The Return of the King, Extended Edition review by Greg Wright
I have to assume that those who really want to know about the Extended Edition of The Return of the King are already fans of Peter Jackson’s adapted Lord of the Rings.
After all, would anyone who dislikes Krispy Kremes be interested in merely a bigger Krispy Kreme? I doubt it. And what makes a Krispy Kreme special, so I have been told, is all in the eye of the consumer, as it were.
But wait, you say. The Return of the King is no light-as-air confection. And of course I agree, though not everyone would. Further, I suggest that the Extended Edition is as much a different movie from the theatrical version as was the extended Fellowship—as different as a slice of New York cheesecake is from a Krispy Kreme.
My point is this: not everyone likes Krispy Kremes, though the vast majority does. And the Extended Edition is not just a bigger Krispy Kreme. It’s more than that, and entirely different.
So, rather than provide a detailed rundown of what’s new in the longer treatment of Jackson’s King (which every fan will know about soon enough, anyway), I’ll attempt to do two things: first, explain to fans why they have good reason to be excited about this edition (precisely because it’s not simply more of what they already like); and second, persuade a few of Jackson’s harsher critics that “biting into” the Extended Edition won’t merely amount to more of a bad thing.
Why the Extended King Is Better
Football is said to be a game of inches. Championships can be lost merely by the failure of a running back to stretch that last yard for the pylon. (Don’t we know that in Seattle?)
In the same way, film is an art form of milliseconds. Editors agonize to get each cut right, down to that 1/24th of each second for which each individual frame stays on the screen. Get the cuts right, and cinematic magic has been wrought. Get them wrong, and the audience is lost.
Just from that standpoint—and leaving issues of special effects, sound editing and scoring entirely aside—the same raw footage may produce two entirely different films depending on how that footage is edited. Given, then, that the Extended Edition of The Return of the King has not only been edited differently but has also increased the running time by fifty minutes, it is—technically—a completely different work of art.
But the changes run deeper than just thousands of new frames and variations on existing themes. Most significantly, the protracted ending—which was the object of most critical barbs in the original release—does not now seem nearly so protracted. It is also more well-earned.
For one thing, the added and extended scenes provide a greater understanding of various characters’ motivation: why Pippin is really drawn to the Palantír, how Faramir has anticipated the Orc attack across Anduin, why Denethor’s resentment of his younger son reaches its peak following the garrison’s repulsion from Osgiliath, why Denethor’s despair is unfounded madness, why Gandalf’s confidence is shaken following the siege of Minas Tirith, and why Aragorn can conversely be so confident that Sauron will be alarmed by Gondor’s march to the Black Gate.
For another, a great many loose ends are tied up. We find out, for instance, what becomes of Saruman and Wormtongue. We find out how the Palantír came to rest at the base of Orthanc, and what happens to it after Pippin’s indiscretion at Edoras. We see how Aragorn’s ghostly host overcomes the Black Ships. We find out what happened to Gandalf’s staff. Éomer, Faramir and Éowyn don’t simply seem to fall off the face of Middle-earth.
And there are just so many nice touches: Tolkien’s personal nightmares of a giant wave rolling over green fields finding their way into Éowyn’s nights; sunlight on the king’s garland at the crossroads; a single blossom on the White Tree of Gondor; the look of dismay on Aragorn’s face while looking down on Pelargir; Éomer’s grief over his sister’s broken body; the hands of a healer; and Gandalf’s showdown with the Witch King of Angmar.
In total, it all adds up to a much stronger argument against despair. During interviews for the theatrical release, Jackson remarked, “It must be about hope. I don’t think the alternative is particularly attractive. There has to be some degree of hope.” And of course the sum is greater than the parts.
But the parts themselves also highlight why the extended cut is not just a stronger statement but also a better movie: because the theatrical cut—despite its many bravura sequences—often gave character development short shrift, left far too many threads dangling in Middle-earth’s winds, and allowed precious little time for those nice touches.
This is not to say that the extended cut is perfect. There still seems to be information missing in Arwen’s scenes with Elrond, Éowyn’s affection for Faramir still dawns much too quickly, Merry still seems missing in action prior to those split seconds in which he slashes at the Witch King’s heel, and the sequence of events at the Black Gate remains a rushed puzzlement.
But this cut of The Return of the King, this very different film twelve months removed from the demise of Jackson’s friend Cameron Duncan, is far less about the sadness of death than it is about the hope that remains the other side of that seeming darkness. This time, Jackson doesn’t just have to “hope hope is there.” It is there.
Why Jackson May Disagree
Presumably, Peter Jackson will not now renege on his assertion a year ago that the theatrical cuts are the versions of his movies that he prefers. When I participated in round-table interviews with the director, he was quite emphatic on this point, theorizing that the only reason fans can bear the longer versions is that they have the luxury of viewing them in their own homes. But apparently Jackson thought in December of 2003 that theatrical audiences could stand a longer running time than he thought they could in December of 2001. After all, the running time of the theatrical King compares pretty favorably with the running time of the extended Fellowship. Perhaps Jackson simply isn’t the best judge of what audiences can bear when it comes to their appetite for Tolkien and good filmmaking.
Screening The Return of the King “with people who were intimately involved in the film,” Jackson ironically notes in an Extended Edition bonus feature, “gives you quite a misleading sense of exactly what you’re dealing with because you’ve then got to look at it in the cold light of day and say: Okay, what does somebody who’s not that attached to the movie going to actually make of all this?”
And this may not be so obvious, but the answer to that question was not necessarily to be found in the audience response to the theatrical cut. After all, at that point, how many of us could honestly claim to not be “intimately involved in the film?” Jackson and his crew weren’t the only ones to have lived and breathed Middle-earth over the last several years. Yes, of course, they were more enmeshed and heavily invested in bringing that vision to the screen. But as audiences filed in to theaters to feast on their first serving of The Return of the King, their appetites had most certainly been whetted. Objectivity had long since been lost, and their responses were quite intimately bound up in The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, Tolkien, and Peter Jackson himself.
When it comes down to it, I just don’t know that there are more than a handful of critics who could objectively assess this Extended Edition. But I’d be willing to bet that those who do retain that capacity will be far more impressed than they would have been with the theatrical cut, if they had seen it.
Jackson’s opinion of the theatrical cut is also dependent on his own preferences, and I have no doubt that he was a more than a little depressed during the theatrical release press junkets, due both to his sadness at Cameron Duncan’s death and the predictable letdown following the conclusion of the superhuman post-production cycle leading up to the film’s release. Would Jackson have cut the film as he originally did were he in his present state of mind? I doubt it.
A great additional service, of course, that this Extended Edition release does the moviegoing public is the much-anticipated collection of bonus features (if you track down the actual hardware, rather than stream this online). Writer-director Michael Pellerin has done an astounding job of compiling a truly insightful and meaningful look into the process and significance of bringing the final installment of this cinematic trilogy to the screen and into our homes. In fact, these features are as much a monumental accomplishment in their own right as The Return of the King itself, and just as deserving of praise and awards. (They also expose the bonus features that were included with the theatrical release home video edition for the literally ridiculous sham that many of them, such as the National Geographic feature, were.)
“J.R.R. Tolkien: The Legacy of Middle-earth” may, in fact, be the definitive video talking-head analysis of the significance of The Lord of the Rings. Colin Duriez and Bill Welden rightly point out, among other things, how dependent Tolkien’s invented world was upon the Judeo-Christian tradition of the Fall of Man. Further, Tom Shippey, John Garth, and Brian Sibley all discuss at length Tolkien’s theory of “eucatastrophe” and its connection to his epic story: how Middle-earth’s deliverance from the tyranny of Sauron and his Ring at Sammath Naur was intended to invoke the joy of the resurrection of the Christ, the victory of God over sin and the grave.
Still, I have a hard time shaking the feeling that this collection of bonus features is a concerted effort to somehow give New Line and Peter Jackson more credit for honoring Tolkien’s themes than they deserve. It’s disconcerting to see Shippey defending Jackson’s interpretation of the Grey Havens as a metaphor for death; and it’s downright irritating to know for a fact that, at the time of the theatrical release of the film, Boyens and Walsh had no understanding of the Catholic view of fallenness, and that Jackson himself had never even heard of the term “eucatastrophe;” I know because I was the one who asked him about it. Heck, I even know first-hand that as of the release of The Two Towers composer Howard Shore was ignorant of the Music of the Ainur. Pellerin may know his stuff, but Jackson and company simply did not.
The End of All Things
But here, at the last, I must content myself with having documented, along the way, the points at which Jackson’s vision has diverged from Tolkien’s. The web pages containing my exhaustive coverage of the films will be forever enshrined in the Internet Wayback Machine, and I can also hope that my book Peter Jackson in Perspective will suitably serve as the companion piece for the Extended Edition that I intended it to be. After five years of intense journalistic activity, it was time for me, too, to begin letting go of The Lord of the Rings. And I doubt I had any easier time of it than Jackson obviously had.
“It’s a tough project to say goodbye to,” says sound designer David Farmer. “It’s not just any old trilogy. It’s a pretty special part of history—and not just for the people that watch it, but for the people that worked on it.”
Thanks, Mr. Jackson. Thanks for letting us all intimately partake of your vision. Even ten years after the fact, you have helped make our perception of Tolkien’s own vision more bright and fresh.
Greg Wright is the author of Peter Jackson in Perspective: The Power Behind Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings (2004).
The Return of the King Extended Edition is available to stream at Amazon.
Check it out tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!