Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) trilogy – or single-film extravaganza, depending on how you view it – is a definitive exercise in fantasy storytelling. The most universal, heartwarming and heartaching story resides beneath the costumes, set design, and special effects work. These films obviously make a statement, especially through characterisation.
The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) presents – throughout its >12 hour runtime on the Extended Editions – a fluid, coherent and believable narrative with a level of consistency that’s hardly present in film trilogies. Perhaps this is due to the cast and crew shooting for eighteen months straight. Perhaps it helped that the process of production and post was closely-knitted marriage (I might have seen the Appendices one too many times to know this). Whatever the case may be, this feels like peak storytelling, because when we track Frodo’s journey from start to finish, it unfolds gradually and understandably.
It makes sense. It tugs at our heartstrings. It keeps our imaginations open – enough for our wildest fantasies – but the emotional content is deeply grounded in the familiar. We can relate to these characters despite the spectacular otherworldliness of the settings they inhabit.
I’m a Hobbit, and I know I can’t save Middle-Earth.
— Merry, The Return of the King
At its core, LOTR is a story about a sliver of hope amidst utmost despair. As a result, its plot feels universal. It’s relatable because Hobbits are not the only ones feeling literally small and inconsequential – it’s mostly relative. The world of the ‘big-folk’ is full of terrors too, and even skilled warriors, deft rangers, and powerful wizards stumble. While LOTR presents the trials of the Hobbits as mostly physical manifestations (being untrained in battle, running into creatures larger than they are), the films tackle issues of self-worth and identity across the board, and how those things are malleable; especially in the absence of promise and optimism.
Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.
— Galadriel, The Fellowship of the Ring
The series begins on concrete representations of home or lack thereof – Frodo et al have the Shire, while those like Gandalf and Aragorn roam through the wilderness almost aimlessly. Nevertheless, the more nomadic characters have connections to a sense of place – Gandalf has utter love for Hobbits, while Aragorn’s upbringing in Elven society informs his skill as a ranger and healer. These focal points make the films seem lived-in. There is a quality of history within the text that’s richly layered through each character’s acceptance or rejection of their place of belonging.
Such notions are – expectedly – gradually unravelled or even overturned, but more importantly, they don’t simply spring back to life the same as before. Characters do not live in a bubble, and therefore just as legacy and memory shape them, so does experience and trauma. Such growth is normally subtle, and hits home emotionally upon realisation. An example of this is the breaking of Frodo and Sam’s relationship. These two are basically stuck together out of dire necessity and obligation, and there is love and respect thrown into the mix as well. However, it is hard to really see where character development occurs until the end of The Return of the King, when Frodo chooses to pass to the Undying Lands with Bilbo, leaving Sam and Hobbit life behind.
While Frodo and Sam certainly grew inexplicably closer during the course of the War of the Ring, Frodo’s ultimate sacrifice would mean Sam’s freedom and peace. It’s a dynamic that’s often happened in reverse in the earlier films, wherein Sam’s sacrifices are often highlighted.
Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam.
— Frodo, The Two Towers
This isn’t even necessarily done on equal terms, if one could equate the love and bond that both characters shared into anything quantifiable. Although the Hobbits’ return after the war meant Sam was able to marry and build a life for himself, he still visited Frodo, and presumably did so over the four years between their arrival in Hobbiton and the trip to the Grey Havens. But Frodo, ‘adventure-hungry’ in a much different way, cannot take Sam along this time. It would be unconscionable, and their separation marks a sense of maturity between the two friends. (Also, reading the book helps accept this fact a little easier… Just saying.)
My dear Sam. You cannot always be torn in two. You will have to be one and whole for many years. You have so much to enjoy and to be and to do. Your part in the story will go on.
— Frodo, The Return of the King
Such a shift in the balance of a core relationship – and many other changing dynamics and friendships throughout the films – happens organically through the storytelling. The long runtimes allow for ample world-building and – I would argue – never indulge in filler material. I can’t imagine watching the theatrical cuts after having seen the extended editions. The added scenes are far from superfluous. They encourage viewers to have a little more empathy and sympathy for our heroes (Concerning Hobbits, Gilraen’s memorial, Theodred’s funeral). They even provide better narrative tension as well as closure for the film’s villains (Saruman’s death, the Mouth of Sauron).
That’s not to say an extended cut is always the wisest, as it is a huge ask of any audience. Sitting through almost four and a half hours for just a single film is no small feat. However, focal points and memorable side characters allow room for the story to flourish without losing any emotional anchors between viewer and narrative. Take the two children separated from their mother in The Two Towers. A simple, yet effective plot device that explicates the horrors of invasion and war without having to actually witness bloodshed. That’s not to say there isn’t carnage of any sort throughout that film – Towers is the most straightforward war film out of the three – but the film depicts it on both micro and macro levels.
This works particularly well as the battle scenes get longer and more numerous over the course of the films. There is a real sense of fatigue present by the time we get to the Battle at the Black Gate, but we don’t just feel that we’ve seen enough fighting in general. We just don’t want to see our favourites get hurt, or perhaps even bite the dust. Meanwhile, we see some iconic villains who are fantastically acted through all those prosthetics (Lurtz and Gothmog, especially) that we love to hate. There is a whole subtextual discussion about the evil of fathers and lineage that I won’t get into in this blog post, but do want to address at some point in the future – because it all works to give the films gravitas and meaning.
LOTR is as emotionally taxing as it is physically draining to watch (from all the crying… or the tension in your shoulders). As much as the series is about faith, it is also about the reality of death.
The journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path. One that we all must take.
— Gandalf, The Return of the King
That’s possibly what makes LOTR so human. When Frodo sails across the sea at the end of ROTK, he essentially dies. It’s an undoubtedly spiritual story, in part due to Tolkien’s own Christian roots. However, the idea of ‘rebirth’ in the films do not always mean resurrection in the literal sense (unless you happen to be Gandalf). Each member of the Fellowship is reborn in some way: Aragorn accepts his royal heritage; Legolas and Gimli put aside cultural differences and accept one another; all the Hobbits have had to tap into unknown strengths throughout the course of the war. These characters become the best versions of themselves.
It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why.
— Sam, The Two Towers
Does that make these films idealistic? Sure. But its brand of optimism is never sickly. It emphasises that even the tiniest effort to shift the most dire of circumstances is valuable as long as it is genuine. That’s what makes LOTR such a good story. The encouragement isn’t cheap; nor is the positivism there to sugarcoat hardship. Instead, it centres on resilience in the purest sense of the word, and although sacrifice can precede reward, it is possible to heal and carry on.