"The road goes ever on and on," sings Bilbo Baggins. So also will feverish debate among readers and moviegoers now that Peter Jackson's ambitious cinematic adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy is complete.

The Return of the King, the final installment, delivers on the promise of grander spectacle, higher intensity, and a marathon of emotional resolutions to the story's elaborate plotlines. It also introduces more controversial changes, which will surely throw fuel on the fiery tempers of Middle-earth purists.

But there are also some problems created by the filmmakers' adherence to the text. Some things just work better in literature than they do onscreen, like the concluding parade of tear-jerking reunions and farewells. Nevertheless, Jackson's big-screen victories far outweigh his failures.

The movie opens with a prologue that portrays Smeagol's disintegration into Gollum (played by Andy Serkis), a tormented wretch obsessed with and addicted to the great Ring of Power. In this surprising flashback, Serkis plays the as-yet unspoiled Smeagol unenhanced by effects, and it becomes clearer just how much of the actor's brilliant work indwells Gollum's animated expression. This reminds us of where the Ring is taking our story's ring-bearer—Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood)—whose every step Gollum follows with malice and deadly intent.

As we watch brave Frodo march toward similar spiritual ruin, Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), his steadfast companion, gets to "show his quality." When Gollum cleverly separates the loyal companions, Sam demonstrates newfound courage and loyalty in confronting Shelob, film history's most frightening spider. When Frodo's will teeters on the edge of an abyss, Sam perseveres. Resisting the temptation to carry the burdensome Ring himself, he vows instead to carry his master.

While Sam's determination is truly inspiring, the determining factor in the quest and the conflict is, in the end, the compassion Frodo has for suffering Smeagol, a quality that provokes an unlikely but profound conclusion. The saga's central thread is one of longsuffering and mercy, with violence as a grievous and questionable alternative—notwithstanding some misguided reviewers' view that Tolkien's epic is a mandate for the United States to send Muslim extremists "to an early grave."

It is hard to imagine actors who could have played Frodo and Sam better. Few films have ever portrayed a friendship as intimate and as powerful. Their transformation from simple whimsical folk to battered, beleaguered survivors is heartbreakingly convincing. Astin will likely earn more acclaim and attention for his part; tearful breakdowns win awards. But Wood's emotional performance is a riveting picture of disintegration.

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Frodo and Sam are not the only dynamic duo divided in this chapter. Merry and Pippin, who so far have served as comic relief, are separated as well. Eventually they join an exhilarating exhibition of an army on horseback en route to Minas Tirith. The city is besieged by an orc army that is commanded by a monster resembling a mix of a giant, evil Elephant-Man and Yoda. The parts they play there lead to a showdown that earns the film's biggest cheer.

Pippin (Billy Boyd), meanwhile, pledges his service to the despairing Steward of Gondor, Lord Denethor (John Noble), and sings a haunting song at his command. (Yes, that is Boyd's real singing voice; in fact, he composed the song.) He too finds opportunity for heroism.

These adventures are only a few in a film that tests the limits of audience endurance. If viewers had any trouble following interweaving plots in previous installments, they'll be disoriented by the many additional characters, monsters, races, places, talismans, histories, and prophecies presented here. Tolkien fans, however, will be enthralled by Jackson's vivid depictions, unless their insistence on adherence to the books—chapter and verse—is too strong.

Parents should be aware that The Return of the King surpasses Kill Bill, Vol. 1 and The Matrix Revolutions as 2003's most violent movie. Jackson has intensified the battle scenes and duels, and the result may indeed deserve a stricter rating than pg-13. Further, some Christians may be troubled by the indulgently ghoulish spectacle awaiting Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) in a haunted mountain.

Tolkien once wrote, "The canons of narrative art in any medium cannot be wholly different; and the failure of poor films is often precisely in exaggeration, and in the intrusion of unwarranted matter owing to not perceiving where the core of the original lies."

The Return of the King's weaknesses do stem from exaggerations and intrusions that belie the screenwriters' misinterpretation of Tolkien's convictions. In the film's culminating moment, a simple and profound demonstration of pride's deadly consequences is compromised by the filmmakers' desire to amplify one hero's bravery. This contradicts the book's portrayal of that hero's failure.

The filmmakers continually emphasize that humanity's hope lies in, well, humanity. Tolkien insisted, "One must face the fact: the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however 'good.'" He added: "The Writer of the Story is not one of us."

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Nevertheless, we can be thankful that the truth shines through this finished work as brightly as it does. The Christian virtues of humility, sacrifice, and faith filter through. The triumphant epilogue offers tangible hope rather than mere Hollywood sentiment. We can look back now and see that, while this edition of Tolkien's epic is clearly tarnished, it stands alone as the most rewarding and accomplished fantasy trilogy ever filmed.

Jeffrey Overstreet writes Film Forum each Thursday for ChristianityToday.com.

Related Elsewhere:

Baylor professor Ralph Wood reviewed the The Return of the King and criticized some plot changes.

CTcompiled the best Tolkien and Middle Earth sites on the net.

CT articles on Tolkien include:

J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, a Legendary Friendship | A new book reveals how these two famous friends conspired to bring myth and legend-and Truth-to modern readers. (Aug. 29, 2003)
Space, Time, and the 'New Hobbit' | C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien discuss science fiction. (Aug. 29, 2003)
Saint J. R. R. the Evangelist | Tolkien wanted his Lord of the Rings to echo the "Lord of Lords"—but do we have ears to hear? (March 14, 2003)
9/11, History, and the True Story | Wartime authors J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis help put 9/11 in perspective (Sept. 13, 2002)
Why The Lord of the Rings Is Dangerous | The authors of Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues and J. R. R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth talk about the Christian life in Faerie. (Dec. 18, 2002)
Does The Lord of the Rings Teach Salvation By Works? | The authors of Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues and J. R. R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth talk about whether Tolkien was too ignorant of evil and other subjects. (Dec. 19, 2002)
Hobbits Aren't Fence-Sitters | The authors of Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues and J. R. R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth discuss why Tolkien hated modernity and thinking about evil—and whether he was right to do so. (Dec. 20, 2002)
Lord of the Megaplex | The onscreen Fellowship of the Ring launches a new wave of Tolkienmania. (Nov. 12, 2001)
Soul Wars, Episode Two | The second Lord of the Rings film raises the spiritual stakes. (Dec. 18, 2002)
Fantasylands | How to tell an orc from an ewok. (Dec. 19, 2001)

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Directed By
Peter Jackson
Run Time
3 hours 21 minutes
Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen
Theatre Release
December 17, 2003
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