Classic Remarks: How The Return of the King Film Differed from the Book

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted by Krysta and Brianna at Pages Unbound. Each week, they pose a question about classic works of literature in order for readers to engage in a continuing conversation about elements of classic literature, the literary ‘canon’, and the timelessness of story. If you’re interested in participating, you can find the schedule here.


This week’s Classic Remarks topic is about the ending of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, but I haven’t read it since it was a stellar new release back in the 90s, and it’s not really fresh in my mind. So I’m going to talk about The Lord of the Rings films. Again.

I had December 17, 2003 off from both work and school, which was a good thing. It meant I could go to see The Return of the King in the theater on opening day. Twice.

I wasn’t alone in that epic movie-going experience. My friend S was with me. We had been so excited about the film that we just had to see it as soon as we could, so we went to the 1:00 showing at a theater across town. It was the last one that had tickets available, so we grabbed two and had a blast.

Then, as soon as we left the first theater, we went back across town to pick up S’s boyfriend J, who couldn’t go to the first showing with us because he had to work. We grabbed some food from a drive-thru, and drove thirty miles to a nearby town that was showing The Return of the King that evening.

Getting those tickets was an epic in itself. The small-town theater didn’t have a website in 2003, and you couldn’t purchase tickets over the phone. So S and I drove there three days in advance to purchase our three tickets as soon as they were available. That little trip involved wandering around a tiny town, looking at a lot of Christmas lights, a minor freakout when the car’s lights went out (a problem that ended up having an easy fix), and our being overly excited by a bag of dark chocolate candies. Did we go to goofy lengths to see this film? Yes. But going to see The Return of the King with two of my best friends in a small town theater was the best movie experience ever.

But as fantastic as The Return of the King is, there are some distinct differences between the movie and the book.

One Apparently Can Lightly Throw the Death of Saruman Aside

Book Saruman dies much later in the story. Like at the very end, in Hobbiton. But Peter Jackson and Co. weren’t planning to include the Scouring of the Shire, and because you can’t just leave Saruman hanging out in Orthanc with Treebeard guarding him forever, so they had to do something with him. And that something was to relegate Christopher Lee’s scenes to the extended cut.

Why? I don’t know. The theatrical running time was 201 minutes. Surely they could have added another few minutes to wrap up Saruman’s storyline in the theater.

So if you’ve seen the extended cut, you’ll know how what happened to Saruman and to Grima Wormtongue. They had a chat with Gandalf and Théoden about the future and what Sauron had in store for Middle-earth, Grima tossed the palantír out of the tower, which Pippin picks up and gets into trouble with, Grima stabs Saruman (just like in the book), and Legolas shoots Grima with an arrow. And thus ended Saruman.

Christopher Lee was not pleased at being left out of the theatrical release. I wasn’t pleased, either.

Possible footage of Christopher Lee discovering that he wasn’t in the third film’s theatrical release

The Paths of the Glowing Green Dead

In the book, Halbarad Dúnadan, Ranger of the North shows up, along with a contingency of other Dúnedain- descendants of Númenóreans– and Elrond’s sons Elladan and Elrohir. They have a gift from Arwen and a message from Elrond about the Paths of the Dead. The message boils down to, “Take the Paths of the Dead so you can summon the ghosts of an army that broke their oaths when Elendil and Isildur needed them, because you’re going to need them”. So Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli go with the Rangers, Elladan and Elrohir, take the Paths of the Dead, and get to Gondor in that roundabout fashion.

In the movies, however… Aragorn still takes the Paths of the Dead, but he doesn’t go with Halbarad, Elladan, or Elrohir, because they don’t exist in the movies. Because that would require introducing even more characters. And that in the third movie when we’re trying to win the war, destroy the Ring, and get things wrapped up.

So Elrond shows up instead with the important ancestral sword that Aragorn left in Rivendell for some reason. Arwen had to convince Elrond to have it re-forged, but they finally got it done, and then Elrond named it Andúril instead of Aragorn naming it that. And then Elrond apparently fast-traveled from Rivendell to Dunharrow to deliver the sword and pass on some news: Arwen is dying. Her fate is suddenly bound up with the Ring, and if endures she’ll die. For reasons.

Apparently the fate of the world resting on this great conflict wasn’t reason enough for Aragorn to go to war. But now that his fiancée is dying, he has a good reason. Whatever, Peter Jackson.

I wonder if Jeff and Phyllis from Fargo were as baffled by this as I was.

“Well I’m glad that Aragorn fella cares about the pretty Elf girl, but why is she dying, Jeff? She was fine for the first two movies.”
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So Elrond delivers the sword and his message, and Aragorn decides to travel down the Paths of the Dead (with Legolas and Gimli, who won’t be left behind), and Elrond… fast-travels back to Rivendell? Hangs out in Dunharrow with the women of the court? No one knows…

So it’s just the three members of the Fellowship traveling the paths of the dead, and instead of summoning them at the Stone of Erech like they do in the books, Aragorn has a sword fight with a dead general who’s initially like, “we’re happy to be trapped in this valley as ghosts, and we don’t want to fulfill the oaths we made thousands of years ago, and you can’t make us!” So Aragorn intially doesn’t think the dead army will follow him (especially after they’re chased away by an avalanche of skulls), but when the three of them make it out of the caves and see the black-sailed ships of the Corsairs of Umbar sailing up the river, the dead general shows up and is all, “yeah, I guess we’ll fight with you”.

Which is so different from the books, where Aragorn calmly summons the dead army, which wants to fulfill their ancient oaths so their ghosts can finally have peace.

But, hey. Dramatic tension. I guess.

Also, the Army of the Dead didn’t go to Gondor. They defeated the Corsairs of Umbar at the battle of Pelargir and were released from their oaths and went to wherever Men go when they die. But how awesome was it to see them show up at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields?

Pippin and the Beacons

That sounds like a great name for a band.

from somewhere on Pinterest, I couldn’t find the original source….

In the books, Denethor is a bit more sane than he is in the movies. For example, he orders the beacons of Gondor to be lit so his allies will come to his aide (instead of actively trying to prevent it). Pippin and Gandalf see the beacons as they’re riding to Minas Tirith from Rohan. But Movie Denethor is a massive jerk, and so it’s up to Gandalf and Pippin to light the beacons that will summon Théoden and the riders of Rohan.

I don’t mind this change because it gave us the most epic scene as the beacons light up across the mountains from Gondor to Rohan. And that music!

So Pippin lights the beacons that bring Rohan to Gondor in the nick of time. It’s a heroic moment for Pippin, who is doing a lot of growing up in this film.

And who doesn’t love this long, gorgeous scene of flying over Middle-earth while the beacons light up across the mountains?

“Go home, Sam”

This moment.

W.T.F?

In both the books and the movies, Sam proves over and over again that he’d follow Frodo into a dragon’s mouth if he didn’t trip over his own feet first, so WHY did Peter Jackson have Sam actually leave Frodo?

But let’s back up a bit.

From the time that Gollum met up with Frodo and Sam in The Two Towers, Sam has had ample reason not to trust him thanks to Sam’s coming in on weird conversations that Gollum has with himself. So Sam is madly suspicious of Gollum, and after the leave Faramir, Gollum has being sucking up to Frodo and trying really hard to turn Frodo against Sam, and on the stairs of Cirith Ungol, Gollum finally makes the grand deception: he tricks Frodo into thinking that Sam has eaten the last of the food. Sam attacks(?!) Gollum for lying, Frodo nearly collapses, and then tells Sam to go home.

And Sam leaves.

I’m confused, too. Because leaving Frodo is the LAST thing Sam would do. In the books, Sam contemplated suicide when he thought Frodo was dead. There is nothing in the world that would make Sam leave Frodo behind, but one little fight and away Sam goes.

For a little while. He gets a heroic return and all, but he shouldn’t have left in the first place.

I know why Peter Jackson made it like that. It’s the moment Frodo hits rock bottom in his addiction to the Ring, and he’s casting aside the very last friend he has with him, but still.

Sam shouldn’t have left.

The Quick Rinse of the Shire

So after everything– nine hours of theatrical films or nearly twelve hours of extended cuts, those many fade to black scenes that fake us out about where the film is ending, giant eagles, Aragorn’s weird crown, Arwen showing up unexpectedly, Faramir and Éowyn’s quick romance, and a lot of weird laughing– we return to the Shire, only to discover that it’s been taken over by bandits and some small-town dictator who turns out to be Saruman taking his revenge over the Hobbits who helped bring down his little kingdom in Orthanc.

Mwahahahaha!

And you thought everything was going to be fine!

Except… it was actually fine, because ‘The Scouring of the Shire’ is in the books. In the movie, the Hobbits return home from their long journey and their many adventures, and everything is basically the way it was. Woohoo! They set out to save the Shire, and so they did. Everything’s fine. Hobbiton had no taste of war. Thus, no one there has any idea of what the Hobbits faced while they were away. None of the other Hobbits can understand the trauma they endured, so it’s just the four of them, war veterans of one kind or another, left to reminisce amongst themselves and find healing in one way or another.

In the books, Merry and Pippin become the leaders in their respective families, and do a great job of it because of their experiences in war. Sam helps rebuild the Shire and turns it into a gigantic garden before becoming Mayor of Hobbiton for years.

And Frodo…

Poor Frodo. In both book and movie, Frodo never recovers from everything that happened to him. He has scars from sword and spider, and the lingering psychological damage the Ring inflicted on him. There’s nothing in Middle-earth that can save him, and so he departs into the West with the last few Elves, Gandalf, and Bilbo. He’ll go there to find healing (but not eternal life). So there at the end of all things, the film got it just right.

And in this moment, we all lost it….

Were there other things that were different? Sure. For example, Denethor didn’t take a long run while on fire, the Rohirrim didn’t sound their horns before charging onto the Pelennor Fields, and we barely saw the Houses of Healing, and Aragorn didn’t actually enter Minas Tirith until his coronation, and we never got to meet Bergil or Beregond or Prince Imrahil. And Legolas didn’t take down an Oliphaunt by himself.

But in the end, the important things stayed the same- the loyalty the fellowship had for each other, the necessity of fighting evil to the bitter end, holding onto hope in the face of despair, and the power of friendship. I think the core aspects of the book were still there in the movie, and that’s one of the main reasons it has remained so popular twenty years later. These things never stop being relevant, no matter what the CGI looks like (even though Weta Digital’s effects have held up pretty well). The basic elements- Frodo sacrificing every last bit of himself to save Middle-earth, and Sam’s enduring loyalty to his friend are what make The Lord of the Rings such a powerful story.

It’s why I’m happy to watch it again and again, no matter what differences there are between the books and the movies.

I think Jeff and Phyllis from Fargo would agree.

“Those movies were pretty darned good, weren’t they, Jeff? We should watch them again next year. I like it at the end when that Aragorn fella finally kisses that pretty Elf girl.”
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

11 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: How The Return of the King Film Differed from the Book

  1. Great post! I admit I’ve never liked that film-Aragorn can’t be bothered to take up his crown and fight for Middle-earth until Elrond–somehow–manages to travel across the land to hand deliver the sword Aragorn should have been wearing all along. (Apparently it was way easier for Elrond to travel than for the Fellowship to evade all the spies of the Enemy and make it there safely.) And I don’t really like the glowing green look of the Dead. But, I get it. It all adds more drama. And the films are all about adding more drama. But I agree. The heart of the film is the same as the book–the friendship, the loyalty, the sacrifice. And that’s what makes the film work.

  2. How did Elrond get to Dunharrow with all those orcs and Uruk-hai and all sorts of other enemies out there??? And where did he go afterwards? Who knows?

    But yeah, after everything, the heart of the story is still there, and that’s what mattered in the end.

  3. I.AM.DYING: “Possible footage of Christopher Lee discovering that he wasn’t in the third film’s theatrical release”. Um. I would guess that was actually much worse. Cut the Tolkien scholar, will you?!

    My adventure to see the films was not quite as epic, but similar. I had to drive downtown to the theatre to get tickets in person (same deal) and turns out they sold me tickets for the WRONG DAY. When we arrived, my friends and I were devastated. They ended up asking people to squash together so we could sorta get seats together. It ended up being awesome. Went at midnight. Had a Music Theory exam at 7:45am the next day. No regrets.

    You know, I won’t lie, I completely forgot that Elrond renamed the sword. Also, I remember when I saw the film not even realizing it had a different name when forged. Named swords. Whatever. I think a sword is a sword. 😉

    My favorite moment in Return of the King is the lighting of the beacons. You nailed it. The music. The shots. Gorgeous. (My second favorite moment is when we ride into Minas Tirith with Gandalf for the first time — THAT music!!)

    I wish the film had done a better job helping the audience understand Frodo’s trauma and why he had to go into the West. If you don’t connect the dots yourself, then it just seems strange that Frodo is the only one who is leaving. We don’t spend enough time in Hobbiton after the war to know how Sam, Merry, and Pippin are thriving (relatively speaking) compared to Frodo. We don’t see his suffering. He just… leaves. I had to explain that to some people after we watched the trilogy once. It’s a heartbreaking scene for me and just another scene for the Phyllis and Jeff’s of the world.

    I also love that Phyllis can never seem to remember Arwen’s name. XD

  4. Adventures in Movie-Going! *lol* I hope you did all right on your exam the next day!

    My favorite moment in RotK is the Rohirrim’s charge onto the Pelennor Fields. It gets my every time. It gets me in the book, too.

    I’d never thought that Frodo’s trauma wasn’t delineated very well. But then, I’ve been so familiar with the books for so long, that I don’t always remember that everyone else doesn’t know the background, too. But you’re right. For the Jeffs and Phyllises of the world, Frodo does kind of just… leave…

    Phyllis reminds me of a co-worker I went to see The Two Towers with in the theater. Her mom was only interested in the romance between Arwen and Aragorn, but if I remember right, she couldn’t remember Arwen’s name!

  5. I don’t remember how I did on my exam, honestly. It couldn’t have been that bad…

    Oooh, that is ALSO a good moment. That’s a pretty epic moment and seeing it on screen with all those horses and men… So, if I’m not feeling well and my husband asks me how I’m feeling I just dramatically yell: “DEATH!!! DEAAAATTTHHH!!!” like Theoden King. (Also, if I see him making a stupid choice I wouldn’t make I say, “Go forth and die in whatever way seems best to you.” We’re a family of LotR quoters.)

    Well, Phyllis is the darling of this series of posts. I won’t lie, I’m sad these are over! You did a great job with them. 🙂

  6. Another enjoyable post! I have to admit, I seem to recall the least from The Return of the King, both movie and book. Not entirely sure why, perhaps it’s just that The Fellowship always had a stronger pull on me. So I think I’d have to go back and reread and rewatch to grasp some of the differences you point out. I had an interesting conversation at work the other day about why movie folks choose to change one thing from the book but not another. In some cases it might seem obvious for reasons you’ve mentioned, like trying to attract a wider audience, knowing that audience doesn’t know the entire history, budget, to limit the number of characters, etc. But other times the changes seem smaller, less grand, and yet don’t appear to make a major difference either way, so why change them? As with all things there are plenty of potential answers, but it’s interesting to ponder, nonetheless.

  7. I always wonder why minor things get changed, too. It’s part of why I love to listen to director’s commentaries, because they often explain the changes. Peter Jackson and Co. were great about explaining why they made the changes they did, so even if I don’t agree with why, I understand. But sometimes things are so radically changed, you wonder why they decided to even make the movie at all if they were going to change so much.

  8. I love so much that you saw it twice on opening day, that’s just truly fantastic.

    I’m so baffled that Jackson didn’t include Christopher Lee, OF ALL PEOPLE?? Like, dude, come on, he’s Christopher Lee. You don’t just cut his scenes.

    Not gonna lie, I do love when the army of the dead shows up at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields because that whole “oh yeah you and what army” vibe when Aragorn jumps off the ship just about murders me every damn time. AND YES! THE MOST EPIC SCENE EVER! Literally even just typing about the beacons being lit right now is giving me goosebumps. It’s so damn good. I’m going to have to listen to the song on my way to work now.

    Sam leaving always left a sour taste in my mouth. I could have understood it better if Jackson just had him quietly sulk off to the side for a bit, fake out Frodo into thinking he’d left him, and then sneak after them, but Sam actually leaving? Naw, not buying it. I do, however, mostly like that they left out the Scouring of the Shire in the movie. On one hand, I would have liked to see the other hobbits believing our four and understanding at least some of their trauma, but oi, I was already weeping enough at that point, it would’ve felt wrong to see more violence at the end there. And it totally makes sense why Tolkien did it, and I don’t dislike it, but visually, I think it works better to have them return home in peace.

    And then you just HAD to show Frodo saying goodbye to Sam, I’M FINE I SWEAR. Gosh, these movies are just so good. And you’re right, the CGI really does stand up! They honestly still look really excellent even almost twenty years later.

    These were such fun reviews, thank you for sharing them!

  9. I definitely have no regrets about going twice on openng day! It was amazing

    I think the CGI holds up so well because they were so groundbreaking at the time, and because they used so many practical effects, which always stand the test of time better than CGI, in my opinion. The Hobbit films looked dated right away because PJ used so many CGI shots for everything, rather than just letting the landscape and whatnot do the job.

    And of course I had to show Frodo saying goodbye to Sam! Saddest moment in the whole darned thing!

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