The Return of the King (2003)

As with The Two Towers, I waited for the Extended DVD to come out, so I didn't see the film until January 2005.

Most people seem to rate this as the best of the trilogy; I have doubts about it myself.

Good points

As in the second film, the story comes over coherently and comprehensibly. It necessarily jumps between several different threads, but this is well handled and not a problem.

The disappointing elves appear only briefly, and everything else is portrayed convincingly, including Shelob the giant spider, and various other monsters including giant elephants.

The humans continue to be well played, and this time all the hobbits too. As I mentioned when reviewing The Fellowship of the Ring, none of the principal hobbits is as envisaged by Tolkien; but they turn in good performances which are acceptable as variant interpretations. Sean Astin as Sam does a particularly good job, and the effect of a modern Californian playing a pre-industrial English rustic is more tolerable than I'd have expected. In the smaller parts, I liked Miranda Otto as Eowyn, David Wenham as Faramir, and Bernard Hill as Theoden.

The scenery, sets, props, and special effects remain excellent, with one or two minor exceptions.

The story of Frodo's journey to and through Mordor with Sam and Gollum is long and oppressively dreary in the book. In this case some abbreviation is welcome.

Something I've noticed only in retrospect is that the violence is really quite muted. There are plenty of battle scenes and other fighting, but very little blood, no guts, no mess in general, no wounded men or horses screaming in pain. The combatants are either intact and fighting, or quietly and tidily dead on the ground. The films manage to present war as an impressive spectacle, but one generally suitable for a family audience. This might be counted a disadvantage by some viewers, but I count it an advantage, especially as it's in keeping with the spirit of the book.

Bad points

The film is hard to enjoy because it's almost all doom and gloom. To some extent this is an unavoidable consequence of the story; but the book at least gives the payoff of an extended happy ending. There are the celebrations and relaxation after the fall of Sauron, then the Scouring of the Shire, which is unhappy initially but soon turns out well. Finally, the parting at the Grey Havens is dealt with quickly and with dignity, as a moment of sadness that passes.

The film abbreviates the celebrations, giving us only playtime in bed and highlights of the coronation (which is somehow less than 100% convincing). Then the Scouring of the Shire is cut entirely, so the hobbits have nothing to do on their return to the Shire but sit pointlessly at a table with drinks in front of them, ignored by their fellow hobbits. The parting at the Grey Havens is lingered over with excessive sentimentality. So we get hardly any happy ending, and the story limps uncertainly towards its end with a mixture of the inconsequential and the sad. From the documentaries on the extra DVDs, we learn that the film was finished in a great rush, and unfortunately it shows.

Before the film was made, I might have agreed with Jackson that the Scouring had to go, because it seems like an anticlimax and prolongs an already very long film. But, on seeing the film, I realize that Tolkien knew what he was doing. The Scouring gives the returning hobbits something to do in the Shire; it shows they can deal with an enemy by themselves; and it gives the Shire hobbits reason to respect them.

With the Scouring cut, it would have been more effective to cut the return to the Shire entirely, ending the film after Aragorn's coronation. In fact, personally I'd rather keep the Scouring but cut the Grey Havens (a strange business that doesn't really appeal to me even in the book).

A few remaining quibbles...

In the book, because it's told like a legend of old, one can accept that Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli jump into the thick of battle and emerge later completely unscathed counting their victims in dozens. In the film, it becomes obvious that this isn't really plausible. Especially as they don't bother with the rather silly-looking but probably useful helmets that everyone else has to wear.

The effects of the destruction of the Ring are mostly well done, but the earthquake that sinks the ground from under the forces of Mordor isn't in the book and seems an unnecessary addition, particularly as it so neatly and implausibly spares the forces of the West. I also missed Gandalf's dramatic announcement in the book: “The realm of Sauron is ended! The Ring-bearer has fulfilled his Quest.” The film script preferred to deal wordlessly with this moment.

I'd still prefer to see at least the hobbits played by English actors, and ideally all other major parts played by British or European actors. If Tolkien were still alive he could have learned from Rowling and insisted on it. But in practice the Australians blend in very well; Americans are more of a problem because, even if they fix the accent, they tend to look American, particularly in this case Liv Tyler and Elijah Wood.

Summing up

The trilogy as a whole is a good attempt at translating this long and ambitious book into a film. It's been done with great care, effort, and expenditure of money. With the exception of some of the elves, the casting and acting is better than we could reasonably have expected. The New Zealand scenery has been well used and the effects are good.

However, like all films of books, these films abbreviate the original story considerably, and they make some relatively minor but unwelcome changes.

If you want the story, you're always better off with the book. However, a good film (such as these) provides an illustrated supplement to the book which can be nice to have.


Written in January 2005