The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
"The road goes ever on and on," sings Bilbo Baggins. So also will feverish debate among readers and moviegoers now that Peter Jackson's ambitious cinematic adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy is complete.
The Return of the King, the final installment, delivers on the promise of grander spectacle, higher intensity, and a marathon of emotional resolutions to the story's elaborate plotlines. It also introduces more controversial changes, which will surely throw fuel on the fiery tempers of Middle-earth purists.
But there are also some problems created by the filmmakers' adherence to the text. Some things just work better in literature than they do onscreen, like the concluding parade of tear-jerking reunions and farewells. Nevertheless, Jackson's big-screen victories far outweigh his failures.
The movie opens with a prologue that portrays Smeagol's disintegration into Gollum (played by Andy Serkis), a tormented wretch obsessed with and addicted to the great Ring of Power. In this surprising flashback, Serkis plays the as-yet unspoiled Smeagol unenhanced by effects, and it becomes clearer just how much of the actor's brilliant work indwells Gollum's animated expression. This reminds us of where the Ring is taking our story's ring-bearer—Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood)—whose every step Gollum follows with malice and deadly intent.
As we watch brave Frodo march toward similar spiritual ruin, Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), his steadfast companion, gets to "show his quality." When Gollum cleverly separates the loyal companions, Sam demonstrates newfound courage and loyalty in confronting Shelob, film history's most frightening spider. When Frodo's will teeters on the edge of an abyss, Sam perseveres. Resisting the temptation to carry the burdensome Ring himself, he vows instead to carry his master.
While Sam's determination is truly inspiring, the determining factor in the quest and the conflict is, in the end, the compassion Frodo has for suffering Smeagol, a quality that provokes an unlikely but profound conclusion. The saga's central thread is one of longsuffering and mercy, with violence as a grievous and questionable alternative—notwithstanding some misguided reviewers' view that Tolkien's epic is a mandate for the United States to send Muslim extremists "to an early grave."
It is hard to imagine actors who could have played Frodo and Sam better. Few films have ever portrayed a friendship as intimate and as powerful. Their transformation from simple whimsical folk to battered, beleaguered survivors is heartbreakingly convincing. Astin will likely earn more acclaim and attention for his part; tearful breakdowns win awards. But Wood's emotional performance is a riveting picture of disintegration.
Frodo and Sam are not the only dynamic duo divided in this chapter. Merry and Pippin, who so far have served as comic relief, are separated as well. Eventually they join an exhilarating exhibition of an army on horseback en route to Minas Tirith. The city is besieged by an orc army that is commanded by a monster resembling a mix of a giant, evil Elephant-Man and Yoda. The parts they play there lead to a showdown that earns the film's biggest cheer.