I’ve seen Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy many, many times. But this was a different experience. My first time watching them after rereading the books, perhaps since their release. My first time watching them after watching Jackson’s execrable Hobbit trilogy. My first time watching the extended editions.
How did each effect my viewing experience? The movies have steadily grown in my estimation since their release, in large part I think because they steadily replaced the books in my schema of the story. Rereading the books, I have a better appreciation for them as separate works. The books are better, frankly, with richer characterization and deeper emotional resonance. But the movies are a remarkable adaptation and visually stunning. The Hobbit movies made me appreciate the Lord of the Rings movies more, especially the F/X, of which I have been critical. But they are much, much better than those of the Star Wars prequels and Jackson’s King Kong movie, and the movies are very well served by the blu-ray transfer and a 60” plasma. And if the extended editions don’t exactly change my estimation of any of the movies, they improve the narrative flow and look even better than the theatrical cut.
I am a fantasy fan first, second, and third. But I am not about to complain about a steady stream of superhero movies and five new Star Wars movies. Do you know why? Because between the end of the sword and sorcery movie boom of the 1980s and The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001 there were virtually no live-action fantasy movies released on the big screen. The Lord of the Rings effect has been disappointing, sure, but the last two decades have been huge improvements over the decade prior.
I mentioned in my posts on the books that the story most naturally splits into two, rather than three. Indeed, Jackson originally pitched Lord of the Rings as a two-parter, and Ralph Bakshi planned his animated adaptation to be two parts as well. But that is a lot of story to squeeze into two movies. Nonetheless, three movies creates narrative challenges. The Fellowship of the Ring has an extraordinarily slow start, and The Return of the King hits the story climax little more than halfway through. Add to that Jackson’s dislike of Tom Bombadil and the Scouring of the Shire and you have a real problem. (As to the first, I wouldn’t disagree except that losing Bombadil costs you the Old Forest and the Barrow Wights. As to the second, I get the problem with a long, post-climax sequence, but Jackson’s attitude shows that he doesn’t get The Lord of the Rings thematically.)
The Two Towers is somehow the weakest of the three movies, though. The extended editions did not change my ranking of The Fellowship of the Ring > The Return of the King > The Two Towers. The Fellowship of the Ring is the only one of the three clearly improved by the extended edition, although none of the movies are clearly hurt. The only thing that really hurts them are disc cuts that don’t fall on natural breaks in the story (sorry if I don’t have 4 hours, 23 minutes to watch a movie after work). It is kind of crazy that Jackson was able to turn in theatrical verisons and (very) extended versions that both work very well. Rather than cut scenes that might change the narrative in a fundamental way, as a rule Jackson gives us more of the same. If you are frustrated with his treatment of Aragorn or Eowyn, the extended edition isn’t going to change that. As I mentioned, the extra footage really helps tie the narrative together even better, and a surprising amount are establishing shots. Gorgeous, gorgeous establishing shots.
Bottomline: my future rewatches (which will continue) will probably be of the extended edition, but I will pick back up rereading the books on a regular basis.
5 of 5 Stars – The Fellowship of the Ring
4 of 5 Stars – The Two Towers
4.5 of 5 Stars – The Return of the King
You can find all of my Tolkien 101 posts here.
 And not just because it takes pains to properly represent hobbits as tiny, florid Englishmen.