The grand epic of Lord of the Rings comes to its final chapter, Return of the King, next week (Unless you’re lucky like me and saw a press screening). All the deep questions will finally be answered: Will Frodo be able to free Willy — I mean destroy the ring? Will Legolas the elf or Gimli the dwarf win the battle-scene body-count? Will Aragorn ever stop day-dreaming about Arwen and just kiss the girl?
For those who have read J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterful books, and frankly anyone who knows anything about movie magic, the answers are clear. Han Solo and company knocked out the shield generator so the Rebel Alliance could attack and ultimately destroy the Death Star. Neo would overcome bullets and bytes to defeat Agent Smith and save Zion. Despite sharks, jellyfish, and flesh-eating gulls a father’s desperate search comes to a happy end when he finally finds Nemo.
As Middle Earth hangs in the balance, the question isn’t if our heroes will succeed, it’s how they’ll pull it off.
(let’s go to the extended entry for the spoiler-filled ROTK talk)
Of course our heroes will succeed in a manner true to the book, but it’s a long and fast-paced journey that leaves a lot of original plot lines by the wayside. Ultimately, I think the movie still rocks, but only because it’s backed by the complete story of the book.
The flick opens with a pre-ring Smeagol fishing with his brother Deagol, who actually finds the ring. The purpose of the whole scene is to show the destructive power of the ring that turned Smeagol from a gentle hobbit to the wretch that is Gollum. But it’s a really weird sequence, and I don’t think it’s set up very well. It’s an odd way to start the movie. [Update: This scene is actually based on a story Gandalf tells Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring, that I actually just came across while re-reading the book. Though it remains very true to the book, its placement in the movie seemed odd to me.] But no matter, onward!
The biggest plot holes sucked up Eowyn and Faromir, and the hobbits Merry and Pippin. There’s no attempt to hide the fact that Eowyn rides off to battle with the boys of Rohan. She still has her climactic fight against the Witch King, aided by Merry, but at the end of the battle the entire houses of healing bit is gone. In fact, both Merry and Pippin ride off to the Black Gate with Aragorn’s war party. Eowyn and Faromir mysteriously show up side by side like grinning lovers at Aragorn’s crowning, but there’s not even a hint of explanation how that happened.
Obviously these scenes took up too much time and were cut (I read an early cut of the film ran 4 hours and 15 minutes), or were completely left out of the script, but I think they would have given the film a little more emotional depth and better pacing. Of course my butt may not agree with me after 4 hours in a movie theater.
The final departure from the book comes at the end. The end of the movie dissolves into nearly a half hour of tearful hellos and goodbyes. But rather than simple transitions, each scene fades to black in a kind of mock ending, as if it’s Jackson’s way of acknowledging that he can’t do a real ending.
Frodo and Sam collapse on the side of Mount Doom. Fade. Frodo and Sam are saved by the eagles. Fade. Frodo wakes up and is reunited with the Fellowship. Fade. Aragorn is crowned king, Arwen shows up and they finally kiss. Fade. The hobbits return to the shire (more on this in a minute). Fade. Sam marries Rosie. Fade. Bilbo, Gandalf and Frodo head off to the Grey Havens. Fade. Sam returns home with Rosie, Elanor, and what I can guess is baby Frodo (I think Sam only has one child in the book by the time Frodo sets off, but he does mention wanting to name a son Frodo). Fade. Credits. Finally.
Two things stuck me as odd about the ending. First, they abandoned the entire scouring of the Shire bit where Saruman shows up at the end. I loved this ending to the book because it stretches things out. Tolkien is a reader just like us, and he doesn’t want the tale to end with the major battle either, so he stretches things out a little longer and gives us one more adventure. It would have taken another hour to pull this off in the movie, so I understand why they cut it. It’s also easier to unwind from a movie than it is from a book, so it’s not as necessary.
So instead of cleaning up the Shire, the hobbits return home and find nothing changed, and they sadly receive no recognition for their heroic quest. It’s an interesting concept that they return to anonymity, especially after Aragorn’s comment at the coronation ceremony that the hobbits should bow to no one.
But it doesn’t jive. The Shire continues to be the sheltered and protected place it was before the war of the ring, and there’s no change.
But despite all the changes, I’m still thrilled with the movie. Again, I think it’s because I know the full story, I just didn’t see it all on screen. Maybe the extended DVD will give us a taste, but either way, I’m still happy with the books.
I think the most amazing part of the movie is how quickly all the little film making tricks were swallowed up by the story. In the first film the big story was how they made the hobbits appear three feet tall. In the second film the CGI wonder of Gollum and Treebeard drew the headlines. But this time around you’re too busy watching the story unfold to notice those elements, though they appear even more than in the other films.
You can bet I’ll be reading the books again as soon as I can.
(And here’s the much better article I wrote about the movie.)