The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was an incredibly successful movie in its time. It was the only film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy to win win eleven Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture, and it set all sorts of box office records while out-performing the two previous entries, which is a rare feat. Grossing $1.1 billion total, it’s generally recognized as one of the most successful and popular genre movies of all time. Nevertheless, there is one thing it is absolutely notorious for among fans and casual moviegoers alike: It has too many endings.
Or does it?
It’s true that the movie takes some time to wrap up the story after the climactic showdown at Mount Doom (with Frodo, Sam, and Gollum) and at the Black Gate (with nearly everyone else). But we’d argue that as the culmination of more than nine hours of story-telling, the audience needs that. We need time to say goodbye to these beloved characters; we need to see the full conclusions to their stories; and we need the film to give us a sense of closure.
In fact, we’d go so far as to say that the theatrical edition of the film actually doesn’t have enough endings… Let us explain!
How Many Endings Does Return of the King Have, Anyway?
Exactly how many “endings” The Return of the King has depends on how you count them, but we’d suggest it has seven, consisting of the following:
- Frodo and Sam lie on Mount Doom and talk about how they’re about to die and the screen goes black. This obviously isn’t the end of the story, but it feels rather final, especially to non-book-readers.
- The Fellowship—minus Boromir—is reunited and the hobbits jump around on Frodo’s bed for some reason.
- Aragorn is crowned King in Minas Tirith, Arwen shows up to marry him, and everyone bows to the hobbits as the camera pans away.
- The hobbits travel by map to return to the Shire and share half-pints at their local pub, and Sam and Rosie get married.
- Frodo (almost) finishes writing the Red Book started by Bilbo, i.e. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
- Frodo, Bilbo, Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel leave Middle-earth from the Grey Havens. Lots of crying.
- Sam returns home to his wife Rosie, their daughter Elanor, and son Frodo.
We’d argue that all seven of these endings are thoroughly earned, and, indeed, needed.
Why Do We Need Them?
The first so-called ending, where it seems like all is lost before Gandalf turns up with the Eagles, is key to what the novel’s author, J.R.R. Tolkien, was trying to achieve with the climax of his story. Tolkien invented the concept of eucatastrophe, which he described a moment of “good catastrophe” and “sudden joyous turn.”
Tolkien peppers the final third of his story with these moments, like the moment Pippin hears the horns of the Rohirrim during the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, the moment Pippin sees the Eagles coming during the Battle at the Black Gate, and the moment the Eagles actually rescue Frodo and Sam. Losing this moment of utter despair would lessen the impact of the moment of joy that follows it.
On the subject of joy, we also needed that reunion of the Fellowship of the Ring before moving on to the grand coronation scene. The audience needs to see these characters, who have been separated for so long since the first movie, come back together, especially since Frodo still thinks that Gandalf is dead! That moment when they meet again deserves its own lengthy scene, featuring just the Fellowship, without the distractions of everything else that’s going on in the coronation scene. And it needs to feel like an emotional climax as worthy as those that come before it and after.
The ending that probably requires the least defense is Aragorn’s coronation and his reunion with Arwen. The movie is called The Return of the King, so if the King didn’t return, the audience would want their money back. Aragorn and Arwen’s love story has also been an important thread running through the three films, while everyone bowing to the hobbits is very sweet. It is the happiest of the endings, and the one that is arguably the most cathartic for the audience.
After that “ending” is probably where we start getting into the more controversial bits. It’s possible that a lot of filmgoers would have been happy with the coronation scene as the ending, mirroring the medal ceremony at the end of Star Wars: A New Hope. But the story isn’t finished yet. The hobbits love their homeland, and Sam has been pining after Rosie since Bilbo’s birthday party.
As nice as everyone bowing to them is, the hobbits’ story can’t be really finished until we see them get home, finding peace in the provincial paradise they originally set out to save, and see at least Sam get his happy ending, even if Merry and Pippin’s have to be relegated to the Appendices of the books (they both get married and Pippin’s son marries one of Sam’s daughters).
And now we’re really into the endings that people are less sure about. After Sam’s wedding, Frodo writes in the Red Book, and Sam says “you finished it!” but Frodo says, “There’s room for a little more,” possibly to audible groans from any audience members who haven’t managed to fit in a toilet break.
But however badly you need to pee, these final scenes are really important for the conclusion to Frodo’s story. Frodo says, “How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on when in your heart you begin to understand, there is no going back. There are some things that time cannot mend, some hurts that go too deep, that have taken hold.”
Tolkien, like his friend C.S. Lewis, was a veteran of the First World War, and his experiences in that war frequently find their way into The Lord of the Rings, much of which was written while his son was fighting in the Second World War. The Black Riders swooping down from the sky and bringing poisonous air that spreads despair have more than a hint of gas shells about them, and the Dead Marshes are as clear a description of the No Man’s Land between trenches in the Western Front as you could wish to find (ghostly lights notwithstanding).
When Tolkien and Lewis returned from fighting, PTSD was called “shell shock,” and it was just starting to be recognized as thousands of men (and a number of women who were nurses or ambulance drivers) struggled with what they had witnessed and experienced during the war. Frodo’s feeling that he can never go “back again” the way Bilbo did after his earlier adventures, his ongoing pain from two major injuries (being stabbed by the Witch-King on Weathertop and being poisoned by Shelob), and his feeling like he doesn’t fit into the world of Hobbiton, where most of the people around him have never experienced anything like that, are clear reflections of the experiences of First World War veterans.
That’s why this story needs the scene showing Frodo writing the Red Book – to explain what he’s struggling with – and then the goodbye scene at the Grey Havens. Tolkien gives Frodo a chance to leave and go to a place where he will be at peace and can leave the old pain behind. It’s important that this is a new life; not death, but life in a new world where he can start fresh. Perhaps Tolkien would have liked to have a similar opportunity himself.
Finally, there’s the coda with Sam returning home to his family. This one partly comes down to whether you think the real protagonist of The Lord of the Rings is Frodo or Sam. When Tolkien started writing, it was Frodo, but by the time Sam rescues Frodo from the Orcs and practically drags him across Mordor, there’s an argument to be made that it’s Sam. And so, just as in the book, the film ends with Sam going “back again” to his home and family, because it isn’t over until we see Sam happy and complete.
And If You Think There Aren’t Enough Endings in the Movie…
The Lord of the Rings is a huge story with an epic scope and dozens of principal characters. Most of the survivors get some kind of ending and conclusion to their story, although it’s a bit brief in some cases. Éomer’s is especially short, as he just shows up at Aragorn’s coronation and we have to assume he’s King of Rohan now, but that’s okay. It works.
Two stories, however, simply disappear in the theatrical edition of the movie with no real ending, although both are complete in the Extended Edition. These are the romance between Éowyn and Faramir, and the deaths of Saruman and Wormtongue.
The theatrical cut of the film does hint at Éowyn and Faramir getting together. They look at each other while recuperating in the Houses of Healing, and they’re standing next to each other at Aragorn’s coronation. But they literally never have a conversation. For two really important characters, this is pretty poor treatment. The extended edition doesn’t add much, as there isn’t time for much, but at least it does let them have a conversation before we see them run off together.
Considering Éowyn’s major character arc was about falling in love with Aragorn and then letting go of that doomed love, her finding romantic happiness really should have been a bigger part of the theatrical cut of the film. And it gives poor old Faramir a nice ending as well, gaining a new family having lost all of his over the course of three films.
Even worse is the total absence of an ending for Saruman and Wormtongue. These were major antagonists in The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, but they never even appear in the theatrical cut of The Return of the King. As far as moviegoers are concerned, Saruman and Wormtongue are locked up in the tower of Orthanc, being guarded by Treebeard, and that’s the end of that. But any sci-fi and fantasy fan knows that no villain who has merely been locked up is going to stay there, especially not a powerful wizard.
Now, we’re not suggesting that the movies should have included Saruman and Wormtongue’s ending from the books… but on the page, Tolkien had them escape and go and take over the Shire. So when the main hobbits came home from the war, they found Saruman in charge. Thus the four hobbits had to lead a rebellion against them. That really would be one ending too far, complete with another action sequence and another small battle to be shoved in after we’ve said goodbye to Aragorn and the others all together.
However, the Extended Edition provides a really effective, satisfying ending that aligns with the book where it matters. Placed toward the beginning of the movie rather than the end, we don’t see Saruman and Wormtongue escape or go to the Shire, but we do see Wormtongue stab Saruman in the back and then get shot dead, just as it plays out in the book. And since Christopher Lee was a spy in World War II, it comes complete with an accurate depiction of what it sounds like to stab someone in the back, as Peter Jackson explains on the DVD extras.
This wouldn’t even have added to the many endings the movie already has, because it appears early on in the movie and gives us an early action scene instead. Plus, Treebeard calls Gandalf “young Master Gandalf,” which is just brilliant.
It retrospect, it seems like the success of the Extended Edition DVD release of The Fellowship of the Ring made the filmmakers think, “Hey, we can cut down the running time by putting some of this stuff in the Extended Edition!” The Extended Edition of The Fellowship of the Ring is a fun bonus for devoted fans, especially book readers, and features nice but inessential scenes like Aragorn singing and the hobbits getting bitten by mosquitoes. The Extended Edition of The Return of the King, however, is essential if you want the complete story.
So there we have it, The Return of the King really did need all those endings, and the theatrical version needed a couple more added as well. Just run out for a bathroom break during the Paths of the Dead scene if you desperately need to (our scene of choice to skip a moment or two of, the green ghosts aren’t the most chilling spirits ever put on film). Or watch it at home and pause it!