The Return of the King
Peter Jackson gambled big and came up aces when he directed The Lord of the Rings as three separate movies, one for each book in J.R.R. Tolkien's honkingly large epic. The last one, The Return of the King, wrapped it all up in a critically acclaimed bow. This flick scored eleven Oscars, including Best Picture (the only time they've given it to a flat-out fantasy film), so it's safe to say that he done good. How good is a matter of opinion and debate, as Jackson had to walk a fine line between crafting a faithful adaptation, and successful standalone feature film.
What's the Same
Besides the plot itself, which stays pretty true to what Tolkien wrote, this film's all about keeping those Big Ideas front and center, too. And the Grand Poobah of big ideas actually involved some very small people. Hobbits, who no one thinks much of and who don't exactly cut a menacing figure, turn out to be the only ones capable of destroying the Ring in all its evil glory. It's a potent message, reminding us that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. Jackson stresses visually by stressing how small his heroes Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are in the landscape. They're just wee little fellows, facing down the huge armies of Mordor or a giant spider that even the world's largest can of Raid couldn't dispatch.
Yep, time and time again, those tiny hobbits triumph in battle against much bigger and scarier foes, as they do with the Witch-King in the Battle of Pelennor Fields. But the movie also touches upon the fact that women can do their fair share of butt kicking, too. Eowyn (Miranda Otto) gets her Girl Power on just in time to cut down the Witch-King, reminding us that women, like hobbits, are often far stronger than they look. That's less of a revelation now, but in Tolkien's time, it was enough to send people into fits. In any case, Tolkien often wanted us to remember to look for redemption in the unlikeliest of places.
Jackson has to switch a few events around and chop a few more in order to make the movie work (and not last forever and ever until the end of days). Some parts of The Two Towers get shipped into The Return of the King, notably the battle with Shelob the spider, which gives Frodo and Sam something to do here besides walk. (And they do a lot of walking as it is.)
Tolkien also cuts out the Scouring of the Shire at the end. That's a whole chapter in Tolkien's book in which the hobbits come home after destroying the ring to find the wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) turning the gardens and fields of the Shire into an industrial wasteland. It works as a final coda in the book because it shows how strong and independent our hobbit heroes have become after all their shenanigans around Middle-earth. But in the movie, it would just feel like an anti-climax, especially after the destruction of the Ring (i.e., What We've Been Waiting Three Movies to See), and the crowning of Aragorn as the new king of Gondor, complete with a perfectly groomed beard. And as it turns out, Jackson got a lot of heat for letting the story trickle to an end instead ending it on a high dramatic note as it was. If he'd added The Scouring of the Shire, he probably would have been lambasted the world over for keeping folks at a midnight showing past 4am.
The Big Picture(s)
That kind of shuffling pretty standard for a series of such hulking size. These three films have to turn a wandering text into something that makes sense and keeps our butts from going numb in those theater seats. Let's face it: Tolkien gets distracted easily. As he penned these huge books, he didn't think he was writing for anyone but himself. That means that here and there, he'll wax poetic about trees or mountaintops, pop in songs, and discuss the adventures of so-and-so's great grandfather Heck, the guy even had an entire appendix dedicated to all these little details.
That's fine in a book, since it gives us all kinds of cool details about the world that add to the imaginative picture we create in our heads. Plus, if you're bored, you can just put the book down on your nightstand and pick it up again the next day. The movie, on the other hand, has to speed things along, or else the audience will flat out revolt. So we're left with an abridged The Return of the King, which gives us all the good parts, with the songs and family trees left for fans to hash out on the Tolkien wikis that now cover the web the world over.
If we had to zoom out and give you a big picture, we'd say that Jackson's changes throughout all three movies could best be defined "smaller, faster; better." He sticks to the good parts, cutting away anything not absolutely necessary to the story and leaving aside Tolkien's occasional detour into fun-but-beside-the-point subplots. It makes for a more streamlined version of the story, but it's still pretty darn accurate in its own way.
It's a good introduction for newcomers, who might be freaked out by the sheer size of the books, but they also pay up the warm fuzzies to longtime fans who can see this enormous world brought to life in front of their eyes. It may not be a perfect trilogy, but it's close enough and accurate enough to pass inspection with flying colors.
So, Shmoopers, what do you think? Did Jackson ace the adaptation test? Shmoop amongst yourselves.