From Novel to Film pt. 18: The Return of the King


First published October 1955
THE PLOT: Frodo and Sam must evade Orcs, the withering gaze of the enemy, and Gollum as they approach Mount Doom. Meanwhile, Sauron unleashes his forces on Gondor. 

"And now they walked like men in a hideous dream come true."

Tolkien's epic comes to a close with The Return of the King. It's hard to imagine it ending any more satisfyingly than it does. Like I wrote last time around, I've read it before but not in some while. I've spent the last few weeks in Middle Earth when I haven't been working or doing Dad stuff, and I already feel withdrawal. Luckily, there is an abundance of other material out there to make my way through as I will. 

I'd like to take a moment to shake my fist at the videogaming powers that be for not producing any of the Lego Lord of the Rings games for the PS2. 

I so wanted to play this after reading these books. But not all of us upgrade our consoles as fast as you whippersnappers out there. (Hell, I'd still be playing my Sega Genesis if I still had it.) Ah well, something to look forward to eventually doing.

Along those lines, in 2015 anyone who wants more Middle Earth has the videogames, the role-playing games, the movies, the cartoons, etc. (Not to mention countless books and blogs about all of the above.) But 60 years ago, none of that existed. Reaching the end of the story in 1955 (or even anywhere before the mid-70s) must have been so abrupt. I don't bring this up for any real reason, just something that made me appreciate the whole Middle Earth phenomenon and raise a glass in Tolkien's memory. Few have given the world such a credible and comprehensive fantasy. 

Undoubtedly part of its appeal is how it presents and resolves that eternal spiritual struggle that has ever animated human history. Here's W.H. Auden from his 1956 NYT review:

"To present the conflict between Good and Evil as a war in which the good side is ultimately victorious is a ticklish business. Our historical experience tells us that physical power and, to a large extent, mental power are morally neutral and effectively real: wars are won by the stronger side, just or unjust. At the same time most of us believe that the essence of the Good is love and freedom so that Good cannot impose itself by force without ceasing to be good. 

(...) Tolkien has succeeded where Milton (in Paradise Lost) failed. As readers of the preceding volumes will remember, the situation n the War of the Ring is as follows: Chance, or Providence, has put the Ring in the hands of the representatives of Good, Elrond, Gandalf, Aragorn. By using it they could destroy Sauron, the incarnation of evil, but at the cost of becoming his successor. If Sauron recovers the Ring, his victory will be immediate and complete, but even without it his power is greater than any his enemies can bring against him, so that, unless Frodo succeeds in destroying the Ring, Sauron must win. 

Evil, that is, has every advantage but one-it is inferior in imagination. Good can imagine the possibility of becoming evil-hence the refusal of Gandalf and Aragorn to use the Ring-but Evil, defiantly chosen, can no longer imagine anything but itself. Sauron cannot imagine any motives except lust for domination and fear so that, when he has learned that his enemies have the Ring, the thought that they might try to destroy it never enters his head, and his eye is kept toward Gondor and away from Mordor and the Mount of Doom."

That "can no longer imagine anything but itself" bit is so key. As for Sauron's deception, this one paragraph before the end of the ring - when Frodo briefly succumbs to the impossible demands it has put on his soul for so long and so far - captures it so well:

"As Frodo put on the Ring and claimed it for his own, the Power in Barad-dur was shaken. (...) The Dark Lord was suddenly aware of him, and his Eye piercing the shadows looked across the plain to the door that he had made; and the magnitude of his own folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash, and all the devices of his enemies were at last laid bare. Then his wrath blazed in consuming flames, but his fear rose like a vast black smoke to choke him. For he knew his deadly peril and the thread upon which his doom now hung."

The shock of realized impending doom comes across so well there - not bad for a late-innings recapitulation of a note so often struck in all the preceding pages. I can easily see the malevolent fist smashing the Panic button ("ALL UNITS !! CODE FRODO !! CODE FRODO !!") between the lines and hear the doom-shriek of the Naz-gul as they race back to Mordor from the Pelennor Fields.

As a certain starship Captain said to some Lawgivers once, "If I were you, I'd start looking for another job."
The pic above is from an amazing series of paintings by Sergei Iukhimov - do yourself a favor and check out all of them. I've seen an awful lot of Tolkien-inspired art over the years, and this is my new favorite. 


The poster for the 1980 animated feature, and the cover for the read-along book I had as a kid.
When United Artists declined to pursue a sequel to Bakshi's Lord of the Rings, Rankin/Bass, who had such a huge success with The Hobbit, swooped in to secure the rights to the third and final act of the story. The Return of the King was promoted as a sequel to their earlier film with no mention at all of Bakshi's. Romeo Muller was hired to adapt the screenplay, and much of the cast and crew from The Hobbit returned.

As reported here, "A part of the story (filling in) where Bakshi's movie stops and the start of the last third of the novel ended up (on the cutting room floor), which means we wouldn't see Shelob until Peter Jackson's Return of the King in 2003."

Shelob isn't the only thing fans of the book wouldn't see until Jackson's film(s).
Also missing: Faramir and Eomer (though any of the unnamed folks here might have been intended to represent them; there are no deleted scenes on the DVD, nor commentary, nor list of cut-scenes, so it's impossible to tell.)
No Beregond and Bergil, either, which is more forgivable than cutting out Legolas and Gimli. And no Saruman - I suppose the thinking there was Saruman's story arc wrapped up in Bakshi's film. (Though it didn't, really - like the Jackson films, the Scouring of the Shire chapter and Saruman's ultimate fate are left criminally - though somewhat understandably - untold.) 

As for the returning king of the title -

Aragorn's role is diminished most cruelly of all. We get to see him arrive with the Black Fleet and turn the tide of battle, but no Queen Arwen, no unrequited love of Éowyn -

though Éowyn does appear, and she squares off with the Witch-King, as in the book
- and worst of all, no Dead Men of Dunharrow 

As for the rest of the main cast, Merry and Pippin also don't come off all that well.
Merry is voiced by Casey Kasem, and he doesn't get to slay the Witch-King with the witch-barrow's blade. (He's also confusingly referred to as "Pippin's Hobbit friend Ned" in one scene. I spent the rest of the film waiting for this to be addressed, but if it was, I missed it.) Pippin is basically comic relief who says things like "Gosh, Gandalf, do these Palantir things ever lie?" (paraphrased) and "He's gone loony, I tell you!" re: Denethor. (Who serves no real purpose to the script.) 

As for other changes (again from that BlackGate review): "Minas Tirith is already under siege. Orcs have captured Frodo and imprisoned him in the Tower of Cirith Ungol, and the One Ring and the Elven sword Sting have conveniently fallen outside the gates of the tower for Sam to collect. Sam also has the Phial of Galadriel, which is explained as being unexplainable."

"And Gollum is wandering around somewhere. He still calls Frodo "master" even though the movie never mentions that Gollum served as Frodo's guide and then betrayed him."
"The film maddeningly mispronounces most of the names. Minas Tirith, Cirith Ungol, Gorgoroth, Pelennor Fields, Theoden, even Sauron... all are pronounced consistently wrong. This is the opposite of Bakshi's version, where the names are pronounced inconsistently wrong. (...) There's a nice pronunciation guide in the appendix of The Return of the King. Why did no one flip to the back to check to see if the "C" in Cirith Ungol is hard? (Answer: it is.)"

Fortunately, the film does much better in other areas. Three conceits are adopted to convey the considerable backstory:

1) Bilbo's Birthday Party. In the novel, Bilbo's 131st birthday party is the catalyst for Frodo's (and Bilbo's and Gandalf's) departure to the Grey Havens. 

(Which also happens in the film. That's Elrond to the left, looking like Dr. Elias from Buck Rogers.)
Here it's used as a framing story that justifies re-telling the saga to an aged and forgetful Bilbo. 

2) The Minstrel / Chorus. Okay, I can see how this would grate on some people. But let's keep in mind that Tolkien's text heavily utilizes songs and poems. Unlike the text, though, you can't skip over these. The minstrel stuff is performed by folk artist Glenn Yarbrough, and the songs are a mix between bringing the viewer up to speed and putting Hobbit-y homilies to song ("It's So Easy Not To Try," "Leave Tomorrow 'Til it Comes," etc.) 

The chorus on the other hand is from the Davy Crockett tradition. (You know what I mean - "Dav-y, Da-ay-vy Crock-ett! King of the wild fron-tier!" I sometimes narrate the events of my own day in such a fashion, though I'll spare you any examples. Just know I lead a very exciting and entertaining existence.) It's used mainly to narrate the inner struggle faced by the ringbearers as they stagger along on the last stage of their quest. 

"The Bearer of the Rii-ing, the wearer of the ri--ing... " which more than once I heard as "The TAKE-CARE-R of the Ring..." and I kept singing that to myself and chuckling.
Does it add to an understanding of the corruption the Ring sows in the hearts of those who bear it? Maybe so, maybe not - I didn't mind it so much, but sure, it's all a tad hokey.
Sam's imagined life as Samwise the Strong goes on for a lot longer than you'd expect and features him using the Ring to turn orcs into moles and birds.
and 3) Gandalf's narration. John Huston plays Gandalf, and he's called on to deliver huge info-chunks of Middle-Earth-babble almost anytime there's no chorus or minstrel-song. I can see how it might bewilder the Middle Earth uninitiated. Myself, I'd just finished reading the book, so all of it was familiar ground. I was actually impressed with how much they managed to shoehorn in from the book, even while omitting all of the aforementioned. 

Plus, John Huston is pretty easy to listen to.
Couple other things:

- Frodo is voiced by Orson Bean, Samwise by Roddy McDowell, (who tells the Ring "I can feel you throbbing with excitement!" with considerable relish) and Gollum by Brother Theodore. Gollum disappears for most of the film, but the scene where he meets his end is great. 

- The Naz-gul aren't as bad-ass as they are in Bakshi's film, but they're fine enough for something aimed at children, I suppose.

The sound fx on their voices is good at first, but once the Witch-King removes his helmet, they sound like Masters of the Universe or Transformers villains.
Which makes sense, as John Stephenson is the common denominator. (Also present is fellow animation-voiceover legend Paul Frees.)
- When we first see Cirith Ungol, it's just Sam standing outside a block of stone between the rocks. I wrote "No watchers!" in my notes. Happily, I was wrong, though. One of the most atmospheric bits of the book for me:

"They were like great figures seated upon thrones. Each had three joined bodies, and three heads facing outward, and inward, and across the gateway. The heads had vulture-faces, and on their great knees were laid claw-like hands."

"They seemed to be carved out of huge blocks of stone, immovable, and yet they were aware: some dreadful spirit of evil vigilance abode in them. They knew an enemy. Visible or invisible none could pass unheeded. They would forbid his entry or escape." 

In both film and novel, Sam is able to get by them using the Phial of Galadriel.
- The Orcs. It seems redundant to describe them as "cartoonish," but that's really the best word to describe them. 

Not just visually. When Frodo daydreams about the end of the quest, he envisions waving to friendly Orcs who wave back. They're more like dark hobbits in the film, fat and bumbling, whereas Treebeard described them as "mockeries of the Elves, created by the Shadow" in The Two Towers

And in the movie's most memorable music number, we get the impression they're just by and large like other folks who got caught up in a war they'd rather not fight, rather than a horde of brutes hungry for slaughter.
Final Verdict: It's easy to see why Tolkien's trilogy is still the standard to beat for epic fantasy. And The Return of the King ends things gloriously. As an adaptation, the animated movie is a mixed bag, but you get a real sense that Romeo Muller was determined to get as much of Tolkien's story on the screen as he could. While it packs nowhere near the gut punch of the novel, it managed to hit a lot of the right notes. 

And while I understand Tom Bombadil's not re-appearing at the end, since he was never introduced in the first place (ditto for the Jackson films) I quite liked how Gandalf went to seek his counsel before he left the hobbits on the edge of the Shire. It was a great framing device for the hobbits (and Gandalf's) journey.

"Who causes the minutes to fall dead, adding up to no passing hour, bringing no change from day to night, as the unseen sun fails to filter into the ever-present shadows? Who is this Dark Lord who turns starless nights into sunless days? How does his piercing eye see through the ever-present darkness, seeing all - and nothing?"


  1. I think we're pretty much on the same page for the most part regarding this film.

    If it's a mixed bag, then it's mixed with the most care and attention to, if not detail, then to the overall basic spirit of the trilogy.

    While is still maintain that the books are unadaptable, and as weird as it'll sound, for what it manages to accomplish, this is probably the best anyone could do, and for that reason, if no other, Rankin-Bass' ROTK is more or less my favorite Ring adapt.

    Huston does a surprisingly good job I thought, and Kasem and Messick, for what little they're on, manage to be more or less legit. I thought the one scene of Denethor, despite it's shortness, was actually one of the highlights. Granted, it's more effective if you've read the books, but Frees at least I think it might have been him) give it his all.

    Some other of my favorite moments were:

    The escape from the Watchers, the scenes with Gollum, and Eowyn and the Witch King (still, how does one die just by FALLING OFF HIS FRIGGIN' HORSE!).

    As for the music of Glenn Yarborough, while I didn't quite mind less can be more, basically this is one of those soundtracks that makes you realize the mute button was created for a reason.

    The plus side of this is that, say, during Sam's power fantasy sequence, it makes things more surreal and abstract, especially if you hit on the brainstorm to pipe "Another Brick in the Wall" by the Floyd through any available speaker, instead of "Bearer of the Ring".

    Finally, some much MST#K inspired Humor!

    Pippin: A fowl and putrid stench!

    Merry: Strong she is, and brave.

    Me: She used to share an apartment with Chris Farley.

    And finally, the Witch King:



  2. A genuine lol at Cobraaaa! I wonder if the other Black Riders ever tried to make "Ring-wraiths!" work among themselves as their catchphrase. Probably while the Witch-King was out gathering wood or sniffing around for the ring or somedamnsuch.

    Sam's sequence goes on for so long! It's amazing to me. Like, 4 minutes of "Wearer of the Ring" and Sam imagining himself the lord of all. I can picture the bosses seeing it all, adding it up, and raising hell.

    Frees is always on the money, it's true. I'm glad to hear this one's your favorite. There's a real charm to it, despite where it drags.

    1. I can't help but wonder if the Nazgul King in this film isn't secretly the Cobra Commander.

      Maybe Sauron his own kingdom by sending him through a portal to our world, only he has to appear at least somewhat human. The only problem is he ran afoul of the G.I. Joes, and after his encounter with Eowyn and Merry, well, I'm guessing the Joes were bury mopping things up and wondering where the screechy voice weirdo went to.

      Also, somebody really needs to work on the idea on The New Odd Couple featuring Farley and Miranda Otto. "Can't a former SNL Alumnus and a girl of Royal Blood share and apartment without driving each other crazy?"

      ......I'll go take my meds now.


  3. I saw a few minutes of this around the time the first of the PJ movies came out, and I said "nopenopenope" and turned it off REAL quick. Reading through your review makes me think I did myself a mild disservice; I'll have to catch up with it one of these days. Probably whenever I finally get around to my great Tolkien readthrough.

    I've read the novels, but not in more than a decade. I think it's sufficient to say about them that they remain something of a marvel, and probably will for some time to come.

    1. I've greatly enjoyed this Tolkien readthrough. My original plan was to read Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion first, then the LOTR trilogy, then The Hobbit. But it proved difficult to start with UT and TS, so I skipped ahead to the others. As soon as I finished The Hobbit, I cruised through UT and am just about done with Silmarillion now - definitely makes all the difference steeping one's self in the LOTR/Hobbit books first, methinks. But they're all great - what an epic work.

      As for this ROTK feature, I think it all depends on your mood going into it. Me, I was so enchanted with Middle Earth hi-jinks by the time I watched it a few weeks back that I was more than willing to do most of the heavy lifting myself, so to speak. But that said, I was genuinely impressed with how much of the book they managed to squeeze in, even if as I say they left out two of my favorite bits: the dead army of oathbreakers, and the Scouring of the Shire/ Saruman's end.

      And I've had "where there's a whip there's a way" in my head ever since!

      Watching the Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey tonight.

    2. I've never read "Unfinished Tales," but I did finally make my way through "The Silmarillion" in 2000 or 2001. What a book! Not the easiest thing to read, but rewarding almost beyond belief.

    3. (I say "finally" because I started it about half a dozen times before finally managing to get into it. Those first few times it just sort of made my eyes go cross.)