Film 2019: The Lord of the Rings – The Return of the King

Three Decembers, three parts of a story, three family trips. I’ll always remember The Lord of the Rings trilogy that way, for the moments at which the story ends for another year, and the moments of wondering how and where Peter Jackson will resume things.

As a film, The Return of the King is monumental, and that comes before the Extended Edition, which comes to almost four hours. It is not without moments at which the concentration wavers slightly, as it is bound to do on a Sunday morning, and on one on which days of perfect skies have cometo rain and thunder and greyness.

But the film gathers weight and dimension as it progresses, eliding into the High Fantasy mode, until it is not possible to resist its momentum, nor be moved by the stakes it presents. As such, I find myself less able to approach the film with any kind of critical eye. I am audience, drawn in, moved in so many directions, feeling the experience rather than responding intellectually. So many times and places in which tears gathered at the corner of my eyes.

Which does not mean that I can’t be critical, just that the film is awe-inspiring to a greater degree than its two predecessors, and that overall I do not feel it possible to do an adaptation of this part of the book that could be more faithful, and as effective, as Jackson and Co.

Changes there are, and plenty, but like The Fellowship of the Ring, these consist mainly of stream-lining, playing to the visual experience. Some things are missing, minor scenes and characters omitted. Some things are diminished: I would have liked to see more of Eowyn and Faramir’s falling in love, if only to see more of Miranda Otto, but this was downsized so as not to compete with Aragorn and Arwen, which is a bit more important.

The biggest omission is the Scouring of the Shire chapter, and like Tom Bombadil, I think on balance that Jackson was right. What works in the book won’t necessarily apply to film. By the time we get to the Hobbits’ return to the Shire, several chapters have passed, as has story time. Thus this can be thrown up as a sort of Last Battle without detracting from the true climax, the Ring going into the fire. That’s not possible in the film, even with the extended sequence of farewells Jackson employs. Instead, Frodo and Co return to an unchanged Shire, the undisturbable paradise, and this emphasises what Frodo cannot go back to.

The film started very cleverly with a flashback to Deogol and Smeagol – Andy Serkis looking and nearly sounding like Andy Serkis instead  of Gollum – which I liked very much. The Theatre version then picks up the story without reference to Saruman, Grima Wormtongue and Treebeard, all of whom disappear into complete silence, a serious omission in the case of the former.

We’d heard that Jackson had filmed an ending for Saruman that he’d left out of The Two Towers for length, and then left out of The Return of the King because it belonged to The Two Towers, causing a serious rift with Christopher Lee. It’s in the Extended Edition and Jackson’s right. It looks an feels wrong, it’s an unwanted appendage, a hindrance to the third film getting going. and it’s a pretty naff write-off of Saruman, switching his actual death in the Shire forward to a point where it has so much less context and inevitability.

The other major change, so far as I am concerned, is to the climax in Mount Doom. Jackson is utterly faithful, to a point, though I regret the loss of the line about ‘I do not choose to do what I came here to do’ in favour of the cheap and blunt ‘The Ring is mine.’ But once Gollum bites off Frodo’s finger and gets the ring, it all goes wrong. Gollum capers and dances. He does it silently, which is a mistake immediately. And he’s so oblivious to his whereabouts, to anything but his Precious, that he capers over the edge, taking the Ring to its destruction, doing the one thing Frodo, at the very last, did not have the strength to do.

It’s a magnificent ending, a game-changer, The Frodo Principle, the hero who does everything he can, but who succeeds by getting the burden to somewhere where another can step in. But it’s not Hollywood. It’s not all-action, not the leading man’s triumph, and as William Goldman pointed oout, you go to protect the star. There must be nothing to diminish him, to make him complex. So Frodo gets up, wrestles with Gollum and both of thenm go over the edge, robbing Gollum of his last shred of responibility, undermining Gandalf’s foresight and Bilbo’s pity, and requiring a literal and entirely cheap cliffhanger to rescue Frodo.

I understand why they did it but, like Faramir in The Two Towers, I profoundly disagree.

Yet I am overwhelmed, every time I see the film. And this Sunday has been no exception. There won’t be a Film 2020, except maybe for a few holdovers, DVDs I’ve acquired since, but I’m going to organise myself a couple of Binge days, each trilogy, start to finish. And I would still love to see Jackson do something with The Silmarillion…

29 thoughts on “Film 2019: The Lord of the Rings – The Return of the King

  1. Return of the King is the best film in the trilogy, in my opinion. Most people would say Fellowship of the Ring perhaps, but the scope of this one outdoes the balance of Fellowship. It’s not perfect, but it is deeply impressive, on almost every level.

    I do agree with you about the climax-the best part of the book is that the hero fails. He doesn’t succeed in his task that he’s been working towards since the start. It was a very shocking ending for such a story, but it worked brilliantly.

  2. And in refusing to filming it so, Peter Jackson was contradicting his reasons for changing Faramir in The Two Towers: Frodo hasn’t fought off the influence of the Ring at the last. Hey ho, la di da, la di da.

      1. That’s what people who criticize Tolkien for being simplistic don’t really get. Frodo *blew it*. Really badly. Boromir succumbed to his faults and ended up taking a few arrows in the chest. I agree by somewhat alleviating it they did a disservice to the source material, and I’m surprised no one fought against Jackson’s decision.

  3. If you read Tolkien’s Letters, you’ll see that plenty of people criticised Frodo’s failing, and suggested h should have been executed as a war traitor, but Tolkien defended his forgiveness. Some interesting stuff in thoseLetters if you’ve never read them.

    1. It’s the ring of power. It has consumed anyone who tries to wield it, even Gandalf. I think we can cut Frodo some slack here. Shame that he got the ball all the way to the goal, then kicked the ball right into the stadium. He made it really close, closer than anyone else could have.

      I watch the series every Christmas, and it’s always a journey worth taking. Praise Tolkien.

      1. Oh, absolutely. And it’s a new and underused trope, the Frodo-principle, the hero who lacks the final, impossible stretch to complete the task but who is nevertheless essential to get the object within sight of someone who *can* complete the job. Alan Moore’s Captain Britain and the Fury, lacking the final strength but enabling Captain UK to complete a rescue she couldn’t have managed alone. Frodo is a pure hero.

      2. It added that extra bit of complexity to both Frodo and Gollum. Frodo in general gets downgraded in the movies, hard. Like when he fell down facing the ringwraiths for the first time instead of fighting them as he did in the novel. But this change was the worst, and did its best to ruin the perfect ending of the book. Frodo’s too clean in the movie, and Gollum should have shown us the Return of the Jedi moment–“there is good in him, I know it!”.

  4. Mm. Got to disagree with you there. I also think the ending is perfect in the book, even if it’s a totaly Christian moment: evil will at all times undo itself. Gollum only existed to follow the ring, he had no will other than that. Except to the extent that selfishness is always evil, he was neither good nor evl in that moment. He had the ring, his world was perfect. Only he could take it into the fire because only he could be so consumed by possession and an ultra-joy that he was no longer aware of where he was. There was no good in him, but only he could do that act of good.

  5. JRR Tolkien was a devout Christian. That it permeates almost every aspect of his work is just a fact. One doesn’t have to agree with him to recognize that LOTR is great literature.

    I agree with everything you wrote about Gollum there. I will revise my point to Gollum didn’t turn good at the end (it was basically crushed out of him by the ring), but that it was an interesting choice for Tolkien to have him perform the deed that solves the conflict. It makes the story that much better. Whereas in the Return of the King Movie, they didn’t need a Return of the Jedi moment like I said before. But they can’t have Frodo be responsible for the Ring’s destruction.

    1. Evil will defeat itself, and the Ring, if not Gollum in that moment, was evil, suffused with the evil of Saurton. And it was foreseen as far back at chapter 2 of Fellowship. Ultimately, it was Bilbo’s act of pity towards a pathetic, fallen creature that governed the fate of all.

  6. The Eagles complaint that I’ve heard a lot makes no sense to me. Do people not see the legions of orc archers guarding Barad-dûr?

    1. Tolkien’s own argument, pursued in his collected Letters, is that the use of the Eagles as a last minute deus ex machina would be weakened if they were overused in the book. And aside from your purely practical argument, we have the Winged Nazgul. Tolkien does not at any time suggest the Eagles can match them and I rather think they couldn’t have done.

      1. The biggest problem with this supremely impressive trilogy isn’t a plot hole. It is Frodo‘s characterization. Nothing against Elijah Wood, of course.

    1. Thinking about it more, The Lord of the Rings probably has one of the most satisfying endings in all of literature. And not that many people talk about it. But yeah. It’s not a happy ending in the traditional sense. I think Jackson could have pushed on Frodo’s failure a bit more. It’s implied, of course, that Frodo’s guilt weighs on him, but in this case, I think it might have been better to indicate that somehow.

      Also, yes, Bilbo’s pity won the day. And Frodo’s as well, when he convinced Faramir to spare Gollum’s life in the Forbidden Pool. Mercy and humility.

      The scouring of the Shire would probably have ruined the pacing, as you said. And the point is made that the 4 Hobbits are forever changed by the war, and will never be boys again. So that doesn’t bother me too much. But you’re right, I think, that they whiffed the ending a bit. And that oddly never gets brought up too much in discussions of the film.

      1. The biggest complaint that I hear made about ROTK is that it has too many endings, but as that’s being faithful to the book, I don’t care.

        As far as Frodo post-Mount Doom is concerned, the first thing is that no-one, not one person criticises him for his last minute failure of will, under impossible circumstances. Tolkien deals with this in one of his Letters. No-one, except faithful, loyal, uncritical Sam, sees what happened. Tolkien is convinced that Frodo would have confessed his weakness to at least Gandalf, in Roman Catholic fashion. And been forgiven. In the book, I read Frodo in the Shire as not undercut by guilt, but rather unable to find peace: he was the Ringbeaer, it took him over, then it was destroyed. Frodo stil has an ache for it, not so overwhelming as Gollum, but of the same order. He *cannot* find peace in this world, only in Valinor can he be healed.

        In this context, Valinor is purgatory. Eventually, Frodo, like Bilbo, will die: onlk the Elves are spared the Gift of Death, but they will die cleansed.

        But thinking of it in that light, I am sure you are right. Frodo is sufficiently honest with himself that his mind would have been prey to guilt, that he failed. I know why Jackson changed the ending, but I still disagree with it. Non-fans of the book would have hated it if Gollum alone completed the task: capering about like that, bleedin’ silly, innit?

      2. Right, I wasn’t suggesting that anyone should blame him for it. After all, anyone doing that would have fallen to the Ring’s power long before they reached Mount Doom. His actions still led to the world being saved–Frodo principle. I remember (maybe misremembering) reading in Tolkien’s letters that he talked about it with Aragorn, who didn’t judge him for it in the slightest. But I have to imagine it would be weighing on his mind at least a little bit, even if the psychological scars and physical ones that the Witch King gave him are the main reasons for his departure to Valinor.

        Another interesting strand of thought–the kingdom of men is restored in all its glory…at the moment. I believe Tolkien wrote one day men like Denethor would rule over Gondor once again. Because the forces of evil cannot be permanently stopped, only delayed. Which is a very Catholic notion.

  7. As for the endings…I can’t speak for anyone else but I don’t like to see loose threads flapping about at the end of a 10 hour high fantasy epic adventure.

    1. I know what you mean, and of course I’m perfectly satisfied with the endings (still would have liked it if they could have included the Scouring of the Shire but I do understand why it couldn’t have worked in the film). As for loose ends generally, it depends on the film. Some need to have everything wrapped up tight. Others… It’s the same as my answer to Sharon C all those many many years ago: do you prefer happy endings or sad endings? I prefer *right* endings.

  8. Upon re-watching it, I had some thoughts.

    –I get why they wanted Frodo to go into Shelob’s lair alone. It just makes more dramatic sense that way from a film-making perspective. But ultimately I don’t really believe that Frodo would send Sam away, nor that Sam would actually turn around and go home. It’s a weird one. You can see why they did it, but it’s a bit awkward. Much like how Aragorn’s supposed character arc here is resolved when Elrond pops up with the shards of Narsil.

    –Yeah, upon reflection, the climax to the Lord of the Rings is one of the most satisfying of its kind, ever. Period. So they should have kept it intact, even if the impact is still the same: Frodo failed, and will never recover from his experiences. It’s interesting how many people interpret the Lord of the Rings as a straightforward happy ending, rather than the bittersweet conclusion it actually is.

    –The ghosts, the ghosts, the ghosts. Again, you can see why the abstract material in the book wouldn’t translate well to screen, and why they wouldn’t want to clutter things up with the Dunedain. But it’s much more satisfying that way.

    –Bernard Hill is amazing as Theoden. “I go now to the halls of my fathers, in whose mighty company I shall now not be ashamed.” And Eowyn’s big moment here is almost ripped right off the page.

    1. I half agree and half disagree with you. I would have preferred greater fidelity to the book but I can accept Frodo, worn down by the Ring, manipulated by Gollum, getting paranoidabout his possession of the Ring, but not Sam leaving.

      The book climax is the best and purest but, if you’ve ever read William Goldman’s Adventures in the screentrade (and if you haven’t, why not?) you’ll know the maxim: always protect the hero. He cannot be seen to fail.

      Bernard Hill has always been amazing in everything. Read my review of Boys from the Blackstuff: Yosser’s Story. Watch it, if you can bear it. It is strong stuff.

      1. I was going to say the same thing. I should have said ‘I can see Frodo sending him away, but not Sam actually leaving’.

        Did Jackson actually intend to give Frodo that hero moment? I thought Frodo just wanted the ring back from Gollum, not that he realized what he had to do and heroically pushed Gollum over the edge.

        William Goldman was a genius. Even a ‘fluff’ piece of his like The Princess Bride. Is still brilliantly structured. I’ve read a lot of material on how hard it is to do comedy right.

        I’ll check it out. I love great British crime drama, and it sounds like I’d love the subject matter and themes, too.

  9. Just having Frodo fight back over the Ring is making him the Hero: he didn’t give it up.

    I love The Princess Bride, book AND film.

    Boys from the Blackstuff isn’t crime drama, but social drama, though it concerns the crimes the governnment perpetrated against the people.

    1. Is it? I thought the essence of Frodo’s failure was that of Isildur’s; he couldn’t bring himself to destroy the ring.

      I think it’s really one of the most delightful, cleverest scripts ever written. And that goes for the book too, of course.

      Yes; I misread the Wikipedia summary. Sounds fascinating.

      1. Oh yes, that is the point in the book. Frodo gives all his strength. It just, by the narrowest margin, isn’t quite enough. It was, in its way, a new meme, the Frodo Factor, the hero who fails but by trying his utmost, makes the conclusion possible by other means. So many strands come together in Gollum being so deliriously happy that he carries the Ring into the fire in his oblivious celebrations. Instead, Frodo gets up and fights him, causing him to fall, deliberately or not, which means Frodo himself is responsible for sending the Ring to destruction. Protect the Hero, don’t let him play weakness/defeat.

        All five episodes of Boys from the Blackstuff are brilliant: writing and acting both. If you can, for context, first watch the original play, The Black Stuff. It’s not essential, but it helps. Bear in mind as you watch that this was England in 1981: though I was never directly affected, being in a middle class job, I lived through these times, and I can testify that none of what is done to these people is in any way made up or exaggerated. This was our country then. And all too much of it is our country still, forty years later.

        I videoed it when it was first broadcast. Somehow I understood this was something that needed to be made permanent.

      2. I see. I thought the key thing were that Frodo’s motives were impure, and that he still wanted the ring for himself. You’re right though that the book is just much cleaner. Frodo fails, Gollum carries it over the edge. The end. Rather than the convoluted workings of the film, where he sort of is, sort of isn’t……

        I’m very intrigued. The UK fascinates me in many ways, and this series sounds like it aligns accurately what I’ve read about that particular era. Leaving people out in the cold, and whatnot.

  10. Oh yes. Right at the last moment, the Ring takes over Frodo. You can argue that his fighting to get it back is part of this. But the film blurs things at the very moment Tolkien kept it clear.

    Blackstuff writer Alan Bleasedale was from Liverpool himself. This was his masterpiece. I reviewed it is the run up to Xmas last year. It was not easy watching.

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