Part 1 of “The Hobbit” comes out in just about a month. In preparation, I’ve been reviewing and comparing the “Lord of the Rings” books with the Peter Jackson movies. If you missed them, here are my thoughts on “The Fellowship of the Ring” and “The Two Towers.”
Now comes the grand finale, “The Return of the King,” written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in 1955 with its film release in 2003. Of the Jackson films, this was by far the most successful, winning all 11 Oscar categories it was nominated for, including Best Picture, Best Original Score (both for Howard’s Shore’s overall soundtrack and for Original Song with Annie Lennox’s “Into the West”), Best Visual Effects and several technical categories. It made more than $1.12 billion in box offices worldwide, good for sixth all-time (at the time of its release, it was second behind only “Titanic”).
The movie is really an adaptation of both “Return of the King” and “The Two Towers,” as most of what Frodo and Sam go through (the journey past the evil city Minas Morgul and the perilous trip through Shelob’s Lair) take place in the franchise’s second book. The film’s organization actually serves as a better divider between the three overall stories, as the incident with the palantir and Gandalf and Pippin’s flight to Gondor fit better with the plot in “Return of the King.” While, as usual, the film mostly follows the story and tone of the source to a T, one big difference is that, in the movie, Gollum tricks Frodo into thinking Sam is out to take the Ring for himself, leading Frodo to abandon Sam. The book has the two separated wandering in the darkness of the spider’s cave before Frodo’s capture. This was one change I disagreed with, as even if Frodo were to be deceived, Sam’s loyalty would forbid him from ever truly leaving his beloved master’s side.
Unlike in “Two Towers,” the story’s major battle, before the gates of Minas Tirith, is the focus in both versions instead of just the movie. Tolkien still dives into the strategy before, during and after the fighting as only he can, but instead of breezing over the battle like he did at Helm’s Deep, he draws out the horror, the hope, the grit and the intensity of Mordor’s siege on the chief city of Men. Tolkien’s depictions of the long, costly fight are simply amazing; while his deliberate, biblical writing style can be tough to get through at times leading up to this moment, it is perfect for capturing the mood and weight of this world-shattering battle.
The big advantage the book has over the movie is in the aftermath of the climax. After Frodo and Sam (well, Gollum, really) destroy the Ring and Sauron and his armies are defeated forever, the book leaves six chapters and about 100 pages left to wrap everything up. Tolkien could afford to do this; books don’t have to abide by the same flow of action as films do. The movie still does an excellent job of tying up most of the loose ends, though it can’t afford to do so for every last character the way Tolkien does.
The biggest omission was “The Scouring of the Shire,” when the hobbits return to find that dark times have fallen upon their beloved home. This chapter serves a vital purpose, to bring the events of a world away to the comforts of a homely land like the Shire, to show the full aspects of war hitting home. It is also here that Saruman, who showed up near the end after being shamed by the Fellowship, meets his demise. The movie leaves this out of the theatrical release, though in the extended version (which only hard-core fans would be able to fully enjoy, as it is more than 4 hours long), this takes place at Isengard with Gandalf’s initial confrontation.
These are all fairly significant instances in which the book is better than the movie. Tolkien’s attention to every minute detail is greatly appreciated as this adventure comes to a very satisfying conclusion. That said, the movie is by far the superior version. The acting is at its best. Visually, every last second of the movie is beautiful, even Frodo and Sam’s ascending Mount Doom covered in ash while visibly falling apart from the strain of the task. The execution of the Battle of Minas Tirith is astounding epic, and it’s the greatest and most intricate battle sequence I’ve ever seen. No. 2 on that list might well be the final battle at the Gates of Mordor. And the score brings everything together in perfect harmony.
I’ll leave you with my top five moments in “Return of the King” and the top five reasons it’s my favorite movie of all time.
5. The Ring is destroyed (yes, the climax of the movie and the end of all evil is good for fifth on this list)
4. Aragorn’s speech before the Battle at the Black Gates
3. Rohan arrives at the Battle of Minas Tirith
2. Eowyn defeats the Witch-king: “I am no man.”
1. Sam carries Frodo up Mount Doom (I’ll freely admit, I cry every time I watch or read this scene. It’s just beautiful.)