A Discussion of the `Multiple Endings’ of Peter Jackson’s [i]The Return of the King[/i]

by Jan 13, 2005Critical Viewpoints

With the release of the extended-edition DVDs of the final LOTR film I have been frequently asked why I see the film’s ending as a multiple ending, and, most of all, why I consider it a bad way to finish the film. Can so many fans be wrong in liking the resolution Peter Jackson has given us? Is it not the best solution for those of us who love Tolkien’s book? Given my opinion on ROTK, am I really a fan of the story? And what, exactly, would have been an appropriate ending for such an epic?

The actual ending of ROTK is the destruction of the One Ring, the resolution we have all been anticipating in cinemas for three whole years. In this stretch of time we have come to like the characters who have been part of one of the most vital quests in Middle-earth’s history. In the months between the release of each film we have also had ample time to attach more emotion to each character than we would normally have done, had the intervals between the films been shorter. Thus, many viewers have grown fond of the main characters and are very happy with the multiple endings that show us a little of what awaits them once their quest is completed. The Ring’s destruction has subsequently become only one of the crucial points of the film.

Something that needs to be considered here is that most viewers are, of course, also readers of LOTR. This means that they already know what to expect. They are not merely readers but fans of Tolkien’s novel and want to see everything they have read on the screen as well. Only few viewers are unfamiliar the story, not knowing what will happen and how the it all ends. We have both informed and uninformed viewers who quite naturally have different expectations when going to the cinema.

The uninformed viewers will evidently be more open to the film since they have no preconceived ideas that might hinder their viewing. Therefore they will also be more likely to notice the strange `chunky’ ending that does not conclude, as may be supposed, with Sam and Frodo on Mount Doom and the line well known by readers, “I’m glad you’re with me, Sam, here at the end of all things.” Would this not have been a perfect ending to the trilogy? Had Jackson fleshed out this last sequence a little more, I believe it would have been an excellent ending.

However, a film is not a book, and both work differently since we are dealing with different media. In the case of a film a director needs to consider which would be the most immediately satisfying way to end because pictures directly affect us and our emotions (unless it is explicitly his intention to create a jarring effect). Books, however, allow us to reread and spend more time on certain passages as each reader is able to regulate the speed individually. All we have in books are mental images which are not as strong as what we see on the screen, and even though we spend more time and energy with the reading, a film triggers a spontaneous – uncontrolled – emotional reaction.

Since we have two groups of LOTR-viewers, the film’s conclusion creates different reactions. The important question is: which ending would be emotionally most satisfying for which type of viewer? The informed viewers for the most part have no problems with Jackson’s ending because they say the important characters all need to be accounted for. So we cannot leave cinematic Middle-earth with a last glimpse of Frodo and Sam on Mount Doom, knowing that there is much more still to happen in the novel. What will happen to Merry and Pippin, Gimli and Legolas, Gandalf, and Aragorn, the future king? So many story-lines have been introduced or at least hinted at (and abandoned for the sake of conciseness) that we simply need to be given some idea of what is in store for them all.

Unfortunately, the film suffers from this. The uninformed viewers who have not read the book will rather expect an ending that is final, one that indicates clearly that the story has come to and end and Middle-earth has been saved – perhaps with the sacrifice of two Hobbits’ lives. The number of fading scenes that make the impression of it being the end now, right now, once and for all, time to leave, are simply irritating. Film makers who consider that thwarting their viewers’ expectations is a stroke of genius and good film-making are usually right – but in the case of ROTK this is going to far. After the first fade-out on Mount Doom the viewers have finally relaxed and come to a conclusion. But then the next scene comes up and they are forced back into the story. Once that is over and the scene fades too, they are certain that this is the end, it is time to leave and to think about where the car was parked and how long it will take to get out of this crowded place, but – it is not over yet. Another scene, and with it the realisation that this could go on forever. In films fade-outs bring you back to reality, inevitably, since they are clear reminders and indicators of fiction.

The additional scenes are like appendices, so the film even has a final formal connection to Tolkien’s novel that most probably was not intended. Yet, an important skill of writers and film-makers is to know when it is best to stop, even if it means, as and American writer once said, that you must “kill your darlings”. Tolkien was obsessed with his mythology and added more and more material to his book. The appendices do not interfere with the rest of the novel, the actual story, and they need not be read unless the readers want to know more than they are able to obtain from the trilogy itself. The appendices are clearly indicated, in some editions they are even sold separately or not at all, and form a supplementary section. True, the scenes that constitute the film’s ending are part of the book’s actual story, but the manner of their presentation makes them appear very much like a filmic version of an appendix. Jackson was unwilling to end the film where it would have been most effective and emotionally most satisfying just as Tolkien was unwilling to abandon his story.

I am primarily a reader and philologist, a lover of words, and prefer the written form of LOTR. In this I am very much like Tolkien, perhaps. The professor himself wrote that he considered his novel to be unfilmable, and given his many critical letters, presented by Humphrey Carpenter, I am sure that he would have found much to criticise about Jackson’s film. I am a fan of the book as well as the film, but this does not exclude a critical mind. I understand that a film is a film and a book is a book, each has different possibilities and changes are necessary in the adaptation of prose for the screen. In the case of Jackson’s last film, though, it seems to me that he lost sight of his task as a director. Instead, he had occasional lapses, I would term them, when his fandom got the better of him. This becomes a problem only when it leads to omissions, inclusions, and additions that are unnecessary for the film’s development or even change certain aspects of Tolkien’s conception of Middle-earth.

I accept and understand why so many fans are happy with the final instalment of LOTR. There are those of us who know films cannot include everything we may like to see and still be of good quality throughout. And there are also those of us who have waited long to see how everything we only imagined will eventually be brought to the screen. Finally being able to see the characters we have grown to love merely through reading is a way to match them to our mental image. They have now come to life more than they were able to on the page, and we want to see them do all we imagined them doing, and we need to be allowed to take leave of them properly. Given the different positions of the viewers and readers it is difficult to say whether Jackson’s choice to end the film the way he did is right or wrong. I am not a lesser fan of Tolkien’s work simply because I occasionally disagree with Jackson’s approach. Yet I do consider it helpful and wise to be critical especially when it comes to the things we love.


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