This year marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King, which completed his triumphant adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I recently watched the entire film trilogy for the first time in probably 15 years. As much as I know these films backwards and forwards, I’m pretty sure this was the first time I’d ever watched all three inside of a month.
Like many of us I watched the hell out of these films when they were new — I saw each one in the theater three times (for a total of nine viewings, get it?), and then hammered them on DVD of course. Ultimately I got burnt out on them a little bit and had to take a break for several years.
Revisiting these films this time around was pure joy. I love them so much, and always did. From the moment The Fellowship of the Ring dropped in 2001, I saw it as a fantasy masterpiece on par with The Wizard of Oz or The Empire Strikes Back. But maybe because it’s been awhile, or because of the 20-year mark, they seemed that much more like classic films this time around. Watching them gave me the same sensation that watching classic epics by David Lean or John Huston did when I was a kid. Each one totally absorbed me in a way I wasn’t expecting.
A large part of this was because the films struck me more than ever as great cinema. I don’t think Jackson gets enough credit for his actual filmmaking (this might also be because some of his other blockbusters, especially the Hobbit trilogy, are middling to awful). I think his accomplishments on LotR are often viewed as a matter of storyboarding CGI sequences, overseeing the design of all the creatures and costumes, and assembling setpieces. You know, orchestrating an epic — which he did amazingly well. Beyond that, what most fans spend time discussing is how faithful or not the films are to J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels (or novel, as Tolkien would have insisted — he considered it one book split into three parts).
But I think Jackson is also a great filmmaker in the traditional sense — or at least capable of being one when he rises to the occasion, and he really does here. He is a master of not only special effects and battle sequences, but of the good old art of cinema. These are such beautiful films, filled with cinematic and artistic treasures. More than almost any other director Jackson is so good at putting images onscreen that feel legendary, mythical and fabulous in every sense. The repeated motifs like figures in shimmering pools, figures staring out from great heights, white horses in slow motion — shots that feel like Romantic paintings come to life. His very Kurosawa-esque skill at capturing banners fluttering or smoke wafting in the breeze, soldiers on horseback, raised spears. Ridiculously sublime moments like Sam taking a step further from home than he ever has, or the banner of Rohan fluttering to the ground as Aragorn rides up to the golden hall. And those battle sequences — more impactful than just about any others in the genre. I would argue the LotR films top Steven Spielberg at times in their combination of thrills, artistic depth, and emotional power.
They are also very human films, and so much more substantial than most modern blockbusters. Their melodrama has aged well.
In 2021, during the 20th anniversary year of The Fellowship of the Ring, there were a lot of retrospective articles highlighting what an audacious achievement this trilogy was for Jackson, for the production company New Line Cinema, and for the the cast and crew. It was basically made like an independent film, only on an impossibly grand scale. There was nothing to suggest or give hope that it would be anything more than a cult classic — for much of the production everyone assumed it would be a box office bomb.
The fact that it proved to be a massive blockbuster trilogy that dominated the box office for three years, won enduring critical acclaim and a pile of awards, and ultimately became a timeless classic, speaks even more to Jackson’s incredible achievement as a filmmaker. It really was a cinematic miracle, and knowing that it could never happen again in quite the same way in the current climate of blockbuster franchises makes it seem even more, well, precious.
I particularly enjoyed The Return of the King this time around so much more than the last time I watched it, a few years ago. Like I said, I’ve always loved it (it’s one of the few Best Picture winners I agree with!), but it’s also always been the installment that bothers me the most with some of the choices Jackson made.
I could write a book about how much I love these films — but I’d have to dedicate a few chapters to the stuff that frustrates me. And that’s, of course, because of the richness of the source material. Aside from the sheer scale of the project, it was an absurd proposition to adapt these books, with their incredibly intricate mythology and their 10,000 years of backstory. Again, what Jackson and his team accomplished in this adaptation was heroic. They had to make choices. Most of them — but not all — were great choices.
I think being honest about what doesn’t work in Jackson’s adaptation of The Return of the King is actually a good way to highlight the many more things that do work. Contrasting the two is really rewarding, and ultimately reinforces why I love this film so much despite my sometimes complicated feelings about it. And it’s kind of a nutshell version of how I feel about the entire film trilogy.
So I’ve broken it down. I’ve detailed the things that bug me about RotK; with some additional notes about some things that used to bother me but that I’ve grown to understand or appreciate; followed by a necessarily abbreviated list of some of the things that make it work so well. (If I went on about the stuff I love, this would turn into the above-mentioned book.)
I plan to write about these films in more depth at some point — they deserve better than a listicle — and I’m also planning an essay about reading Tolkien from the left, which I hope to get to soon. This will have to do for now.
(Note: I watched the theatrical version, not the extended one, so that’s what this assessment is based on. The question of whether or not the extended version is superior, which I have mixed feelings about, is separate from these flaws, as I see them; the extended version didn’t “fix” any of the flaws.)
First, the things that bug me:
The army of the dead and Aragorn’s arrival at Pelennor Fields: This is probably my least favorite thing Jackson did in the entire trilogy. At times in the past when I’ve watched RotK it’s left such a bad taste it’s spoiled it for me. These scenes are so crucial to the climactic battle and to Aragorn’s character arc, and in the book they’re so dramatic and cool. A fleet of pirate ships with black sails approaches in the distance! It seems the battle is lost! Then the standard of the White Tree is raised and we realize it’s Aragorn! It’s the return of the king!
In the film, you just see a couple of ships pull up to a dock, there’s some comedic banter, and Aragorn jumps out in this kind of goofy way, followed by this mess of green CGI. It looks like something from fucking Pirates of the Caribbean. Even worse, the green CGI proceeds to sweep the whole battlefield in fast motion, sweeping away all the drama and emotion of the battle along with it.
I want to be really clear that I don’t expect it to be handled exactly like it is in the book. Some of the things that Jackson and co-screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens changed in adapting the books are brilliant, such as swapping out Glorfindel for Arwen in Fellowship (more on that in a bit). I just wish this particular thing, Aragorn’s triumphant arrival, hadn’t been so cheesy, and could have been handled with as much power and drama as the breathtaking charge of the Rohirrim just a few minutes earlier. Or Shelob’s lair, or Mount Doom — or all the other crucial bits that Jackson really nailed. But he really robbed us of a magnificent sequence here. Picture it: the long shots of the black-sailed fleet on the river as the sun rises, the White Tree standard fluttering in the breeze, Viggo Mortensen looking pensive and determined on the quarterdeck as the battle looms closer, and the Gondorians and Rohirrim on the battlefield cheering their arrival as Howard Shore’s music swells. I’m getting annoyed again just typing this!
Arwen’s role: As I mentioned, giving Arwen more action in Fellowship was a genius move, on a number of levels. Feminism, for starters, obviously; but also just giving an important character who doesn’t have one word of dialogue in the books more to do. The flight to the ford is one of the best and most spine-tingling sequences in the whole film trilogy.
The problem is that Jackson and company don’t follow this up in The Two Towers or RotK. For two whole films, for six and a half hours of screentime, Arwen is stuck sitting around her boudoir, looking sad, swooning and trying to decide whether to leave Middle Earth or not. It gets pretty repetitive and tedious. Some of her best moments in Two Towers actually occur in dream sequences that were filmed during postproduction, after test audiences said there wasn’t enough romance in the film — or it might have been even worse. Mind you, I love Liv Tyler’s performance; I’m absolutely not blaming her for any of this.
She’s onscreen even less in RotK. Early on in the final installment, we’re informed that Arwen’s life is leaving her due to Sauron’s growing power, and if the war isn’t won she will die — a totally new fabrication on the part of Jackson and company in their adaptation from Tolkien. But then they drop that storyline — which is bizarre, given her life is apparently at stake. We don’t hear about it again. We don’t see her at all until the coronation at the end.
So they made this (very good) decision at the beginning to make Arwen more a part of the narrative, and then they dropped the ball on her in the next two installments. They should have integrated her more into the action of Two Towers and RotK like they did in Fellowship. True, Tolkien didn’t give them much to work with. But overall it’s a glaring weakness in the adaptation, and a real letdown.
But there’s one thing I think they could have done in RotK: she could have delivered the sword Andúril to Aragorn. In the book, it’s her brothers Ellodan and Elrohir who do that. Actually it’s the White Tree standard and the Elfstone they deliver, not the sword, which was already reforged before the Fellowship left Rivendell, and not in RotK like in the film. Let’s set that aside.
Who sent them to deliver those things? Arwen! So it makes perfect sense that she should be the one to deliver the sword in the film. It makes so much sense that every single time I watch RotK, when Aragorn is summoned to Theoden’s tent, I think, ah, that’ll be Arwen, delivering the sword. But instead it’s Elrond! Aside from the blown chance to feature Arwen more, why the hell would her dad take his ring of power out of Rivendell and leave it unprotected? Why would he travel almost the entire distance he sent the Fellowship to travel, alone, without armed guards or any entourage at all? None of it makes sense — even though the scene itself is good because Hugo Weaving is always good.
Arwen should have delivered the sword; then, not only would she have played a more decisive role, but we would have had a romantic scene between the two before Aragorn rides off to the final battle. Imagine how nice that would have been.
The “oliphantization” of the battle: The oliphants are incredible on a cinematic and artistic level, I’m not disputing that. That first sequence with the Rohirrim charging them at Pelennor made my hair stand up this time just like it did the first time. But Jackson lingers on them too long — especially with Legolas’s kind of silly videogame-ish encounter with one, to the point that they define the battle. Read any review of the film and the oliphants are probably one of the first things mentioned. This is because Jackson, a horror director at heart, loves his monsters.
Again, I want to be clear that Jackson’s tendency to “monsterize” things and make them more cartoonish than they are in the books works most of the time. These are films for families and it’s only right it should be that way. An example is the terrific scene with the cave troll in Fellowship, which is exaggerated compared to the book, but in a good way.
The problem is that the Battle of Pelennor Fields is the turning point of the entire saga and the emphasis shouldn’t be quite so cartoonish. It steals thunder from all the other important things that happen in the battle (Theoden’s death and Eowyn’s confrontation with the Witch King especially, which I’ll get to). My solution would be to cut the Legolas vs. oliphant scene, which would leave the great Rohirrim vs. oliphant scene intact and de-emphasise them just enough. That would also leave more screentime for a proper handling of Aragorn’s arrival at the battle, but never mind.
Side note: Legolas’s depiction as this cross between a Vulcan, a surfer, and a ninja, who is basically invincible in battle, also irritates me a bit. Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of love for Jackson’s and the cast’s characterizations of everybody; and Orlando Bloom’s performance is understandably iconic. And there’s a good reason why some of the secondary characters, including Legolas, Gimli, Merry, and Pippin, are rendered a slightly cartoonish, with less depth than in the books: it’s because that plays better on the big screen in an epic trilogy for families. That’s fine.
But if I had to pick one characterization that bugs me sometimes, it would be Legolas’s. He’s just a little bit shallow, a little bit one-note, even a little bit goofy, compared to the elvish dignity of the character in the book. That moment when he snowboards off the oliphant’s trunk like it’s an effects-laden Super Bowl ad for chewing gum somehow symbolizes this to me.
Another side note: When I first saw the film, it really bothered me that the siege of Minas Tirith had lost some of its focus. Especially for the fact that the breach of the main gate isn’t the incredibly dramatic moment it is in the book (in the film the Witch King doesn’t even approach the gate), and certain key elements had been changed, such as the battle taking place in daylight, and not under a pall of smoke from Mount Doom that blocks out the sun. That artificial darkness and the long period of suspense as Sauron’s armies approach the gate and the citizens of Minas Tirith huddle in terror is the best and most vivid part of the book. It just doesn’t look or feel anything like that onscreen.
Essentially what happened with the film adaptations is that the battle of Helm’s Deep in Two Towers became, in terms of dramatic weight and iconography, what the siege of Minas Tirith is in the books. The long buildup, the massive terrifying army assaulting the last stronghold, the darkness before dawn.
I’m a bit more at peace with these decisions now. Helm’s Deep, at the center of the film trilogy, deserves that dramatic weight; it’s a pivotal moment in the War of the Ring and the way Jackson handles it really works. And the reason he rearranged some things and shifted the focus of the climactic battle in RotK was to allow for more action (with the air assault by the Nazgûl and the smaller breaches of the gates at different levels of the city, which aren’t in the book) and to give the characters, including Gandalf and Pippin, more to do. And they simply couldn’t have had two battles in the film trilogy with very similar staging and visuals, it would have been confusing if not dull for a mass audience. So, although I still dream about how it could have been, I understand and I’m okay with it. Plus, Pelennor Fields still ends up with some of the most amazing sequences in the film trilogy.
Denethor’s dinner: This is the pettiest item on this list, because it’s a small visual gag and not integral to the story. Yet it’s annoying, to the point that it’s become a meme. Yes, I’m talking about the weirdly ravenous way Denethor, as played by John Noble, chows down on his dinner, especially those damn cherry tomatoes!
The LotR film trilogy has generated many memes, which is, in the big picture, a compliment to its staying power in pop culture. I’ve noticed a pattern in which it’s the silliest or campiest moments in the film trilogy that make the best memes. A classic example is Sean Bean’s scenery-chewing reading of the lines about Mordor during the Council of Elrond (“One does not simply…” etc.). When I first saw Fellowship it frustrated me how corny and overwrought the Council scene was (I got into the habit of going to the bathroom during that scene). In later years it didn’t surprise me at all when it became a fount of endless memes. As much as I love the memes, they are a perpetual reminder of those scattered moments when Jackson and his cast overextended themselves, and the exquisite melodrama congealed into camp.
So it is with Denethor’s feast. Obviously the whole point of intercutting Denethor eating his multi-course dinner in solitude while his son — tragically rejected by him — leads a futile sortie against the enemy lines is to show his selfishness, his obstinance and his lack of concern for his son’s fate. As any bright fourteen-year-old fan could tell you, the red color of the wine and the tomato juice represent the blood on his hands. Fine, but there must be ten other ways Jackson could have shot this without making it look so weird. The close-ups of Denethor noshing rapaciously and squirting tomato juice everywhere are as unpleasant as they are unintentionally funny.
To be fair I really appreciate other aspects of this scene, including the cold, wintry lighting; the haunting, deathly emptiness of Denethor’s great hall; and Pippin’s melancholy song (so great that Billy Boyd gets a chance to set aside his comic-relief role and be serious in this scene).
Side note: Cherry tomatoes aren’t in season in Europe in March! (The final battles take place in March, in case you didn’t know; Tolkien intended the defeat of Sauron to be analogous to the end of winter and darkness and the beginning of spring and new life.) In the books, Tolkien is rigorous with all the details concerning nature, the seasons, and agriculture — one of my favorite things about them. For example, there’s a scene in RotK, not included in the film, in which Pippin, as a new member of the Minas Tirith guard, is given some bread, butter, cheese and apples for a meal while he waits and watches on the city wall. In typically vivid fashion, Tolkien describes the apples as “the last of the winter store, but sound and sweet” — and from my experience working in produce in New York, that’s exactly how I remember local apples in March.
So there’s no way Tolkien would have included such an unrealistic detail as tomatoes in winter.
Another side note: Something else that used to bug me but doesn’t as much anymore is the portrayal of Faramir, one of my favorite characters in the books. I didn’t like it at first because in the films he’s much more weak and uncertain and just kind of dippy than he is in the books. But I’ve gotten used to it. First of all David Wenham’s performance is truly great; and it’s another instance of Jackson doing the right thing in adding or expanding more human, relatable emotions compared to Tolkien — not to mention undercutting masculine stereotypes. If the film version of Faramir had been stronger and more confident and had his shit together more, he would have been competing with Aragorn. Tolkien explicitly states in the books that they are similar in character and even appearance, due to both being descended from the same line of Númenóreans (and also because Tolkien loved to conflate physical stature and moral worth), but that wouldn’t have worked onscreen. Faramir’s suicidal charge of the enemy lines onscreen (despite the weirdness of being intercut with the cherry tomato debacle) is very different from his more assured, action-packed sortie in the novel — but it’s a lovely and memorable scene nonetheless, especially overlaid with Pippin’s mournful ballad.
Now for a (partial) list of things I love about The Return of the King and that make it a great film:
The prologue: Similar to the decision to show Aragorn’s grave and Arwen’s melancholy, ghostly fate in the middle of Two Towers — something that takes place far in the future and is only briefly touched on in the appendices, elevated by Jackson into the dark emotional centerpiece of the entire trilogy — likewise the decision to pause and show Gollum’s origin story, which happened centuries in the past, at the start of the third film is so brilliant and moving and really sets the right tone. With its Cain-and-Abel overtones it’s like a myth-within-a-myth. It’s so terribly sad, and really makes it clear to the audience, if it wasn’t already, that Gollum is not a villain but a tragic figure.
The final act: One of my least favorite pop culture tropes is that the end of Return of the King is “too long.” Bullshit. What is wrong with people? The long ending is the best thing about it. I can’t emphasize this enough. Without that long, wrenching, melancholy denouement it wouldn’t be Lord of the Rings. If anything I wish it went on longer!
Quiet moments: I judge any fantasy epic, especially in the age of CGI and rapid-fire editing, by its quiet reflective scenes that linger on the characters. The ones in RotK are so lovely: the scene between Legolas and Aragorn late at night looking east from the golden hall, with Aragorn taking time to load and light his pipe; the gorgeous scene between Gandalf and Pippin looking out over the walls of Minas Tirith on the eve of battle; the uncomfortable moments between Pippin and Denethor; Aragorn’s quietly devastating farewell to Eowyn. They really make the film for me.
The beacons: Another example of a scene that’s exaggerated by Jackson for dramatic effect compared to a brief mention in the book, and it works so well. Don’t try to tell me this scene doesn’t make your hair stand up every time — and it’s not even action, it’s just a signal of action that’s yet to happen, but it’s so majestic. In general, Jackson’s sense of the epic is so spot-on when it comes to scenes with mountains. One of the best moments in Fellowship is when Saruman calls the storm down onto the nine companions in the mountain pass. The way Jackson integrates CGI into the human drama in these scenes really justifies his whole approach (despite certain excesses, like the army of the dead).
The charge of the Rohirrim: This is one we can all agree on so I don’t need to detail it. I think it’s so great that Theoden, a minor character (i.e. not a member of the Fellowship) gets arguably the most stirring moment in the entire trilogy.
Eowyn vs. the Witch King: The other contender for most stirring moment, and, like the Bridge of Khazad-dûm in Fellowship, a glorious example of Jackson doing it exactly like in the book because that’s exactly how it should be done. Such an interesting scene, because for long stretches of the trilogy (both on the page and onscreen) it’s appalling how few women characters there are. But then when it really, really counts, Tolkien gives a woman character the most important (and most awesome!) confrontation in the whole thing.
Aragorn’s song: When I think of RotK, this is always the first thing I think of. There’s something about it that’s so striking and unforgettable and joyous and so unique in mainstream cinema. There’s a great videocast called Cinema Therapy, about cinema and mental health, and in their wonderful episode entitled “Aragorn vs Toxic Masculinity” (see below; watch it with a box of tissues), they correctly identify this moment as one example of the many ways the character and Viggo’s performance dismantle action-hero stereotypes. Another genius move by all involved. I only wish it went on for more than half a verse.
Everything to do with Frodo and Sam: Their storyline and their bromance (or just plain romance, maybe) are handled so perfectly by Jackson, the writing team, and Elijah Wood and Sean Astin. They just nail every scene, from their confrontation on the stairs of Cirith Ungol to Frodo’s kiss on Sam’s head at the end. Arguably they handle these characters better than Tolkien. Same as with Aragorn, Jackson and co. made the important decision to “humanize” (hobbitize?) Frodo and Sam, adding more emotion, more conflict, more doubt. It’s not that Tolkien was slack on all this — the relationship between the two in the books is wonderful and is one reason fans return to them over and over. But the films really flesh this out, whereas it might have turned out stiff and dry if they’d hewed too faithfully to the novel. The fact that it’s so melodramatic and corny, to the point that the way Sam looks at Frodo is a meme and a trope, is why it works so well. It needs that melodrama to work in this format.
Annie Lennox: I just want to say I love the music of these films so much. I don’t know why but it took me a couple of years at the beginning to recognize what a great a composer Howard Shore is. All the themes he created for the characters and places in the films are so memorable and have really stood up — I think they’re up there with the best work of John Williams. But also, the choice of pop singers for each film’s end credits is so great too — Enya, Emilíana Torrini and, in this one, Annie Lennox, really kill it with that orchestral/ambient/goth vibe and it’s just perfect. (Also can’t forget Liz Fraser from the Cocteau Twins, who sings in Elvish, which she was clearly born to do, on the soundtrack of Fellowship.)
Watching RotK in the cinema for the first time, the ship sailing away, and Annie Lennox mournfully singing “Into the West” as you realize it’s all over — I mean, come on, that destroyed me. And it still does every time I watch it.