated frame and spidery gait, from the Nazgûl, the very embodiments of terror, to the wonderful strangeness of Treebeard and the Ents.
To these wonders must now be added one of the most awesome and evocative imaginative architectural achievements in any film: Minas Tirith, the White City, with its seven tiers and tower pointing to the sky. Nothing in Jackson’s Middle-earth rivals it, not even the splendor of Rivendell or the dark might of Isengard and Orthanc. Only the Shire itself, and Edoras, the hilltop capital of Rohan, are as compellingly and unforgettably realized, but for grandeur neither matches Minas Tirith.
The Return of the King also succeeds in making frightening again images that in The Two Towers had lost much of their terror. The Nazgûl, so fearsome on their black horses in The Fellowship of the Ring, were somehow less so on their winged steeds in The Two Towers, but those fell beasts make an altogether different impression this time around. The Eye of Sauron, which in The Two Towers seemed reduced to a mere special effect, has become here a vigilant attentiveness watchfully probing Middle-earth like a searchlight.
For all this, the filmmakers don’t allow the story and characters to be overwhelmed by the action or the effects. In this third film, all the plot threads come satisfyingly together, including long-deferred events from earlier chapters — the reforging of Isildur’s sword; the confrontation with Shelob — that are so neatly incorporated into the third film that Jackson’s decision to defer them is thoroughly vindicated. (Only the final confrontation of Gandalf and Saruman, omitted from The Two Towers, is cruelly still further delayed, and won’t be seen until next year’s Return of the King extended edition.)
Nor does the film lose track of individual characters, from the hobbits to the humans. Amid all the action are moments of humanity both cheering and chilling: a crowd of men cheering Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan) in an exuberant tabletop dance; Pippin reluctantly singing a hauntingly beautiful song of the Shire (written by Boyd himself) at Denethor’s request, while far away Faramir (David Wenham) leads a doomed charge toward Osgiliath.
The hobbits, especially, are better utilized here than in the last film. Frodo (Elijah Wood), Sam (Sean Astin) are much closer to the center of the story, and get some of the trilogy’s most affecting moments, including a heartbreaking scene halfway up the slope of Cirith Ungol. Merry and Pippin, freed from Treebeard’s swaying upper branches, come most fully into their own in this film.
One bit of creative license at an extremely crucial moment is bound to be controversial among purists. Essentially, the twist reflects Jackson’s preference for the hyperdramatic; fortunately, what matters most about the scene as Tolkien wrote it holds true in Jackson’s version.
I said that the film’s faults were basically faults of omission. Looking back at the trilogy as a Tolkien fan, what I most regret, apart from a few missteps, are small but significant moments that would have deepened the characters appreciably.
I regret that Gimli’s devotion to Galadriel is forgotten after the first film; one scene with Gimli fiercely defending his Lady’s honor among men ignorantly murmuring against her would have gone a long way toward rounding out the non-comic relief side of his character. I miss small moments like Gandalf’s comment to Pippin, after the hobbit offers his fealty to Denethor, that it was a generous deed that should not be checked by cold counsel, and Pippin’s cheerful exchange with a young boy of Minas Tirith who mistakes the hobbit for a lad and threatens to stand him on his head.
The films will never replace the books, that’s for sure. (On the contrary, they’re sending readers to the books in droves. Sales of Lord of the Rings books have sharply spiked in the last two years, and last year they narrowly outsold Harry Potter, according to figures from Publisher’s Weekly.)
But the films also are irreplaceable. More than merely honoring their source material, with their glorious imagery and fine performances the films have for me forever enriched the experience of reading the books. For all that the films don’t do, I still have Tolkien; for all that they do, the books themselves can be enjoyed on a new level. This film, and this trilogy, is a gift to be treasured.
Already the longest of the three films, The Return of the King is now the most expanded, with a whopping 50 minutes of new footage — far more than the previous two.
Unfortunately, this isn’t all good news. Where the first two EEs essentially enhanced the theatrical versions of the films without doing any clear harm, this third and final installment of the Lord of the Rings saga has the regrettable distinction of being the first EE both to enhance and to detract from the theatrical version.
On the one hand, there are a number of important additions that help complete Tolkien’s story, most especially the dramatic confrontation of Gandalf and Saruman at Isengard (conflated with Saruman and Wormtongue’s tragic final conflict); the Houses of Healing and Eowyn and Faramir’s meeting; and Aragorn’s dramatic self-revelation to Sauron. I also appreciate a number of smaller additions, including Frodo and Sam being briefly caught up in an orc patrol, Merry being sworn into Théoden’s service, the crossroads of the kings, and Sam’s lone star, far beyond the Shadow.
On the other hand, for the first time there are also additions that harm the film; and it is no longer possible to say, as I did in the main body of my review, that the film’s faults are generally "of omission, not commission." Among the most glaring faults: a scene in which an enemy shatters Gandalf’s staff (tantamount to heresy in Tolkien’s framework); an over-the-top, completely inappropriate action-horror movie effect at the end of the Paths of the Dead; a graceless drinking-game gag, capped with a tagline from 1970s arcade-game culture; and a dishearteningly barbarous resolution to the interview with the Mouth of Sauron at Black Gate.
The additions also create narrative problems. On the Pelennor battlefield, where Tolkien had Theoden die without knowing that Eowyn lay beside him, Jackson originally inserted a touching farewell scene, but omitted Eowyn’s coma and her subsequent restoration at the Houses of Healing. That was fine as far as it went; but now that he’s added Eowyn’s coma and the Houses of Healing, the farewell scene makes no sense.
To be fair, one can sometimes see the dramatic reasoning behind some of these changes, even the most unfortunate, the shattering of Gandalf’s staff. Quite simply, the White Wizard with his staff had become so powerful — particularly against the winged Nazgûl, which he could drive off with a beam of light — that the filmmakers felt it robbed the Nazgûl of menace and the story of urgency. Take Black Gate, where the winged Nazgûl are countered only by the arrival of the Eagles. If Gandalf could just have driven them off anyway, the arrival of the Eagles wouldn’t be so important. That’s not to say I condone the shattering of Gandalf’s staff, but at least I understand dramatically why they did it.
One of the smaller changes I most appreciate is the reintroduction of a line from the book that in my review above I mentioned having missed in the film: Gandalf’s concession to Pippin, after the latter had offered his services to Denethor, that "Generous deed should not be checked by cold counsel." Absent this acknowledgment, Pippin’s offer of service comes off as only another case of extravagant hobbit foolishness, rather than an act of true nobility and generosity. I don’t even mind that the EE gives the line to Faramir rather than Gandalf.
It’s a shame that after two such sure-footed expansions of the earlier films, they had to stumble on the very last installment of the series. Even so, despite the drawbacks, the Extended Edition has too much going for it for me to do without. I don’t suppose I’ll ever watch the theatrical version of the film again.
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Lately I’ve been rereading your reviews of The Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies, and after reading your “Extended Edition” notes for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. I’m wondering about whether or not you still agree about what you said of the theatrical version of The Return of the King and the trilogy as a whole. Too make it short, did the Extended Edition of The Return of the King ruin the whole trilogy for you?
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