A Grand and Glorious Return

It's hard to overstate the soaring achievement of Peter Jackson and company in The Return of the King, the third and final chapter of their historic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings.

To call it the grandest spectacle ever filmed is no exaggeration. It might also be the most satisfying third act of any film trilogy, completing what can now be regarded as possibly the best-realized cinematic trilogy of all time.

In a genre that has never before had a single really good film, Jackson and his collaborators have produced three outstanding films telling a single epic story. In a way, their achievement parallels that of Tolkien himself, whose monumental trilogy was also the first in its class.

The Return of the King now replaces The Fellowship of the Ring as my favorite in the series. Certainly it's the most ambitious; it might also be the most emotionally affecting and perhaps the most flawless.

Its faults, such as they are, are basically of omission, not commission. Compared with the first two theatrical releases, no characterization or locale in The Return of the King is as troubling to me as, for example, Galadriel and Lothlórien in Fellowship, or Faramir and Théoden in The Two Towers. Granted that the extended editions of the earlier films go a long way toward redeeming their problems, with The Return of the King there are only missing moments and events I hope to see restored, not disconcerting characterizations I hope to see redeemed.

The Return of the King also displays some of Tolkien's most overtly Catholic themes and motifs. Frodo, walking his via dolorosa bearing a great burden on behalf of the world, has here his moments of greatest resemblance to Christ, while also decisively embodying human fallibility and dependence upon divine providence and grace.

Aragorn, the hidden king who is finally revealed in glory, is another messianic figure; his journey down the Paths of the Dead echoes the harrowing of hell. And the residents of that place, oath-breaking spirits who must expiate their treason before they can rest in peace, suggest a kind of purgatorial state.

In this film, and in the trilogy as a whole, Tolkien's saga is honored beyond all reasonable hope. That's not to say it isn't Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings as much as it is Tolkien's. The director's fingerprints are everywhere, particularly in his flair for the hyper-dramatic. Jackson's fundamental instinct is always to ramp up the drama and conflict to the nth degree — never to use 10 orcs if 1,000 will fit, nor to let a character die a sudden death if it can instead be a big action set piece.

Sometimes this results in a brilliantly heightened re-imagining of Tolkien's work, as when in The Two Towers Gandalf's rousing of Théoden becomes something much more like an exorcism. Something similar happens in Return of the King with the Paths of the Dead: It's not the way Tolkien wrote it, but it ingeniously represents the essence of the episode in the movie's own cinematic idiom.

Other times, Jackson's contribution is simply to transform what Tolkien wrote into spectacularly exciting cinema. For example, in Two Towers the siege of Helm's Deep only a year ago seemed the most spectacular siege sequence of all time — but now, astonishingly, seems a mere skirmish measured against this film's siege of Minas Tirith and battle of the Pelennor Fields.

One might say that, in translating Tolkien's work to the screen, Jackson has transposed it into another register — that of the Hollywood action-adventure. Yet the spirit of Tolkien's work is honored in the transposition — imperfectly, yes, but brilliantly and transcendently in what it accomplishes, from the Shire with its bucolic charm to Gollum's emaciated frame and spidery gait, from the Nazgûl, the very embodiments of terror, to the wonderful strangeness of Treebeard and the Ents.

To these wonders must now be added one of the most awesome and evocative imaginative architectural achievements in any film: Minas Tirith, the White City, with its seven tiers and tower pointing to the sky. Nothing in Jackson's Middle Earth rivals it, not even the splendor of Rivendell or the dark might of Isengard and Orthanc. Only the Shire itself, and Edoras, the hilltop capital of Rohan, are as compellingly and unforgettably realized, but for grandeur neither matches Minas Tirith.

For all this, the filmmakers don't allow the story and characters to be overwhelmed by the action or the effects. In this third film, all the plot threads come satisfyingly together, including long-deferred events from earlier chapters — the re-forging of Isildur's sword, the confrontation with Shelob — that are so neatly incorporated into the third film that Jackson's decision to defer them is thoroughly vindicated. (Only the final confrontation of Gandalf and Saruman, omitted from The Two Towers, has been still further delayed and won't be seen until next year's extended edition.)

The hobbits, especially, are better utilized here than in the last film. Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are much closer to the center of the story. They get some of the trilogy's most affecting moments, including a heartbreaking scene halfway up the slope of Cirith Ungol. Merry and Pippin, freed from Treebeard's swaying upper branches, come most fully into their own in this film.

One bit of creative license at a climactic moment is bound to be controversial among purists. Essentially, the twist reflects Jackson's preference for the hyperdramatic; fortunately, what matters about the scene as Tolkien wrote it holds true in Jackson's version.

Certainly the films will never replace the books. (On the contrary, they're sending readers to the books in droves. Sales of Lord of the Rings books have sharply spiked in the last two years and, last year, according to figures from Publisher's Weekly, they narrowly outsold the Harry Potter books.)

But the films also are irreplaceable. More than merely honoring their source material, their glorious imagery and fine performances have for me forever enriched the experience of reading the books. For all that the films don't do, I still have Tolkien. For all that they do, the books themselves can be enjoyed on a new level.

For Tolkien fans, the film trilogy is a gift to be treasured. Its legacy is assured with the triumph of The Return of the King.

Content advisory: Some depictions of intense and sometimes bloody battle violence; scenes of menace and grotesquerie involving orcs and goblins and other “fell creatures”; a single crude expression.

Steven D. Greydanus, editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com, writes from Bloomfield, New Jersey.