Thoughts on The Return of the King, Extended Version

So I recently saw The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey and really enjoyed it. I will probably see it again before it leaves the theater and multiple times after it comes out on DVD. However, it will be another year before the second movie comes out, and I was feeling Middle Earth-deprived.

Faramir-Eowyn scenes that are thankfully
included in the extended version
So I rewatched Lord of the Rings for the millionth time!

Here, finally, is my review of The Return of the King, the extended version. I have reviewed the extended versions of both The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers (I actually started these reviews in 2007--hence, the "finally".)

I put off watching the extended version of The Return of the King because I remembered the movie as fight scenes, more fight scenes, even more fight scenes, fight fight fight fight scenes. Some dialog.

And although I am a devotee of action movies from The Fugitive to The Avengers, I get bored after a couple of fight scenes, especially if a single scene doesn't end after about 2 minutes. (I really don't care how many people an Oliphant tramples--my reaction isn't disgust; just lack of interest.) 

There is a lot of fighting in the extended version of The Return of the King. However, the extended version fills in a number of gaps, especially regarding Faramir and Eowyn. Unlike the extended version of Fellowship, which simply provides more information, and the extended version of The Two Towers, which gets downright confusing, the extended version of The Return of the King flows quite nicely between character interactions/dialog and battle sequences. 

The one major hiccup in this flow is, surprisingly, Sam, Frodo, and Gollum. In the release-to-theater version, their scenes balance very neatly with all the other scenes. In the extended version, however, Sam, Frodo, and Gollum practically disappear from the first half of the movie (while taking over the second half; yes, I know, Jackson is following the actual chronology of the book--which just proves that he cut the release-to-theater version very well).

Although this unevenness surprised me, it did help explain The Hobbit!

Richard Armitage as Thorin
As stated above, I enjoyed The Hobbit (Part 1); however, it is NOT for purists. Rather than a tale of lovable Bilbo, Jackson is using other Tolkien material to provide us with pre-LOTR events; it IS Tolkien material, but it is not always specific to The Hobbit. Consequently, the character who moves to the forefront is the Aragorn-type character: the king figure, Thorin.

Martin Freeman as Bilbo
Considering that Thorin is played by Richard Armitage, I have no complaints. And Martin Freeman (Bilbo) is in the movie enough to make me happy. But it does indicate that in his heart, Jackson seems to find returning monarchs slightly more interesting than good-natured hobbits.

This is comparative, of course. It isn't that Jackson doesn't do the hobbits justice--in LOTR, every scene with Sam, Frodo, and Gollum is lovingly and skillfully done; it's just that the king matters slightly more.

And, of course, The Return of the King really is Aragorn's movie: the return of this particular king and what that means to Middle-Earth and to Minis Tirith specifically.

At this point, I have to comment on a common criticism of Tolkien's work--that his evil is too blatantly evil: all the orcs are ugly; Sauron is just a big evil eye, etc. This criticism is sort of true, but I think Tolkien deserves major kudos for his profoundly ambiguous, disturbed, multi-layered, and difficult to categorize characters, such as Denethor (steward of Gondor). Denethor's mixture of despair, pride, vainglory, pain, plus corrupted courage and love makes him one of Tolkien's most memorable creations.

There are also characters like Theoden, Faramir, and Eowyn. These characters are lightly sketched (Tolkien was more interested in his world and its history/languages than even in his action sequences) yet still uniquely motivated and personalized. Not many world fantasy writers can say the same of their characters.

Frodo at Grey Havens
In other words, sticking an elf, a dwarf, a king-to-be, and an everyman into a book does not automatically a great series make.

I was glad I watched the movie again even though it is quite sad. Here's the thing about Jackson: he knows how to deliver high heroic moments that clutch at your heart. I sobbed like a baby during, oh, the last twenty minutes (here's the other thing about Jackson: he gives you about five endings). But--and I say this as someone who hates, um, particular kinds of endings--it is the perfect ending. By keeping it, Jackson's respect for Tolkien's vision comes through.

In the end, it's that respect I appreciate most.

Grey Havens


a calvinist preacher said...

Saw the Hobbit, too. I thought it fairly faithful to the book, but the changes were driven by the fact that, in these movies, it is a prequel - a story that takes place before, but is told after - the LoTR story.

The book itself is written simply as a story, and then LoTR comes later.

Which strikes me as an interesting aspect of narrative - the order in which the story is told has significant implications for the story itself. We are accustomed, I think, to tell stories as we experience them, that is, according to a temporal sequence. But it's sometimes more illuminating to mix that temporal sequence up.

Kate Woodbury said...

It is interesting, especially since Tolkien did make some adjustments to The Hobbit after he wrote LOTR (in fact, some analysis of LOTR argues that even in Fellowship, Tolkien wasn't sure exactly where he was going, so in a way the four books taken together provide insight into Tolkien's thought/writing process).

I've encountered the issue of what really happens first versus what we experience first when reading plot summaries by students. They will tell a story according to how they saw/read it, so they won't mention the background information until it came up in the movie/novel--"And then the characters found out . . ."--when actually, providing the background information first would make more sense/create tighter summaries.

But then, what the viewer/reader remembers is that moment of clarification or epiphany--the unexpected unveiling of information at the most exciting moment.

I've always enjoyed not exactly series books but books about a similar universe containing the same characters where important/seminal events from one book occur in another but in the background or off-stage--as you say, the switch in perspective can be very illuminating!