The Academy Awards were established in 1929; in the almost-century since, only three films have won 11 Oscars: Ben-Hur (1959), Titanic (1997), and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). Despite their vast differences in plot and setting, the three have a lot in common: all are epics, set in the past (in Return of the King’s case, an imaginary one), and brimming with special effects-laden spectacle. They are, in other words, the exact sort of movies one thinks of when one thinks of the word “Hollywood.” Return of the King was made mostly by Kiwis, filmed entirely in New Zealand, and based on the book of a South African-born British author whose stated goal was creating “a mythology of England,” but it’s also the epitome of American filmmaking: big, brash, and perfect for popcorn.
That an SFX-heavy epic won so many Oscars isn’t surprising; that a high fantasy film did is. Or at least, it would have been surprising only a few years before. Jackson’s films changed the equation.
Throughout these reviews, I’ve tried to chart how Tolkien’s books have moved within and influenced the larger cultural landscape based on their film versions, from classic children’s stories to countercultural touchstones to cultural behemoths with the same box office power and household name recognition of Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (both of which were influenced by Tolkien, of course). The Return of the King, especially in light of that historic Oscar haul, marks the true enthronement of SFF movies as the reigning champions of the box office and the wider culture. Fantasy films were no longer just popular; now they had prestige, too. The Golden Age of the Geek had officially dawned, and as of yet, it shows no signs of waning. We’re at the high tide now; Númenor before the fall.
It’s ironic, then, that despite all that Oscar gold, Return of the King is probably the weakest of the three Lord of the Rings films—though it’s still far, far better than most other fantasy movies. It has some of the best moments in the trilogy, like the lighting of the beacons, the charge of the Rohirrim, the Mouth of Sauron, and Denethor aggressively eating tomatoes as Pippin sings a song of requiem, but it necessarily lacks the singular plot of Fellowship or the thematic heft of Two Towers. This is less a criticism than a simple observation. Return of the King is still an incredible film, and it’s frankly hard to imagine anyone producing a better version (Rankin-Bass certainly did not). Other filmmakers might have done better by Denethor and Saruman, and might have included the Scouring of the Shire, but they’d likely have whiffed on other aspects. Return of the King is a brilliant, beautiful movie, and a fitting end for the trilogy. It’s great—it’s just not as great as its two predecessors.
The movie follows Frodo, Sam, and Gollum as they continue their trek into Mordor, past the armies of Minas Morgul, Shelob’s lair, a towerful of quarreling Orcs, and then the barren plains of the Land of Shadows. Gandalf and Company quickly finish up their business with Saruman, then turn their attention to Gondor, where Sauron is launching his attack to take control of Middle-earth. By and large, Jackson sticks to the book (other than moving Shelob and the palantír over from Two Towers), with a few minor changes here and there. But the big changes are especially big, particularly the characterization of Denethor and the cutting of the story’s secondary climax, the Scouring of the Shire, where the hobbits are roused to fight against Saruman and his band of ruffians, who have taken over their homeland.
The lack of the Scouring is probably the most controversial aspect of the film, since that plot point is so key to Tolkien’s vision. War always comes home. “This is Mordor,” Frodo says in the book, surveying the wreckage that Saruman has made of Bag-End. It’s also the part of the book that’s the most radical in its vision, with Frodo pointedly refusing to wield or even wear a weapon. Gandalf gets the Christ-like sacrifice and resurrection, but it’s Frodo who most clearly adopts Christ’s ethics, refusing all violence, and showing pity and mercy even to those who least deserve it, like Saruman and Wormtongue. Similarly, Frodo’s lingering shellshock from the wounds inflicted on him by the Witch-king and Shelob, which in the book leaves him desperate and bed-ridden, is in the film reduced to minor shoulder discomfort.
Jackson’s decision to skip the Scouring (as Rankin-Bass also did) is understandable from a filmmaking perspective. It’s a secondary climax, and while books can be put down and picked up again, a movie is made to be sat through in a theater. People complained enough about the movie’s “multiple endings” to begin with: imagine if the Scouring had been included. But, as with Jackson’s handling of Faramir in Two Towers, it’s also a pity to have it so, since we lose so much of the thematic weight that makes Lord of the Rings what it is.
Faramir, for his part, fares far better in this movie than in Two Towers. He’s not in it for long, but his grief and pain when being sent to his likely death by his father is heartrending. Denethor, on the other hand, lacks the gravitas of his book counterpart, more or less going straight to deranged from the get-go. Book Denethor is one of Tolkien’s most fascinating characters. He seems more like a character from The Silmarillion, with his sharp intelligence, power, and arrogance contrasted with Gandalf’s irritable mercy and wisdom and Aragorn’s backwoods nobility. But the true character Denethor is set against is Frodo. Denethor is Tolkien’s greatest study in despair, and how it can lead to folly. Denethor, like Gollum, serves as a mirror for what Frodo might become if he gives into temptation. Both Denethor and Frodo reach the end of their journeys in the fire, when both have finally surrendered to Sauron’s will, but while Denethor falls, Frodo is lifted up, first by Sam and then by the Eagles, because Frodo’s journey was one of self-sacrifice while Denethor’s was one of self-abnegation.
Much as I don’t care for Jackon’s depiction of Denethor, I’m less hard on it than I am on Faramir’s portrayal in the previous movie, since (as with cutting the Scouring) it seems a necessary cinematic choice. The film simply doesn’t have time to ruminate on war room scenes with Denethor, Faramir, and Gandalf like the book does. Also, the scene of Denethor hungrily and grossly eating chicken and tomatoes, as Pippin sings and Faramir rides to his doom, is a brilliant bit of character work, and one of the most viscerally upsetting depictions of lunch ever put on film. That Pippin “What About Second Breakfast?” Took is present tells us so much. Unlike the hobbits, Denethor takes no pleasure in eating. He eats like a lean wolf, tearing at scraps for simple survival. No wonder he gives in to despair, and even sends his own son to die: He’s not a bad man, but he’s allowed grief and bitterness to put out the flame imperishable within his heart. There’s no joy in the world left to him, only grim duty, and that leads him, inevitably, step by step, to the pyre.
Even though some of Jackson’s choices don’t work, Return of the King also shows him at his most innovative in adapting the book. There’s the lunch scene, of course. And the lighting of the beacons, a minor detail in the book, is here depicted with sweeping grandeur. It’s not just the gorgeous helicopter shots of flames bursting atop snow-capped mountain peaks and Howard Shore’s score going so hard even Denethor would get goosebumps, it’s what it signifies: a nation reaching out for help from its allies. That Movie Denethor doesn’t wish to light them is a change from the book, and one that plot-wise doesn’t make much sense, but it’s one that works visually and thematically: the pyre he lights for himself and Faramir at the end becomes a sort of twisted mirror of the beacons, an act of nihilism in contrast to the hope the beacons represent. And it fits Tolkien’s overarching mythology, where fire is the spirit of creation, one that can be used for good or evil (see, for example, Gandalf, wielder of the secret fire, battling the fire-demon Balrog). There’s something especially obscene about Denethor using fire to burn himself as his city is under siege.
The Mouth of Sauron (seen only in the extended edition) similarly alters the book, but in a way that conveys Tolkien’s vision even more strongly. In the book, the Mouth is a mortal man, a Black Númenorean, who has risen high in Sauron’s service and become his emissary, at the cost of having forgotten his own name. Jackson’s Mouth is caged by a towering, heavy helmet. His eyes and ears are covered and only his mouth, cracked and hideous, shows through the sharp iron plates. His movements are jerky, his voice uncanny. He’s a meat puppet, in other words, a man broken and stripped of everything except the one thing the Dark Lord needs of him: his mouth (to make the point even clearer, Jackson largely films the Mouth’s mouth in close-up, because that’s the only part of him that matters).
The Mouth of Sauron is a mirror, too, but one like Frodo’s vision of the Scouring in Galadriel’s basin. He’s what Sauron’s brand of power does: in seeking total control over someone or something, in bending it to his will, he breaks it. The Mouth is Mordor made flesh, what Middle-earth and its denizens will become if Sauron regains the Ring. In a movie with giant spiders and war-elephants, ghost armies and Ringwraiths riding pterodactyls, the Mouth of Sauron is by far the most terrifying creature encountered.
Jackson also does right by the story’s biggest moments. He rightly understands that nobody is going to be fooled by “Dernhelm,” but Éowyn’s gender reveal party on the field of the Pelannor is thrilling nonetheless. Does it play out exactly as it does in the books? No. At no point does Éowyn say the wonderful Old English word “dwimmerlaik.” Is it a little cheesy? Maybe, but a big epic blockbuster needs a little cheese every now and then, and the emotional heft of Éowyn’s journey, conveyed by Miranda Otto’s fierce performance, makes it work. I clapped the first time I saw it. I still want to clap every time I see it. Like many other scenes, it’s a useful microcosm of Jackon’s approach to the text, the way it honors Tolkien’s story while translating it into a movie with the language of blockbuster cinema.
That same artful translation comes at the climax, as well, when Jackson cuts between the Battle at the Black Gates and Frodo’s struggle with Gollum at the Crack of Doom. Even after Gollum regains his Precious and falls into the lava, the Ring lingers, floating atop the molten rock, as an armored troll bears down on Aragorn. It’s a terrifically tense scene, Shore’s music turning into a pounding thud like a heartbeat. And it also features my favorite of all Jackson’s cinematic innovations: it’s not Gollum’s fall into the lava that destroys the Ring and Sauron, but Frodo reaching out to Sam to pull him back up. Only then does the Ring melt. Jackson robs Frodo of agency in some parts of the trilogy (during the attack on Weathertop, for example), but here he gives it—in this climactic moment, everything depends on the actions of his exhausted, struggling protagonist, and it’s a moment of profound power. Frodo actively chooses not to give into despair, not to follow Gollum, Sauron’s spirit, and Denethor into the fire. He rises, as the others fall, not by his own strength, but with the help of his friend and companion.
Frodo’s salvation from the fires of Mount Doom is the first of the movie’s many “endings.” It’s become something of a joke, but I love every ending Jackson puts in here, and none feel superfluous. “You bow to no one,” “The Shire has been saved, but not for me,” the silent moment in the Green Dragon when the four hobbits realize no one around them will ever understand what they went through, and then Samwise gets up and goes to flirt with Rosie Cotton. And, of course, “Well, I’m back.” Will I ever not get teary-eyed at that final shot of Samwise’s round, yellow door? Probably not. Even without the Scouring, Jackson deftly and appropriately brings a close not just to one three-hour Hollywood epic, but three.
Throughout these reviews, I’ve imagined the movies being watched by a Star Wars and Tolkien fan named Elanor, who as a little girl saw The Hobbit movie on TV and had little idea she was witnessing a vision of pop culture’s thoroughly nerdy future. As little Elanor grew up into a Dungeons and Dragons-loving teen and then adult, she could not imagine that one day a Tolkien adaptation would tie Charlton Heston’s Biblical epic for the most ever Oscars. What a day of vindication and triumph for our Elanor when Hollywood crowned Return of the King as Best Picture! It was a crowning every bit as grand as Aragorn’s. A new age had begun.
But as Frodo tells Samwise, the story goes on, even after the happy ending. Jackson’s film trilogy utterly reshaped the Hollywood landscape, for good and for ill. Next time, we’ll look at Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a long-expected and much-anticipated film that is a byproduct, and a victim, of its predecessors’ spectacular success. After all, to invert Tolkien’s phrase, not all that glitters is gold.
Austin Gilkeson has written for Tin House, McSweeney’s, Vulture, Foreign Policy, The Toast, and other publications. He lives just outside Chicago with his wife and son.