In what was likely a coronation (no pun intended) as well as an acknowledgement to the entire series, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King tied a record by winning eleven Oscars, including Best Picture, and joining Titanic and Ben-Hur as the only 11-time Oscar winners. The previous films in the series had fairly limited Oscar success with The Fellowship of the Ring winning only four Oscars (Cinematography, Makeup, Original Score, Visual Effects) out of thirteen nominations and The Two Towers only receiving two wins (Sound Editing and Visual Effects) on a paltry six nominations. It certainly seems like the Academy was trying to correct those errors by bestowing on The Return of the King one of the most dominant nights in Oscar history. History was also made when it became the second sequel to win Best Picture (The Godfather Part II) but the first to win when its predecessor(s) did not. It also marked the third time in ten years that an action film won Best Picture, joining Braveheart (1995) and Gladiator (2000), which is unprecedented in Oscar history.
Ironically, I feel like The Return of the King was the least worthy winner of the trilogy. My personal favorite in the series is The Two Towers followed closely by The Fellowship of the Ring with The Return of the King a distant third. I remember being disappointed in the third film when it came out because you could practically see them looking at their watches. They’d been working on this project for several years, and The Return of the King just feels rushed, like they’re just trying to get through with it and be done with it. I felt doubly disappointed because The Return of the King is actually my favorite of the books, and on its own is one of my favorite books of all time.
I understand that they were rushed in the film because they followed a more linear timeline in the films that J.R.R. Tolkien did in the books. For example, in the books the sequence with Shelob the spider takes place at the end of The Two Towers. In fact, the book ends with a bit of a cliffhanger after Sam has killed Shelob, but is unable to prevent Frodo from being taken by orcs. The last line of the book is, “Frodo was alive but taken by the enemy.” In the films that sequence actually happens about halfway through The Return of the King. I must say also that it’s one of the most riveting and most tense sequences in the entire series. Director Peter Jackson had prior experience in the horror genre and used those tools to great effect in this sequence. As Frodo is being simultaneously pursued by Shelob as well as Gollum, the tension mounts to almost unbearable levels, even on subsequent viewings. The payoff is also fabulous, as we think that Frodo has escaped them both only to see Shelob creep out of a cave and sneak up behind him. The cinematography in this scene is amazing as we see the giant spider creep up behind Frodo getting ready to pounce, and Frodo turning suddenly, but the spider is gone. Then Frodo turns right into Shelob and she stings him and wraps him in her web. The editing is spectacular here as well as the cuts do a marvelous job of deceiving the audience into thinking the spider is one place and then startling us when we see the spider is somewhere else. In fact, Best Editing was one of the eleven Oscars Return of the King would win that night. This particular sequence is textbook film making when it comes to building tension and then paying that tension off within the scene.
In the theatrical version, that was the one scene that Jackson seemed to really take the time to make right, and didn’t feel rushed. Well, that scene and the scene where Frodo cannot throw the ring into the fire. That scene is also filled with tension, although it’s a tension of a different kind, and it’s also wonderful storytelling. Frodo has spent nearly the entire story trying to get to Mount Doom so that he can destroy the ring. For its part, the ring has been trying to destroy Frodo because it wants to be returned to its master. Now at the end, Frodo has overcome every obstacle in his path. With the help of Sam, he’s made it to his destination despite the danger and despite odds that seemed insurmountable.
Now at the end all he has to do is throw the ring in the fire, but he can’t do it. Jackson and co-screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (in their Oscar-winning screenplay), like Tolkien before them, successfully pulled off the most important thing to do when you’re trying to build drama which is to always give your hero obstacles. Jackson et al did that for all three films where Frodo was concerned. Whether it was Pippin creating the commotion in the Mines of Moria that alert the orcs to their presence, or Farimir catching them and threatening to take them back to Gondor so that he can present the ring to his father, or even after escaping Shelob and disguising themselves as orcs, Frodo and Sam end up getting entangled with a battalion of orcs marching for battle. Each time Frodo had to use his wits, or Sam’s wits to get out of the problem, and each problem seemed that much more insurmountable. Then we come to the end, and it’s now the ring itself that is keeping Frodo from accomplishing his mission. Only at the very end has the burden become too much for Frodo to take, and he fails at the crucial moment. This is where the screenwriting technique of dramatic irony sets in as Gollum comes out of nowhere and attacks Frodo, biting off his finger and taking back “the precious.” Enraged, Frodo attacks Gollum as Gollum celebrates, knocking him over the ledge and into the fiery lava below, thus destroying the ring.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is an excellent screenplay for aspiring writers to look at in terms of how it dealt with Frodo and Sam’s relationship, as well as their portion of the adventure. There are many elements of the Hero’s Journey implemented in their story, and the ring’s destruction of Frodo’s mind allows for depth to be created in the relationship, like when Gollum deceives Frodo into believing that Sam will betray him, and Frodo sends Sam away. They then come full circle when Sam discovers that it was Gollum who had been deceiving Frodo all along and he comes to his rescue yet again. Any aspiring screenwriter should watch this film closely, particularly the portion of the storyline that follows Frodo and Sam, and they’ll learn a lot about character depth, depth in relationships, dramatic irony, building drama and building tension. I like to say that conflict is the mother of drama, and there is plenty of conflict in this story.
The other main driver of the story of this film has to do with Aragorn and his reluctant ascent to the throne of Gondor. We’ve learned from the previous films that Aragorn is a ranger from the north and that he has disavowed his lineage, for it was his ancestor, Isildur who was unable to destroy the ring generations ago that led to the dark times of today. The reluctant hero is a wonderful archetype and Aragorn suits it perfectly. He knows that he as a duty that he must fulfill, but his weakness is that he fears making the same mistakes as his ancestor. The same blood runs in his veins, he tells Arwen in The Fellowship of the Ring. The same weakness, he continues. It is that fear that drives Aragorn’s fear for the entire series until The Return of the King, when he finally embraces his duty, realizing that it might be the only thing that prevents the destruction of man.
It is this part of the storyline that I felt Jackson rushed through. Again, there is so much story to get through, that the theatrical version just can’t get to all of the nuance and thematic elements that make the story so strong. The extended edition, however, does accomplish that. The extended edition comes in at around four hours, so it’s very long, but it still feels like it flows better than the theatrical version. The extended versions of these films are a mixed bag for me. I prefer the extended versions of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King, however I enjoyed the theatrical version of The Two Towers over the extended version. The extended version material in The Two Towers feels tacked on to me, and never felt integral to the story. However, the opposite was the case with The Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King. Even though it’s much longer, watching the extended version of The Return of the King presents a story that flows much better and doesn’t feel rushed. It allows you to savor what is going on in the story and gives the filmmakers time to give you as much as possible to make the story complete. It’s a much greater time commitment, but allows you to see a much more satisfying film.
There is one other point I’d like to make about The Return of the King, and The Lord of the Rings series as a whole. Most people know that the book was written by J.R.R. Tolkien as an allegory for what he experienced as a soldier during World War I and his subsequent return to England. In his book The Writer’s Journey Christopher Vogler writes about the final section of the Hero’s Journey, which he called The Return with the Elixir. The Hero returns home from the adventure a changed person. In one form or another, the hero has experienced death, and now the home that the hero once considered to be his whole world is now a mundane and banal place. The hero has grown beyond the trappings of home, and now no longer feels like he belongs. In the best examples of this type of storytelling, not only has the hero changed, but so has home. A similar example can be found in the 1978 Best Picture winner, The Deer Hunter, although in that film Michael Vronsky returns home from the Vietnam War in the second act, he is clearly a changed man, and the town is different as well. The differences are subtle, like his friend Stan now has long hair and a mustache, but they’re there. It’s also clear that Michael is uncomfortable and feels he no longer belongs there.
In the book version of The Return of the King, the hobbits return to the shire to discover that Saruman has beaten them there, enslaved the other hobbits and built factories and an industrial complex. That is a more similar depiction of the pastoral England that Tolkien left before the war and the industrialized England to which he returned. There is just a brief nod to that part of the story in Frodo’s dream sequence in Fellowship but without nearly the detail that Tolkien gave it in the book, and when they return to the shire it is exactly the same as when they left. The hobbits, especially Frodo, have changed however. We see it as they sit in a pub and all of the other hobbits carouse and carry on, but the four friends, having experienced death and adventure beyond what any of these other hobbits could imagine, can only sit quietly in a reality that only they understand. That is until Sam musters up the courage to go and talk to Rosie, a girl he had been too bashful to speak to before.
That is ultimately what The Lord of the Rings is about, thematically speaking. This is a story about courage, and not necessarily just courage in battle, although that is a big part of it. This story is also about the courage to do what’s right when the easy thing would be to not get involved. It’s about having the courage to look at yourself honestly and know that you still have value even if you’re not the bravest or the strongest. It’s about having the courage to ignore the pre-conceived notions of what others think you are and demonstrate that you’re really so much more. Just as Aragorn tells the hobbits at the end, “My friends, you bow to no one.”
The Lord of the Rings is an epic story, and perhaps one of the biggest, most grandiose stories ever conceived. But at its core, it’s a very simple story about being true to yourself.
Did the Academy get it right?
I am inclined to say that they did, although as I mentioned earlier, this film (at least the theatrical version) is the least worthy of any of the films in the series to win Best Picture. I am willing to say that it deserved to win as homage to the other two films in the series. Also in looking at the three films as one epic story, if this film’s win counts for all three films, then yes, it deserved to win. However there were some very good films nominated against it for 2003. Lost in Translation was a quirky film that helped Bill Murray continue reinventing himself and introduced many of us to Scarlett Johansson. It also helped Sofia Coppola express her own vision and make a name for herself beyond the shadow of her famous father. It’s a nice film and entertaining enough, but it doesn’t have the gravitas of a Best Picture winner. One of my favorite films that year was Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, another action/adventure film starring Russell Crowe about an English sea captain obsessively pursuing French privateers into the Pacific in the early 1800’s. It’s actually a film with a lot of depth, and has some great story-telling. Had it come out a year later, it might have had a better chance to win. Mystic River is another film from this very strong year that I absolutely love about three friends who can’t seem to overcome a shared childhood tragedy and one of them suspects another of killing his teenaged daughter. It’s a heartbreaking and tragic story about redemption that never arrives, and is another one that might have had better luck winning in a different year. Finally, Seabiscuit is an underdog story about an underappreciated horse and his underappreciated jockey. It’s one of those movies that makes you stand up and cheer, and was certainly worthy of the nomination that it received. However, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, especially when combined with the other films in the series, is a cinematic achievement that has rarely been matched in terms of its use of visual effects, character development and overall story arc. It’s a special story and a special series of films and the final film in the series winning Best Picture is a worthy acknowledgement of that.
There is one more thing I need to say about this story overall, and that is to tell you to read the books. If you have not read The Lord of the Rings, you need to do yourself a favor and get a copy and start reading it right away. It takes a little while for the story to get going and is a little slow in the beginning. However, once the adventure starts and the story gains momentum, it’s almost impossible to put down. Also, read it for the prose. If you are a writer of any kind, you need to read this book simply for the beauty, majesty and poetic prose that Tolkien wrote. He had a command of the English language that most people could only dream of and he was an amazing storyteller. It is an amazing book or series of books and deserves to be read.