I first read The Lord of the Rings at the rather late age of fifteen. I’d heard of the books before; the title occupied a dim, misty part of my mind, and were associated with a sense of cultishness and even history. Their recent commercialization has been for me bittersweet. I suppose this is not unlike the lesson of the novel itself — everything magical fades (fortunately, there is always something else magical to focus on).
The Return of the King, like its predecessors, is a work of cinematic art. It is not particularly innovative, and its story and themes are of the type that has been portrayed since The Iliad, but as an epic film it can stand proudly next to the best such movies that have ever been made — and a good head taller than many of them. It is a successful culmination of all that has gone before it.
I did spend the first day or so after seeing the movie trying to work past the changes made from the book, as I have for each film. The Fellowship of the Ring followed the plot of the novel relatively closely, but The Two Towers veered off sharply at a few points. King follows more closely than Towers, but still makes some significant changes. Faramir (David Wenham) gets an even shorter shrift than he did in Towers, and his romance with ?owyn (Mirando Otto) is barely suggested. We never see ?omer (Karl Urban) crowned king of Rohan after the death of Th?oden (Bernard Hill), and the Mouth of Sauron makes no appearance before the Black Gate.
What bothered me most, though, was a very slight change. In the novel, when the gates of Minas Tirith are broken open, the Lord of the Nazgul appears at the gates on a horse and attempts to enter the city. His way is barred by Gandalf, who sits astride Shadowfax. Just as the two are about to do battle, the horns of the Riders of Rohan can be heard in the distance, just as dawn rises over the plain. Tolkien wrote that this was his favorite scene in the novel, and it certainly has great cinematic potential. But in the film, the Riders arrive after the gates have been broken, and there is no significant emotional build-up to the Riders’ arrival — despite the despair of Gondor’s steward, Denethor (John Noble), at their absence.
But aside from these quibbles, The Return of the King is a worthy successor to the previous films, and caps the trilogy satisfactorily. After the martial triumphs of The Two Towers, the new movie returns the focus to the journey of Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) through the dark land of Mordor to Mount Doom in order to dunk the One Ring. Gollum is back (voiced by Andy Serkis), but unfortunately, most of the psychological will-he-or-won’t-he-betray-them has been discarded; Gollum is mostly a villain in this piece.
The largest part of the non-Mordor sequences are devoted to the defense of Minas Tirith. Here Jackson delivers some of his most astonishing visuals; my favorite is Grond, the massive, fire-spewing battering ram that breaks through the gates of the city like a mechanical dragon.
The performances are, as always, top-notch. Particularly kudos go to Wood, who manages to convey some of the pain and greed the Ring inspires, and to Viggo Mortensen, who is given less than an hour to transform his character from a self-doubting ranger to the rightful king of Gondor. Ian McKellen, whose wizard Gandalf was sorely missed for much of The Two Towers, has a much larger role in this film; and the friendship between Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) is finally given its due. (Rhys-Davies should also be credited for carrying the lion’s share of the movie’s much-needed humor.)
What is most impressive is the movie’s successful capture of the sad, elegaic tone of the novel’s conclusion. Like the book, the movie shifts its scope from the epic back to the bucolic as the story returns to Hobbiton, and then finally to the melancholy departure at the Grey Havens. The movie also contains one powerful, beautiful scene, in which the hobbit Pippin (Billy Boyd) sings a haunting song to Denethor while the Steward’s son and his soldiers ride to their deaths.
Of the three films, The Return of the King is the most compressed. Jackson has stated he believes the theatrical versions are the best versions of the films, carrying the most emotional impact. That’s probably true in the case of the first two films, but there’s no denying the slightly rushed feeling of King, and the suspicion that next year’s extended DVD will fill in a few unfortunate gaps. (That, however, may just be from a fan’s perspective; having read the book, I know what the writers skipped over, such as the Faramir/?owyn romance.) Aragorn gets no time at all to enjoy his kingship, and his reunion with Arwen is brief.
These are minor flaws in an otherwise great film. In part, it’s a victim of its own success; the first two films set a high standard for King. Of the three, I think King is my least favorite, though Towers had to grow on me. Only time will tell how these movies hold up. For now, however, we can all bask in the glory of Middle-earth.