This review is focuses on specific additions, deletions and adaptations to Tolkien’s story that appear in Peter Jackson’s “Return of the King,” and is written for the appreciation of those who have already seen the film. In other words, expect SPOILERS throughout.
To start with, I loved the film. It was thoroughly enjoyable. I give it 5 out of 5 stars, especially if I’m thinking of it purely as an entertaining and moving film, rather than the adaptation of one of my favorite works of literature. I spent the last week reading many of the mainstream press reviews and while I was happy to see the generally favorible critical marks the movie received, I was appalled by the many factual glitches. How many reviewers referred to Gollum as a “goblin?” And then there were those who called the fell beasts “dragons” and discussed the defeat of “Sauron’s” army at Helm’s Deep. So they don’t really know their Tolkien. But in watching ROTK as someone who does know Prof. Tolkien’s works very well (I’ve read LOTR countless times, including the Appendices, most of the posthumous works at least once, and am currently rereading the Silmarillion for about the sixth time), no matter how much I enjoyed the movie, I kept asking myself why certain changes were necessary and whether they worked. So if you want to know my take on the whole movie, read no further, it’s fantastic. But the following is a segmented review of several noteworthy departures.
1. Death of Saruman. Yes, I know it’s going to be in the extended version. But even then, it won’t be in the same place as in the book. I understand the logic of cutting out the “Scouring of the Shire,” though I personally have always liked that chapter. But the cinematic version is crying out for a better explanation of what happened to this character that was so built up in the first two films. In fact, I always thought they overdid Saruman in the 1st film. So the payoff is really missing here and I think some type of closure was needed in the movie.
2. The palantirs. Apparently Aragorn will use the palantir in the extended version, based on a photo of him holding it in one of the photo books for the movie that was published before they made the final cuts. The movie works Ok without it, although it could have helped explain the motivation of Aragorn and Sauron as events unfolded afterward. It’s also a lose end. Don’t know whether the extended version will show Denethor’s palantir and make it clear that he is in dread of the black fleet. But as the core reason for his madness, that would make for a stronger story line. As it is, the film suggests that Denethor is merely off his rocker because Boromir had died. (And anyone who missed the extended version of The Two Towers may not even get that point very clearly).
3. Sword/Elrond/Elrond’s sons and Dunedain/Paths of the Dead/Ghost army
All of this is different. I wasn’t particularly bothered by Elrond showing up alone with the sword, because of the way the movie has set this up. But we miss out on seeing the other members of Aragorn’s party as they go through the Paths of the Dead. The other party members aren’t essential in the movie because the ghost army isn’t going to simply defeat the Corsairs, but will also win the day at Pellenor. At first glance, I thought this might have been a dramatic improvement on the complicated story from Tolkien in which the ships are rescued and are manned by Aragorn’s sizeable troupe along with many from South Gondor who couldn’t come previously. But having the ghost army sweep invincibly over the field to victory creates other problems. I’ll discuss that below.
4. Merry’s travels
The strong link between Merry and Theoden is not offered in the movie and I was disappointed, though elements of it, like discussing the origin of “hobbit,” might have been tedious in the film. I also missed getting to see him ride in a sack with Dernhelm and wake up to hear the conversation with Ghan buri Ghan (who may be in the extended version based on a cast list I’ve seen?). The Houses of Healing should also be in the extended version, but will Merry go there? We see Merry fighting at the Black Gate. I’m not sure what this departure accomplishes and it detracts from Merry’s injury and sacrifice when he stabs the Nazgul. This entire issue goes to a thread running throughout all three films in which Merry and Pippin are comic relief and minor plot devices at best. While that is somewhat true of Pippin in the book (and the movie does honorably by his character in this final installment, including a very nice scene of him singing to Denethor), Merry’s character has been sold short all along. Nothing against the actor, because the problems clearly flow from the script’s disinterest in this character, but Merry comes off flat throughout, mostly as a foil for Pippin. In fact, if Merry’s role in slaying the Witch King was not so pivotal, I would almost bet that Jackson, Walsh, et al would have written him out altogether. I strongly disapprove of this treatment.
5. Houses of the Healing
Again, it will be in the extended version. But I missed it.
6. Statue of King at Crossroads
Apparently will be in extended version, based on something in one of the movie photo books. But I missed it.
7. Dawnless day.
Is de-emphasized in the movie. This spoils the dramatic moment when the Rohirrim AND the sun arrive unexpectedly in the nick of time. I think this was a serious mistake.
8. Sam abandoned.
Why did Jackson do this? It adds some dramatic tension, I suppose. But it seems less believable when the film has him showing up in the nick of time to save Frodo twice. I suspect some things were cut here and the extended version will show us more of Sam between his fight with Shelob and actually reaching Frodo. But this sequence didn’t really work for me, and checking with friends who didn’t know the books, they thought it was a stretch too. We also miss out on the beautiful continuity in the book between Sam’s speech about being in the story that keeps going on and remembering the Lay of Leithian that Aragorn sang to them near Weathertop (extended version of 1st movie and in more detail in 1st book) and how the hero of that epic tale descended into the palaces of hell and stole the holy jewel, and finally how Frodo has part of the light of that very jewel with them, so they really are part of that story. All roads go ever on, all stories go ever on, unless the film director paves over them and cuts down all the signposts. The altered story for Sam makes a mess of all this fine storytelling from Tolkien, and I think we’ve lost much more than we gain.
9. Battle of Pellinore Fields
The book achieves a dramatic sense of repeated momentum changes in this passage, one of the finest in all of LOTR. It clearly shows the battle hinging less on strength of arms than on morale. Mordor’s victory appears certain. Then the Rohirrim (and the sun) arrive and drive the orcs before them. Then the Witch King slays Theoden, and the forces of good are in trouble. Then the Witch King falls and Eomer leads a brutal rally of vengeance. Then the black ships appear and the forces of evil are encouraged. But then Aragorn is captaining the ships and the tide is turned for good, despite a considerable bit of fighting that follows. The battle we see in the movie is a serious of breathtaking special effects, but we don’t have the strong sense of the fortunes changing except when the Rohirrim first charge into the orc line and when occupants of the ships reveal themselves. And this is points to a really serious flaw. If the ghost army can just wipe everybody out, and Aragorn kind of knew that (and knew victory would be impossible without them as well) when he took the Paths of the Dead, why didn’t he just tell everyone to hang tight until he and the ghosts show up. Why does Theoden need to die, etc? Having the ghost army here, makes everything that has gone before hopelessly beside the point. Visually it is a great scene. But logically, it is a serious hole in the story.
10. Sam and Frodo marching with the orcs.
This may be in the extended version. It had better be. It’s a great sequence and one of the view where I would rate the old Rankin Bass animated ROTK as stronger for having included it. Gorgoroth gets too light of treatment in the film and I think that’s a mistake.
11. Finally: Gollum’s fall
There are some other things I can take issue with, but I’ll conclude with this one, which I thought was an unnecessary and most unfortunate change. Gollum, of course, has repeatedly been spared by Bilbo, Frodo and Sam, with the unforseen result that he will take the ring and madly fall into the crack of doom. But in the film, we lose this essential plot thread by having Frodo struggle with him on the precipice AFTER he has bitten the ring off Frodo’s finger. This articially allows Frodo to redeem himself, which in the story is unnecessary because Gollum providentially does that for him. This is a really crucial point in the story and this alteration cuts to the core of what Tolkien is saying about the nature of heroism, grace in the events of our lives and history, etc. It may not seem like that big of a change, but it probably bothers me more than anything else.
12. The White Tree sapling
I suspect this will be in the extended version. Otherwise Pippin’s vision takes on much less significance. Either way, I liked this part of the story, but I suppose we could live without it.
13. Faramir and Eowyn.
I suspect this also will be in the extended version. We need it, or the seen of them together at the coronation makes little sense.
Well, those are my main objections to what was altered. The extended version will likely improve my rating, as it clearly did with each of the previous films. Some of the things I mentioned are just nitpicks and minor gripes. But certain changes, most especially the altered story for Sam and the climactic change for Frodo are difficult to overcome and represent real blunders by the scriptwriters that would have seriously injured a less powerful story. As it is, that story still shines through, but it could have been just a bit better with some different choices by the filmmakers.