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Return to Middle Earth


WORLD Radio - Return to Middle Earth

Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of Tolkien’s Return of the King is as stirring today as it was in theaters 20 years ago

Ian McKellen in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) New Line Cinema

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Friday, September 22nd. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Myrna Brown.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Arts and culture editor Collin Garbarino takes us on an unexpected journey back to Middle-earth.


COLLIN GARBARINO: This month, I’ve been marinating in J.R.R. Tolkien. I’m listening to The Lord of the Rings audiobooks again, and I recently finished reading a book about Tokien’s various writings and their adaptations. I even received my new copy of The Hobbit in the mail yesterday. Sure, I already have four different editions, but this one features illustrations by Tolkien himself. It’s only appropriate to spend so much time on Tolkien this month, since it marks the 50th anniversary of his death.

2023 also marks the 20th anniversary of Peter Jackson’s final Lord of the Rings film adaptation, The Return of the King, so I thought it might be fun to revisit this classic movie.

FRODO: And thus it was. A Fourth Age of Middle-earth began. And the Fellowship of the Ring, though eternally bound by friendship and love, was ended.

The Return of the King arrived in theaters during the holiday season of 2003. New Line Cinema had released the earlier installments—The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers—during the previous two years, and audience anticipation was high.

The movie certainly didn’t disappoint fans who longed for a satisfying conclusion. Audiences gave the movie a rare A+ CinemaScore, and the film’s box office revenues outstripped the earlier films.

Not only did we get to see good triumph over evil, we got to spend another 3 hours and 21 minutes in the company of old friends we had come to love.

Or in the case of Andy Serkis’ Gollum, maybe not love, but love to quote.

GOLLUM: She must eat. All she gets is filthy Orcses.

SMEAGOL: And they doesn’t taste very nice, does they, precious?

GOLLUM: No. Not very nice at all, my love.

The Lord of the Rings tells an epic story of high adventure steeped in a deep textured lore featuring kings and faerie folk, political intrigue and betrayal. Fans of the books were shocked at how well Jackson’s adaptations captured that sense of living amidst the ruins of time. His blending of practical effects with the wizardry of computer generated imagery was better than anything that had come before it.

New Zealand’s stunning scenery and Jackson’s well-crafted visuals caused jaws to drop, it was the story of close friendship that grabbed people’s hearts.

EOWYN: Courage, Merry. Courage for our friends.

Depictions of true friendship in movies are rare. Depictions of male friendship, even rarer. With The Lord of the Rings, audiences saw trust and affection develop between men brought together by a common purpose. Who could forget the unexpected and delightfully competitive friendship between the dwarf Gimli and the elf Legolas?

GIMLI: Never thought I’d die fighting side by side with an Elf.

LEGOLAS: What about side by side with a friend?

GIMLI: Aye. I could do that.

The more time I spend with The Lord of the Rings—both books and adaptations—the more I begin to understand that Frodo’s loyal friend Samwise Gamgee is the real hero of the story. Sean Astin captured the spirit of this unsung hero perfectly in the films.

SAM: Come on, Mr. Frodo. I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you. Come on!

Jackson preserves Tolkien’s focus on deep friendship, but I think, on a fundamental level, Jackson doesn’t understand what Tolkien’s getting at in the books because Jackson leaves out some important scenes. I can’t really fault him for skipping over Tom Bombadil—I wouldn’t know what to do with that either. But I’m sad the first movie doesn’t include the hobbits' trip through the Old Forest, which shows that Sauron isn’t the only source of evil in the world. Even more disappointing was Jackson’s choice to omit the Scouring of the Shire, in which the hobbits return to desolate homes after victory.

GANDALF: I will not say, “Do not weep,” for not all tears are an evil.

Tolkien had a tragic view of the world, in which heroes fight the long defeat. In the books, if Sauron wins, the good guys lose. But if Sauron loses, the good guys still lose, just not quite as much. Neither men nor elves can achieve a final victory to set the world right.

Despite Jackson’s unwarranted optimism, there’s a lot to like about his The Return of the King, as well as his other two Lord of the Rings movies. He knows how to stir up our emotions when we see good make its stand against evil. Twenty years on, Gondor’s last stand still brings a tear to my eye.

ARAGORN: A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship. But it is not this day.

The Return of the King won a record 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and it grossed more than a billion dollars worldwide. It’s easy to forget that when New Line Cinema gave Jackson the greenlight to make three back-to-back epics, they were taking a huge risk.

Not only did that risk prove profitable, but it had a hand in changing American entertainment, ushering in an era characterized by multi-film franchises, sweeping epics, and high fantasy entertainment.

Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema recently announced they planned to reboot The Lord of the Rings franchise for the big screen, but it’s hard to imagine they could have the same impact as these classic films.

ARAGORN: For Frodo.

I’m Collin Garbarino.

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