Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Narrative Structure: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

In cinema, it is common for the final installment in a series or trilogy to be the least successful while the first is the favourite, which is arguably true for films such as 'Star Wars' and 'The Matrix'. However, Peter Jackson's 'The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King' (2003) is often considered the best of the trilogy. This is very unusual, "After the galloping intelligence displayed in the first two parts of 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy, you fear may be that the director, Peter Jackson, would become cautious and unimaginative with the last episode...but Mr. Jackson crushes any such fear," (Mitchell, 2003).

Fig 1. 'The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King' (2003)
It is difficult to get the balance correct when creating a trilogy of films. The director must think of an ending for the first two parts without actually closing the story since it continues in the following film(s). While The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (the first chapter of The Rings trilogy) ends with a relatively solid conclusion when the Fellowship breaks apart, The Two Towers (the second film) is often criticised for not having enough of an ending and the final film, The Return of the King, is criticised for having "too many endings".

The stories within the original books were complex and detailed (the tales of Middle Earth go far beyond The Lord of the Rings), which in turn made the films hard to create. After the first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring, all of the characters become separated and as the trilogy progresses more and more characters are introduced. This means that there are multiple mini-plots occurring at the same time, making the continuity three films and the stories within difficult to achieve. By the end of the trilogy, each plot needs its own individual conclusion while also having a single unified conclusion shared between all the separate plots.

Perhaps this is why Jackson had the rare opportunity to film a trilogy all at once, "The Lord of the Rings trilogy was probably the greatest gamble of filmmaking history...New Line Cinema risked the entire studio by giving Peter Jackson $300 million and a free hand to make all three films at once," (Hiscock, 2003). By making the three films all at once, he was able to keep the different plots coherent and consistent with each other.

Jackson progressed each of the mini-plots to keep them within the same timeframe as each other. This allowed each story to be tied together at the end neatly, "The third film gathers all of the plot strands and guides them toward the great battle of Minas Tirith." (Ebert, 2003). All of this plays into the Narrative Structure of The Lord of the Rings, which differs in each of the three films. The Fellowship of the Ring follows the Five Act Structure relatively traditionally. However, in The Two Towers all of the characters are separated. Therefore, there are a series of different story lines that each have their own Five Acts that do not converge.

Fig 2. Merry & Pippin reunite with Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, & Gandalf
In The Return of the King some of the plots merge during the exposition. Merry (Domonic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) reunite with part of the Fellowship - Gandalf (Ian Mckellen), Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies). However, Frodo (Elijah Wood), Sam (Sean Astin) and Gollum (Andy Serkis) remain separate in their own plot. During the rising action, Pippin and Gandalf leave for Gondor and later on Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli leave Merry to convince the Army of the Dead to help at Minas Tirith. The other mini-plots continue on, stemming off to more characters and more stories...there's no wonder as to why the film is over three hours long.

These separate mini-plots each have their own acts which develop at their own pace. However, some of the plots reach their climax simultaneously. For example, Frodo and Sam fight Gollum to throw The Ring into Mount Doom while The Eagles come aid of the rest of the Fellowship who are battling Mordor's armies at the Black Gate. However, there are other mini-plots scattered throughout the film such as Eowyn's (Miranda Otto) battle against the Witch-King, Arwen (Liv Tyler) giving up her immortality, and many more. "There is even time for a smaller-scale personal tragedy; Denethor (John Noble), steward of the city, mourns the death of his older and favoured son, and a younger son named Faramir (David Wenham), determined to gain his father's respect, rides out to certain death." (Ebert, 2003)

During the overall falling action, all of the story lines converge again and the Fellowship is unified. As the film reaches the denouement and nears resolution, each of the characters seem to drift off one last time. After Aragorn is crowned King of Gondor, we follow the Hobbits back to the Shire, leaving Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli on their own. Then other characters such as Frodo, Gandalf, Bilbo (Ian Holm), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) leave for The Grey Havens. We never really know what happens to Sam, Merry, and Pippin...we can only assume they live on in peace. It is difficult to say if The Return of the King had a partial ending or a closed ending since we know The Ring has been destroyed, but we do not know what happens to the rest of the characters afterwards (unless the viewer has read other Tolkien books).

Fig 3. Sailing to The Grey Havens
The narrative structure of The Return of the King and the rest of the trilogy is untraditional and dynamic, it can be difficult to keep track of all the expositions, inciting incidents, rising actions, climaxes, falling actions, and resolutions. Perhaps this complex system of converging and diverging mini-plots is why Jackson received criticism that The Return of the King had too many false endings. "With epic conflict, staggering battles, striking landscapes and effects, and resolved character arcs all leading to a dramatic conclusion to more than nine hours of masterful storytelling, 'King' is an urgently paced 200-minute film without an ounce of fat -- until unfortunate multiple endings that go on and on, as if Jackson couldn't bear to let go," (McCarthy, 2003).

The Lord of the Rings must have been especially difficult because the world of Middle Earth written by J.R.R. Tolkien already had many fans. Jackson had to satisfy the fan base that already knew and loved Middle Earth while making the lore understandable to people who have never read the books. It is easy to see that all three films were very successful pleasing the Tolkien fans while attracting new people to the tales of Middle Earth. Through unique storytelling, intensive filmmaking, and inventive visuals, The Return of the King and the rest of The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a high fantasy film to remember.

Bradshaw, P. (2003) The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King At: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2003/dec/19/lordoftherings Accessed on: 17/10/2016
Ebert, R. (2003) Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King At: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/lord-of-the-rings-the-return-of-the-king-2003 Accessed on: 17/10/2016
Hiscock, J. (2003) It's the biggest, and the best At: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/3607867/Its-the-biggest-and-the-best.html Accessed on: 17/10/2016
McCarthy, T. (2003) Review: 'The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King' At: http://variety.com/2003/film/awards/the-lord-of-the-rings-the-return-of-the-king-2-1200537614/ Accessed on: 17/10/2016
Mitchell, E (2003) Film Review: Triumph Tinged With Regret in Middle Earth At: http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9D06EEDF113CF935A25751C1A9659C8B63 Accessed on: 17/10/2016
Morrison, A. (2016) The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Review At: http://www.empireonline.com/movies/lord-rings-return-king/review/ Accessed on: 17/10/2016

Illustration List:
Figure 1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King [Poster] At: http://www.joblo.com/posters/images/full/2003-lord_of_the_rings_the_return_of_the_king-7.jpg Accessed on: 17/10/2016
Figure 2. Merry & Pippin reunite with Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli & Gandalf [Film Still] At: http://movie-screencaps.com/lord-rings-return-king-2003/7/ Accessed on: 17/10/2016
Figure 3. Sailing to The Grey Havens [Film Still] At: http://movie-screencaps.com/lord-rings-return-king-2003/159/ Accessed on: 17/10/2016


  1. Nice stuff :) I was wondering about film structure when it came to trilogies, as you've said, the first films are usually generally favoured, whilst the second and third suffer diminishing returns. Perhaps it's different with the LOTR trilogy because there was already an entire story to begin with and all Jackson really had to do was plan out the logistics of which films to place each separate story thread in.

    If you take something like "The Matrix Trilogy" where people favored the first film as it had the strongest and more complete narrative, and really loathed the sequels. Perhaps it's where they write themselves into a bit of a wall with the first films and find themselves having to actively play catch up in the second and third because the studio is pushing them to have a sequel ready by a certain point.

    I'm just rambling now.

    1. Yeah I really think having the whole story written out for him already helped...I was always impressed with how Jackson laid out all three films. I also think the fact he filmed it all in one go was a big advantage for him. It always annoyed me though, how certain things were in the second book but he put them in the third film and all of that. I hate how certain things were left out of the normal edition too, luckily he released the extended one.