The third and final book in J.R.R.Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, following The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. It was first published on October 20, 1955, though Tolkien originally wished for all three to be in one large volume, which is why this contains over 100 pages of appendices and a very large index. Synopsis follows. (The contents of Books 1-4 are found in the two previous novels.)


BOOK FIVE


I. Minas Tirith
This chapter follows Pippin as he and Gandalf ride on the mighty lord of horses Shadowfax across the border of Gondor and through the gate of its chief city. They meet and parley with the Steward of the realm, Denethor (father to Boromir and Faramir), about whom it is said he can see thoughts of men far away. Pippin does not explicitly tell him of the impending return of Aragorn, heir to the throne, but is unable to hide certain hinting details. Pippin swears his service to Denethor, and is given the company of Beregond, a man of arms of the Citadel, from whom he learns the passwords of the city and much about the coming battle with the forces of Mordor. He sees the Prince of Dol Amroth arrive with his army, but fears the men will still be vastly outnumbered.
II. The Passing of the Grey Company
We return to Isengard, where Merry, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli prepare to depart for Edoras, along with Theoden King of Rohan, his nephew Eomer, and some twenty riders. As they journey they are met by a company of thirty Rangers of the North led by Halbarad, Aragorn's kindred, along with Elladan and Elrohir, the sons of Elrond. They bring with them from Rivendell a gift from Arwen, a mysterious staff wrapped in black. The company has come to answer a call for reinforcements that Aragorn never sent. Legolas deduces Galadriel must have contacted them telepathically.

Aragorn looks into the palantir, the mystical seeing-stone seized from Saruman the wizard, and confronts the Dark Lord Sauron with the knowledge that he, descendant of Isildur, exists. He comes to the dreaded conclusion that he must take the Paths of the Dead to Minas Tirith, to rally the mountain men that Isildur cursed never to rest until they fulfilled their oath to fight against Sauron. Legolas, Gimli and the Rangers swear to go with him, and the company first rides to Edoras where Eowyn begs Aragorn not to face that peril. Neither will he let her ride with him (for she has sworn to govern until Theoden's return the following day).

Aragorn's company enters the Dark Door in the mountains. The ghosts gather behind him in the cave and he summons them to war. He unfurls the black flag he was brought and leads the legions of the dead to Mordor, gripped by insane fear, driven by titanic will.
III. The Muster of Rohan
Merry, Theoden, Eomer and many riders journey to Dunharrow for the weapontake. Eowyn meets them there with the news of Aragorn's grim path. A rider from Gondor brings word that Denethor summons them urgently, and fears they will not arrive in time to halt the orc assault. Theoden forbids Merry to accompany them to war, but a mysterious rider named Dernhelm agrees to hide Merry under his cloak.
IV. The Siege of Gondor
Upon Faramir's return, Denethor is deeply dissatisfied with his son for letting Frodo and Sam go. Faramir, in an attempt to redeem himself, leads a sortie against the oncoming forces and Prince Imrahil brings back his badly wounded body. Rather than deliver Faramir to the Houses of Healing, Denethor lies with him in the tombs and orders a servant to burn them both in a funeral pyre. Pippin manages to delay the servant and runs to find Gandalf. Passing Beregond, he asks his friend to do what he can against Denethor (which is treason).

Meanwhile, catapults sling fire bombs into the first of the seven circles of the city, and a gargantuan ram bashes down the gates. Gandalf alone stands to meet the enemy commander - The Witch-King, mightiest of the Nazgul. Just as Pippin sees this, he hears the horns of the Rohirrim off in the distance.
V. The Ride of the Rohirrim
Now we go back in time a couple of days to where we left Merry and Theoden. Orcs, anticipating the riders, have laid traps along the main road to Gondor, but Ghan-buri-Ghan, leader of the Wild Men of the mountains, agrees to show Theoden King a secret path through the Stonewain Valley. The riders arrive before Minas Tirith, unsure if they are too late. They blow their horns and charge forward, slaughtering the orcs in the fields.
VI. The Battle of the Pelennor Fields
The Nazgul disappears from the gate, and returns on his hideous flying steed, which attacks Snowmane, Theoden's horse, pinning the King underneath. Dernhelm is revealed to be Eowyn, and she slays the flying beast. The Nazgul strikes her down, breaking her arm, but Merry, too small to be seen, stabs him from behind and Eowyn ends the evil spirit's existence. Theoden crowns Eomer the new King of Rohan and dies never knowing that Eowyn lies near.

Meanwhile battle rages all around, the Haradrim with their vast beasts the mumakil outnumbering the Riders of Rohan at least three to one. And sailing down the river Anduin come great black ships: the Corsairs of Umbar, known allies of Sauron. But the banner of Gondor (the gift Arwen sent) is unfurled from a mast and Aragorn leaps from the ship to lead many men of the South forth. (The dead are noticeably not mentioned.) Caught between Eomer's riders and Aragorn, the Haradrim and the orcs of Mordor all perish.
VII. The Pyre of Denethor
Now we flash back to earlier in the battle, to see Pippin draw Gandalf away from the fight to save Faramir from Denethor. They reach the tombs to find that Beregond has already slain two other guards. Inside the tomb, Denethor has already set Faramir's body atop wood and is preparing to light it aflame. Gandalf spryly leaps onto the pyre and rescues Faramir's limp body. Denethor reveals that he has a palantir and had long ago decided that victory against the might of Mordor he could see within would be impossible. He leaps atop the pyre himself and sets it burning. Gandalf, Pippin, and Beregond escape just in time as the dome of the tomb cracks and crumbles. They hear the cry of the Nazgul being destroyed and go down toward the lower city to meet the Rohirrim.
VIII. The Houses of Healing
Merry, entering Minas Tirith, meets up with Pippin, and they journey to the Houses of Healing where Merry, Faramir and Eowyn are laid to rest. Aragorn enters the city cloaked, in secret, so as not to officially challenge the Stewardship, and examines the bodies. He determines that athelas is needed, as it was for Frodo's stab wound (in Chapter XI of FotR). In doing this he fulfills a prophecy of the wise-woman Ioreth that the rightful king would have the hands of a healer. Once the athelas is found and the wounded treated with it they awaken from the black sickness of the Nazgul, and they shall be well.
IX. The Last Debate
Legolas and Gimli journey into the city, find Merry and Pippin, and tell them what happened after they walked the Paths of the Dead. When they had arrived with the ghost army at Pelargir, Aragorn ordered the spirits to attack the fleet of Umbar, and the men allied with Sauron all fled. Aragorn released the dead from his service, and they vanished. The free men of the Southlands then rowed the ships upriver to Gondor.

Meanwhile, the leaders (Gandalf, Aragorn, Eomer, Imrahil, and the sons of Elrond) take counsel together to determine what their next move against Sauron should be. Gandalf advises they keep the evil Eye away from Sam and Frodo and fixed on them, therefore they should ride with seven thousand (a far smaller number than would be needed) to assault the Black Gate of Mordor, essentially walking into a trap, but with open eyes, though that may not save their lives. All agree that this course of action must be taken.
X. The Black Gate Opens
The great company made of all our heroes (minus the wounded) and their armies rides forth to Mordor. As they pass through Osgiliath and Ithilien they announce that the King has come, and leave some soldiers to defend those lands. They arrive at the Black Gate still having met no opposition and so they call forth a challenge. The Mouth of Sauron, a lieutenant of the Dark Tower of Barad-dur, meets them with taunts.

The Mouth throws down one of Galadriel's elven cloaks, Frodo's mithril coat, and Sam's sword. Not only is this seeming evidence the two hobbits have been captured if not killed, it (since Sam's sword, found in the Barrow-Downs of the North, is from Numenor) neatly constitutes a conspiracy of three races against Mordor. The Mouth demands that all lands east of the river Anduin now belong to Sauron, and Gondor and Rohan are tributary to Mordor. Gandalf refuses these terms and an ambush springs upon the soldiers, from within the Black Gate and from behind the hills outside it, outnumbering the men by ten times at least. The remaining Nazgul attack as well.

Pippin is attacked by a giant hill-troll. He manages to kill it from beneath, but is crushed by its dead body. As he lies he hears the mysterious cry "The Eagles are coming!" and then falls into darkness.



BOOK SIX


I. The Tower of Cirith Ungol
We flash backward in time two weeks to rejoin Sam outside the tower where Frodo has been captured, finally bridging the cliffhanger at the end of The Two Towers. He decides he must rescue his master rather than try to carry on and destroy the Ring by himself. The front door seems to be the only way into the tower, but Sam cannot use the Ring to make himself invisible to the orcs, or Sauron, being so close, would surely see him. However, he soon realizes that the respective forces of Shagrat and Gorbag, the two orcs he heard quarreling over Frodo before, are battling, leaving the tower almost unguarded. Two hideous statues use an invisible force to block Sam's entry, but he holds up the phial of Galadriel, which blinds them, and he runs past, but they squeal, and a bell rings, announcing his presence.

However, the only orc Sam encounters in the halls sees Sting (Bilbo's old elven sword) glowing and runs away. Sam climbs up and up to a balcony at the top of the tower where Shagrat escapes past him with Frodo's treasures but not before killing Gorbag. Sam searches the tower's pinnacle but cannot find Frodo. Overcome with weariness and despair, he sits on a stair and sings a tune and words of his own invention. Which causes an orc to emerge, open a trap door in the roof, and scold and whip someone. Sam springs up the ladder to battle the orc, who falls through the trap door, killing himself.

Frodo lies on the floor, naked and scarred. Sam gets him up and finds him orc clothes to wear. They both disguise themselves in orc cloaks and helms and climb back down the tower. Again they use the phial to get past the statue guards at the gate, which crumbles just behind them, but again they cry, and a Nazgul above hears.
II. The Land of Shadow
As Frodo and Sam run down the road, the Nazgul calls a troop of orcs to their position. They jump over the side of a bridge and into a tangle of thorny bushes to escape. They march north along the mountains for days, wracked by thirst, with only lembas to sustain them. Hiding from two orcs tracking them, they overhear that Gollum is still alive.

Now they begin to travel across the desolate pitted plains of Gorgoroth toward the mountain of fire itself. They are not on the road for long before a passing company of (easily fooled) orcs makes them fall in. Luckily, as many different troops converge at Udun, there is collision and confusion in which the hobbits manage to escape again.
III. Mount Doom
Frodo and Sam trudge toward the mountain for days, desperately exhausted. As all orc forces have been massed at the Black Gate, there is no one to spot them. Frodo at all times feels the pull of the Ring making him weaker, trying to control him. They shed all their orc gear, and even Sam's pack, to make the journey slightly more bearable.

Once they finally reach the base of the fuming mountain, Sam realizes that in case of Frodo's (increasingly likely) collapse he doesn't have the slightest idea how to find the Cracks of Doom, or what exactly to do with the Ring once he gets there. Luckily they stumble upon a road winding up the side of the volcano, which is Sauron's own road, leading (in the opposite direction) straight to Barad-dur. As the hobbits literally crawl up the slope, Gollum returns and attacks them, but the threat to the Ring gives Frodo new strength and he fights him off, then continues on the path. Sam has the chance to kill Gollum, but pity takes him, and he cannot. Gollum flees and Sam runs to catch up with his master, who has already entered the door of the Sammath Naur where the Ring was forged.

The evil of the Ring seizes Frodo. He chooses not to destroy it, and instead puts it on. Suddenly Gollum leaps into the chamber, wrestling with the invisible Frodo, and bites his finger off with the Ring still on it. But Gollum cannot claim his prize, because he falls into the chasm, taking the Ring with him. Sam grabs the once more wounded Frodo and carries him outside, where a vicious storm assaults the land as the mountain belches fire and the Nazgul race toward them. They know that they will die, but also that they have succeeded at last.
IV. The Field of Cormallen
As the Ring is destroyed, the Black Gate falls and the forces of Mordor flee. Gandalf summons three of the giant eagles to bear him to Mount Doom, swifter than the Nazgul can fly, to rescue Frodo and Sam. The eagles bear them away just before lava would engulf them. The two hobbits awake days later in a camp in Ithilien where they are reunited with all the members of the Fellowship. All the men praise them and sing songs in their honor, and the company journeys back to Minas Tirith so the King can claim the throne.
V. The Steward and the King
We go backward in time again, to spend two weeks with Faramir and Eowyn as they recover from their wounds in the Houses of Healing. As they walk in the gardens they both discover that the other is strong and beautiful, and they fall in love, though Eowyn is to proud to admit it. After they receive news of the fall of Sauron, Faramir proposes marraige to her, and she renounces being a shieldmaiden.

Aragorn enters the city and is crowned King, but not by Faramir; he has Frodo bring the crown to him and Gandalf set it upon his head. He gives to Faramir Ithilien to be his princedom and appoints Beregond the captain of his Guard. Many days later, a party of Elves arrive at the city, among them Galadriel, Celeborn, Glorfindel, Elrond, and Arwen. Aragorn and Arwen are wedded at last.
VI. Many Partings
The hobbits begin their journey back north to the Shire, and are accompanied by the whole Fellowship and all the Elves, and Eomer and Eowyn. At Edoras the body of Theoden is buried, and Eomer is officially made King. At Isengard they find the tower of Orthanc in the midst of a lake and the land covered anew with orchards. Treebeard tells Gandalf and the company he let Saruman and Wormtongue go, believing them weak and capable of no further harm, and Gandalf is dubious. Aragorn leaves them for the city.

A week later, the party encounters the two villains in the woods, resembling wretched beggars. Before wandering away, Saruman steals Merry's pipe-weed and makes cryptic threats about the Shire. Celeborn and Galadriel part for Lothlorien and the rest of them shortly arrive at Rivendell where they immediately seek out Bilbo, who is very old indeed, but still alive. They realize he is too old in fact to set their story down in writing as he promised to, but he tells them to take his work and arrange it into proper shape. He also reveals to Frodo he will be traveling across the sea to Valinor with Elrond.
VII. Homeward Bound
The company is now reduced to just the four hobbits and Gandalf, and they arrive at the town of Bree to discuss events with Butterbur, the innkeeper of the Prancing Pony, who is quite shocked to discover Strider is his new king. Sam also learns to his delight that Bill the pony has made it home safe, all the way back from the gate of Moria. As they depart, Gandalf says that he shall not come with them to the Shire, for things there must be set right by the hobbits alone. He goes instead to have a long talk with Tom Bombadil.
VIII. The Scouring of the Shire
The hobbits find many foreboding spiked gates in the Shire, with angry Shirriffs trying to arrest them for Trespassing and Tearing up of Rules and the like. The whole population seems to be held in fear, with all supplies such as firewood and food gathered and "redistributed", and no pipe-weed for anyone but the Chief, Lotho (a relative of Frodo's), his cohort Sharkey, and their Men. Of course the hobbits are still dressed for war and they frighten off all the lightly armed Shirriffs and Men they encounter on the way to the Green Dragon.

The four hobbits rouse several dozen of the townspeople and convince them to revolt with simple weapons like axes, hammers and knives (luckily they have bows and arrows too). By the next day, there are a couple hundred angry hobbits, and a short battle follows, which the hobbits win, with some casualties. (Frodo keeps many of his kin from slaying Men taken prisoner in anger.) The hobbits journey to Bag End, Frodo's old home, to discover Saruman himself is Sharkey and has set all this evil in motion.

Frodo tells Saruman merely to leave, which he pretends he will do, then he stabs Frodo. The knife snaps on Frodo's mithril coat and once again Frodo spares Saruman's life, telling him to go. Saruman reveals Wormtongue slew Lotho (at his order) and kicks Wormtongue as they go. Suddenly Wormtongue rises up, slashes Saruman's throat, and runs down the lane, and hobbit arrows shoot him dead before Frodo can do anything. The War of the Ring appears to be over at last.
IX. The Grey Havens
In the year that follows, the hobbits set Bag End and the rest of the Shire back to the way they were. Sam plants the dust in the box that Galadriel gave him in as many gardens as he can, and the plants grow up beautiful and strong. He marries Rosie Cotton, and they have a daughter named Elanor, and they all live in Bag End with Frodo.

But the time comes when Frodo, who could never fully recover from the stab wound the Nazgul gave him, must ride to the ships, and so sail into the West. Sam rides with him, and they meet a large party of Elves. It is revealed at last that the bearers of the three Elven Rings were Elrond, Galadriel, and Gandalf himself. Merry and Pippin ride up in great haste, so Sam does not have to ride back alone. The ships depart, and the three hobbits ride back to their happy home, and there the tale ends.

APPENDICES

I'm not going to do a sectional rundown, since what we have here is more lists than "story", but this is over 100 pages of background information on the entire 1000-page novel. (Since most of the footnotes referring us to the Appendices are in The Fellowship of the Ring, it's somewhat frustrating to have the whole split up into separate books - to be stuck without the information when you need it.) It opens with a history of Numenor, the ancient island kingdom that serves as Tolkien's analogue to Atlantis, which essentially summarizes the (uncompleted) tale found in The Silmarillion. We also get the backstory of how Aragorn and Arwen met, with more focus on the dilemma of an immortal in love with a human - much material was extracted from here to fuel the films' romantic subplot.

Complete chronologies. This either leaves you drooling (and goggling at the level of detail Tolkien built into his world) or not giving a crap. We get the name of EVERY lord of Gondor, Rohan, and Erebor (mountain kingdom of the dwarves) along with the year they were coronated. General histories of the lands link the listings - this would be a good time to mention the family trees for our four hobbit protagonists, which stretch back at least five generations. And, there's a calendar revealing on which day of the year every event of the novel occurred - which then extends far past the events of the last chapter to tell of Aragorn's death, and Legolas and Gimli's sailing into the West.

BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE! This is strictly convention-level stuff: If you thought coming up with mythic histories was tough, try creating functional languages. Though The Silmarillion's glossary is where you learn most of the etymology of Sindarin ("Low" Elvish), this is where you're taught how to pronounce its alphabet. Act now to receive this special bonus: Cirth, the runes the dwarves used to write. All of this was published decades before the Klingon dictionary, but after obsessed devotees had already composed fan letters to Tolkien in Sindarin.




Since (as I've said before) the three books are all one story, I wanted to take a little space here to give my thoughts about the novel as a whole.

Well, first off, you don't need me to tell you that it's brilliant. As a deliberate attempt to create a rich mythology out of whole cloth for Tolkien's homeland of Britain (which became wildly successful internationally, and remains so), it's all the more courageous coming in the wake of the early 20th century's pioneers of deconstruction like F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce and William Burroughs. Tolkien proved to the baby boomers that heroic archetypes still resonate, and can be satisfyingly complex.

The voice Tolkien selects to tell the tale has as much stake in establishing a mythic atmosphere as the tale itself: obsolete morphology borrowed from Shakespeare and the King James Bible ("Didst thou think...?"); a habit of beginning paragraphs with "But" and "Then" and "For" to keep the pace of the entirety scrolling, and deliver a sense of imaginary import; endless extrapolations (often mid-sentence) of society building based on the pretense that these actions led to the domination of Man we are a part of today.

Moreover, the sheer scale of the journey affected me, on what I believe to be a primal level. I'll explain: I'm a consciousness lucky enough to have been placed in the 21st century, where technological marvels ensure that any trans-global jaunt -- even, say, to the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro -- can be completed in something like a week, and conversely, home is never very far away (temporally). However, for most of human history, the limitations of travel defined the borders of civilization. As Frodo's quest took him further from the Shire and into foreign lands of increasing danger, something in my genes connected with his longing, his dawning understanding of the enormousness of separation the world engenders, and the titanic effort needed to overcome it.

Now. What do we know about the upcoming film adaptation?

The usual cast and crew are involved, of course:

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW

If you were a fan of the first two films, it is likely you will think the third is the best of them all, especially if you have NOT read the books. If it's action you're after, the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, which comprises most of the middle of the film, is utterly breathtaking and probably does trump the siege of Helm's Deep. If it's character development, you will see each of the four hobbits grow into a true hero. Peter Jackson has succeeded in making one twelve-hour adventure epic (I'm including extended editions in the tally) which is superior to all other trilogies Hollywood has offered us. (Yes, even the original Star Wars flicks, much as I love them. I stand by this.) So, if you like movies, you should see this one.

SPOILER-COSTLY ANALYSIS

Hi, I'm Walter. I'm the guy who loves everything!

Of course, not really. But it could easily seem that way to you, since I'm usually only willing to invest the energy in a long review of something I really care about, something that makes me excited. I can't do a point-by-point synopsis of the film's sequence of parallel events -- I just don't remember enough, and as some of you have asked me, what, really, is the point. Fair enough. What I do want to go over is what was altered, and what effect that has on the flow and the meaning of the story.

(I'm just going by my personal reactions to the novel, so be forewarned, highly subjective, et cetera. Just my two cents. Well, possibly slightly more than two.)

I am not a spoilsport. Let's start with the good changes.

  • The Scouring of the Shire.

    Sure, I'll say it: I am glad this sequence never happened in the film. (After seeing it with an audience, this no longer feels like going out on a limb. More on that later.) It is the dictionary definition of anticlimactic. When I came upon this in the novel, I was a little shocked that Tolkien was trying to drag the story out so far past its clear conclusion. "How can there be MORE?!? If these hobbits can save the world, surely they can kick the asses of other hobbits." And of course they do, and you have to wait DAYS for it. I do understand the symbolic portion of it -- evil can invade your home, and hence, your heart. Some tell me this underlines the allegory of the oncoming mechanical/medieval revolution -- an effect of the Fourth Age, the era of Man. I hear that, it makes sense, but it still feels like the story shooting itself in the foot. Not worth it. So, wise decision, Pete.

  • The Defeat of Saruman

    So, since Saruman doesn’t get stabbed by Wormtongue in the Shire, when and where does he get his comeuppance? Well, it happens in the Tower of Orthanc, after Gandalf confronts him. This scene was moved from the end of The Two Towers to the beginning of RotK, and then, as you may have heard, and to the great offense of Christopher Lee himself, cut from the film entirely. Once word got out, Jackson, in a move rare for one of Hollywood’s top directors, rushed to the press personally to ensure the fans that the scene would be included on the Special Extended Edition DVD, which of course means no one will see it for a year. I’m marking this as a positive because Jackson knew that element of the Scouring storyline was important enough to be kept; however, as we shall see, the film possibly could have stood to lose seven minutes at the end in exchange for the final fate of a key villain.

  • The Dead at Minas Tirith

    This one I agree with so strongly it was already in my subconscious. See, even though I’d read the book twice, I forgot what actually happens and remembered it Jackson’s way, even before I knew Jackson’s way. As I went through the third time, making notes for the above summary, I said, “Wait a minute. The zombie ghosts don’t even get to go to the Fields of Pelennor? They just get ‘em the ships, and then there’s these other dudes, the Men of the South? Man, that’s lame. I wanted to see ghosts vs. orcs.” Saving the city of Isildur, the king they were indebted to, is much more fitting. And the way they spiral up it in a shimmering green sweep…wonderful. The supernatural element helps bring a quick decisive end to a gigantic battle which is, after all, only the film’s second act. It’s just a better idea.

  • The Absence of Beregond, Ghan-Buri-Ghan and the Dunedain

    You know, I like all these guys so much it almost pains me to admit the story flows smoother without them. (Though GBG is listed on the imdb, so he may be on the DVD, fyi.) Instead of the sons of Elrond bearing the black flag we get Elrond himself at Dunharrow, bringing Anduril, the sword forged from the shards of Narsil. Since the sword symbolizes Aragorn’s will to accept the mantle of kingship, if he were to walk away from Rivendell with it in the first film, where’s the doubt? Where’s the character arc? So I’m on board with this as well. Wow, I think I wandered into something totally different there.

  • The Identity of Dernhelm

    Well, let’s be honest, this was never going to work on film, was it? We would have known it was Eowyn before she said a word to Merry, no matter how bulky a helmet she wore, and we would have thought him pretty stupid not to figure it out too. So it’s better not to pretend it’s a secret.

  • The Red Arrow

    Instead of sending a rider from Gondor to Rohan, the distress call is sent by the lighting of “The Beacon”: a series of bonfires stretching leagues from Minas Tirith to Edoras. This is yet another classic scene in which Howard Shore’s majestic score uplifts us, and we marvel at the ingenuity of a pre-industrial society. Excellent addition.

Now, before I begin this next section, lest I seem to be registering my disgust like a stereotypically unappreciative dork-culture addict, I just want to reiterate that for the first two hours of this film, I loved it. I was there, man, I was in it. Shelob made my heart pound, Minas Tirith made me gasp, the Rohirrim made me misty. I was all set to call this film the best of the three, maybe one of my favorites of all time.

But then things went downhill. Fast. All of my favorite scenes from the book, the ones that made the story mean something, were gone. And what was in their stead was completely unnecessary.

  • The Mouth of Sauron

    This is about more than the loss of a superb villain, one whose appearance would have used up two minutes of screen time tops, who completes the vague analogy of the Eye. (That scene where the Eye sweeps over the Plains of Gorgoroth like a prison yard spotlight? Ridiculous. It’s psychic. You can’t duck out of its path.) This is about the removal of the story’s ultimate jeopardy.

    We had the scene where Shagrat steals Frodo’s belongings. And we needed a scene where he gets past Sam with them, so the Mouth can throw them in Gandalf’s face. Our heroes believe that they are dying to help divert the forces from Mount Doom, that they are sacrificing themselves for the quest, but that is not enough. That’s what got them on the road. Once they reach the Black Gate, they must discover that Frodo has failed -- that they are dying for nothing.

    And then they must keep fighting. And only then can they be rewarded with Frodo’s success. The single greatest moment of hope-crushing peril, the most horror our heroes could imagine, is gone. And their ensuing victory, while not hollow, feels cheapened.

  • Faramir and Eowyn

    Both rulers’ noble descendants have been royally screwed out of what they deserve. Faramir desires recognition of his worth from his father; Eowyn needs to be a warrior despite her gender. As they recover in the Houses of Healing from the wounds caused by their bravery, they each discover a kindred soul. This love story always meant much more to me than the predictable fate of Aragorn and Arwen (which remains predictable even with all the obstacles Jackson and his writers toss in the way). And it’s just gone. They get no reward. Thanks for tossing yourself into the fray! Better luck next war.

    To be fair: At Aragorn’s coronation/wedding we get two shots of Faramir and Eowyn standing next to each other, beaming. Not holding hands, not even looking at each other. I guess you have to assume they ended up together; otherwise, wouldn’t the wedding make Eowyn sad? But to have no explanation for it…she seems like a bit of a tramp, doesn’t she?

    Again: this subplot could be resolved in two minutes. It doesn’t have to show all two weeks of recuperation and she doesn’t have to renounce being a shieldmaiden (in case Mr. Tolkien’s 50’s story gives any 21st century feminists pause). All we need is a scene where Faramir notices her and asks an attendant about her, and a scene where he tells her how beautiful and brave she is and she gives him that glance that says the ice is melting. The story tells itself. I so badly wanted the score to swell just for them.

  • The Madness of Denethor

    Say, just why was that nutty not-king so convinced of his defeat that he was willing to burn himself alive? Just a Grumpy Gus? Just too bad he wasn’t born in the Prozac era? No, if you’ve checked the recap above you’ll know that he had a palantir. What’s the maximum amount of screen time this revelation could have sucked up? Fifteen seconds? But no, let’s just keep him craaaaaaazeeeeeee cuz I heard the kids dig that. I heard they also dig it when a dude on fire jumps off a cliff.

  • The Greed of Gollum

    Now let’s fiddle with the very moral of the story, its very heart. At the center of Mount Doom, Frodo puts on the ring and Gollum bites off Frodo’s finger. Instead of this violent action carrying Gollum to his death, what if, after that, there was a whole bunch of wrestling? And then they both fall off the cliff, and it’s like really suspenseful, and then Frodo is clinging above the drop with one hand exactly like you’ve seen people do in a thousand other movies? And then he’s able to extend his wounded hand for Sam to grab, even though this would cause excruciating agony and muscle spasms. Yeah, that’d be cool. That’d be — what’s the word? -- dramatic.

  • The “Awakening” of Frodo

    So, after being rescued from the slopes of Mount Doom by the Eagles, Frodo opens his eyes in a bed in Minas Tirith to see…Gandalf! Now, the obvious point of this scene is that Frodo, who thinks Gandalf died in Moria, would now think he himself had died in the lava. Only nobody mentions this. Nobody mentions anything, not even that they won the war. They laugh! They chortle and chuckle and guffaw, with Gandalf, in extreme closeup, looking like nothing so much as Gay Santa. Then Merry and Pippin come to the door, exchange meaningful love-filled glances with Frodo, and literally pounce on the bed.

    Now at this point, I’d say a good third of the theater was doing their own laughing. At, not with. And I was trying to be courteous, thinking, boy, these jaded New Yorkers love to appear insensitive. But when Gimli came to the door and cackled with glee, and we realized we would have to go through this cheeseball nonsense with every member of the Fellowship…well, we all lost it. Everyone in the theater. Including me. Even now, the thought of it makes me smile.

    And I can’t stand that. Because it was supposed to make me cry. I’m man enough to admit Films One and Two have their moments where I get sniffly. But this? This was a 180 degree fuckup. It was a silly goddamn joke. And guess how much the story suffers if you slash it out and go straight to the coronation? Not at all. What, I wonder, did this scene look like in the script?

    FRODO
    (smiling invitingly)


    SAM
    (gazing longingly)


    FRODO
    (blushing)


    SAM
    (adjusting embarrassingly large erection)


    GANDALF

    Ho ho ho!

    It’s not that I mind any suggestion that the hobbits might be gay. Hell, when I first read the books at age twelve I thought Frodo and Sam were queer as koalas. It’s being beaten over the head with it, to the exclusion of several other important resolutions, over and over, in super slow motion. Anyway, I’m sure I’ve bitched enough, but the point is, at this point I felt forcibly ejected from the movie. No matter what happened next, I wasn’t able to care.

  • Many, Many, Many, Many Partings

    This is such a serious problem that even numerous mainstream print and television reviewers have commented on it, and they don’t typically see films with an audience. My crowd, which had no problem cheering its approval during the battles, was groaning in exasperation through the final fifteen minutes. Happily ever after. We get it. Can we go now? It wouldn’t be so bad if Jackson didn’t take the deliberate step of repeatedly fading out to black (or white), then fading back in just as you’ve gotten up from your seat. Psych!

    What’s extremely odd about this misstep is that it’s a rhythm Jackson got dead right on the theatrical cut of The Two Towers. The Special Extended Edition DVD adds four more scenes in between the victory at Helm’s Deep and the credits, and Pete admits on the commentary that a crowd which has sat still for three hours will want to head out at the earliest opportunity. So why did that impulse fail you this time around, Pete? There’s nothing wrong with the scenes at Bag End or the Grey Havens. They’re just superfluous. Which means they’re only for obsessed fans, which means they go on the DVD. Now I understand why Christopher Lee is so pissed about being cut out of the film. I don’t think it’s ego. I think, as a fan of the books for decades, he understood how wildly off balance that would throw the story.

I know. Bitch, bitch, bitch. So, I’m telling you it sucked, right? Hell no! It’s still got two hours of some of the most stunning, stirring, soaring adventure ever put on film. After I go to see it a couple more times, I’ll probably adore it just like I do the other two. I don’t know if that’s healthy or not. I just hope it’s clear that I’m not complaining just because events in the book were tampered with. I don’t miss Tom Bombadil, and I don’t care whether elves were at Helm’s Deep. I’m just after the best possible story, no matter who comes up with which part. That’s what a myth is supposed to be.

This final installment in Peter Jackson's filmed trilogy based on Tolkein's Lord of the Rings is a hard film to review properly because there's so much packed into the movie's 3.5 hours ... dang, where to begin?

Is it epic? This movie hearkens back to the vast old epics of the Golden Age of Hollywood like The Thief of Bagdad -- the silent, original Douglas Fairbanks version with its dashing hero and fabulous sets and thousands of extras. It gives the grand old movies a tip 'o the helmet ... and leaves them in the dust.

Is the movie perfect? No. Perfection lies in the eye of the beholder, and I'm sure every Tolkien fan who's held the books close to their hearts will have quibbles here and there ... just like they have with the first two movies. The movies on the screen are never as good as the movies in our minds.

Is this -- when combined with the first two movies -- possibly the best movie ever made?

Let me hear a "Hell, yeah!"

This is the stuff George Lucas thinks he can make. It delivers the goods we grew up craving after seeing the original Star Wars films as children ... only Jackson's trilogy won't suffer from adult viewing.

Take The Empire Strikes Back, my personal favorite of the originals. The battle on Hoth in which the huge Imperial Walkers attack the rebel base was the best scene ever, as far as 12-year-old me was concerned. And I kept watching the movie, again and again, until logic finally reared its ugly head: if the Empire could land machines of that size intact on the icy planet ... why weren't they just using mass driver weapons and burying the base under great huge chunks of rock? Why engage the rebels at all when they could just crush them from afar? The scene, I realized, had no solid reason for being there, other than to be exciting eye candy.

Flash forward 20 years to The Return of the King. In the battle for Minas Tirith, our heroes are attacked by the Haradrim riding the huge, elephantine mumakil. Watching Eowyn riding between the great beasts' legs and dodging crushing death gave me the kind of thrill that took me back to my 12-year-old self watching the Imperial Walkers for the first time. And Legolas' taking out the mumakil's riders and finally the beast itself left Luke Skywalker's grenade-throwing heroics in the snow.

And more important -- the presence of the mumakil and their Haradrim masters makes perfect sense within the world of the movie. Logic didn't have to be suspended for this battle to take place -- it had been set up all along.

The visuals in the movie are spectacular. Any individual element -- the made-by-real-smiths armor and weapons, the painstakingly sewn costumes, the careful, beautiful detailing of the sets, the CGI, the cinematography -- is a phenomenal cinematic achievment. But the awesome spectacle of the battles and the special effects never distances us from or buries the plight of the individual characters. In fact, the epic elements support and echo the small, individual struggles that are taking place in the story.

While the Minas Tirith battle raged, I was on the edge of my seat wondering if Pippin could reach Gandalf in time to save Faramir from being burned alive. And Denethor's dark madness was just as big and scary as any mumakil.

While we're talking about performances here, I thought going in that Aragorn -- the title character, really -- would be the moral center of the movie. I was wrong; this film's center is Samwise Gamgee. Sean Astin did a wonderful job, and I think he should certainly be nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar nomination, but like so many other rubber mask theater actors I fear he will be overlooked.

Jackson has done what Lucas and hundreds of directors before have often failed to do: given us kick-ass effects that took untold man hours and coordination and stunts and CGI, but never let all the eye candy distract him -- or us -- from the heart of the story.


On February 29, 2004, The Return of the King swept the Oscars: the movie won every last award for which it had been nominated, bringing home 11 Academy Awards (three to Jackson himself). This tied the record held by Ben Hur and Titanic -- in my book, Jackson's epic did Titanic one better because the big ship movie lost in some of its nominated categories. Pity RotK didn't get a nomination for sound editing or cinematography, else it might have broken the record.

It's a larger pity that none of the actors were nominated for awards, but the mere fact that a work of rubber mask theater stormed the Academy Awards is no small feat. This should pave the way for a lot more fantasy films, and while many of those are sure to be poor imitations, Jackson has raised the bar very high, and other directors are certain to try to reach his new standard.

Viggo Mortensen and company can at least console themselves that they won the Screen Actors Guild ensemble award this year for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, which is nothing to sneeze at.

Here is a list of the Oscars Return of the King took home to New Zealand:

  • ART DIRECTION: Grant Major (Art Direction); Dan Hennah and Alan Lee (Set Decoration)
  • COSTUME DESIGN: Ngila Dickson and Richard Taylor
  • DIRECTING: Peter Jackson
  • FILM EDITING: Jamie Selkirk
  • MAKEUP: Richard Taylor, Peter King
  • MUSIC (SCORE): Howard Shore
  • MUSIC (SONG): "Into the West" Music and Lyric by Fran Walsh and Howard Shore and Annie Lennox
  • BEST PICTURE: Barrie M. Osborne, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh
  • SOUND MIXING: Christopher Boyes, Michael Semanick, Michael Hedges and Hammond Peek
  • VISUAL EFFECTS: Jim Rygiel, Joe Letteri, Randall William Cook and Alex Funke
  • WRITING (ADAPTED SCREENPLAY): Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson

December 2004 Update: The Extended Editon on DVD

I just wanted the extended edition of RotK, and as with the other extended editions, it's a better movie. In many ways, the restored scenes make it a much darker movie.

The CGI effects have been re-rendered -- not added and redone Lucas-style, but re-rendered to improve the look of the effects. They have better detail and depth now; the Spider Queen, in particular, is even more realistically grotesque, and I didn't think that was really possible.

Many fans had questioned why Saruman's scenes were cut from the theatrical release, and I think I know why. The theatrical release was already very, very long for theatre-goers with supersized sodas clutched in their hands at the start and aching bladders at the end. An intermission for all the films would have been good, but intermissions just don't exist in the cinema marketplace these days. So a 7 minute scene, while not very long itself, might have tipped the movie over the edge into "too long for one sitting" territory.

More to the point, though, is that the deleted Saruman scene, along with the other deleted scenes, is violent. Violent enough, I think, to perhaps cost the movie its rating. There's more to the opening sequence between Smeagol and Deagol, and it's more brutal and disturbing. Certainly more effective, but less appropriate for younger viewers.

One tone-crucial scene that's been restored is the confrontation with The Mouth of Sauron at the black gates of Mordor. The Mouth is played by Bruce Spence with some CGI help, and damn, he's creepy. He looks like something spawned by HR Geiger and Clive Barker. The Mouth makes the Fellowship believe that Frodo is dead -- so Aragorn's decision to attack Mordor anyhow completely changes in tone and meaning.

Some nicer scenes have been restored as well. There's the meeting of Faramir and Eowyn in the healing house, and some scenes between Merry and Eowyn on their way to war.

What isn't in the restoration? There's no funeral or memorial for Theoden, and there's no Scouring of the Shire. Ah well. I enjoyed what there was.

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