(Since I’m diving deep into both the theatrical and extended cuts of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, let’s just assume that SPOILERS will abound.)
Like most Tolkien fans out there, the news that they were going to make a “Lord of the Rings” (LOTR) trilogy was something I genuinely geeked out about. And the feeling of elation I had sitting in the theatre about three minutes into The Fellowship of the Ring when I realized that Peter Jackson had nailed it remains one of my most vivid movie memories. This feeling of elation was furthered when, a year later, Jackson announced that there would be “extended” editions of not just the Fellowship but of all the upcoming LOTR movies and that they would be significant extensions. The opportunity to spend more time in Tolkien’s expansive world seemed like a fantastic idea and for the most part it was. Since the announcement the extended editions became the standard way I watched the LOTR trilogy and I have never found the need to return to the original theatrical cuts.
For years that approach has served me well and my annual or semi-annual marathon revisits of the series were enjoyed without caveats. The idea that the over 2 hours of additional footage added to the trilogy could be anything but unquestionably good seemed ludicrous to me. And then Peter Jackson made The Hobbit trilogy, an over bloated and annoyingly paced mess of a trilogy that stretched my usual penchant for patience to its near-breaking point. Unlike the LOTR trilogy, the announcement that the Hobbit was also getting the extended edition treatment inspired eye-rolls from me instead of genuine excitement. But the Hobbit did get me reevaluating my hallowed place for the LOTR extended editions. After finally going through the original theatrical releases again, it is clear that while the extended editions are wonderful love letters to fans, they ultimately are worse cuts than the theatrical releases.
Now before anyone starts slinging arrows at me, let me just state upfront that I’m not saying that the extended editions are bad per se. In fact those cuts join the rare and hallowed hall of director’s cuts that are actually worth seeking out (along with Blade Runner of course). Most director’s cuts are garbage, but the extended editions are most certainly not. My only argument is that ultimately these extra scenes don’t actually improve the final product but in fact make it a slightly worse movie strictly from a form perspective.
Before we dive into exactly how this is the case, let me first lay out exactly what the extended editions ADD to the equation:
- Richer history and world building – Many of the additional scenes either have us linger longer in places the theatrical cuts zoom over (Rivendell and Lothlorien for example in Fellowship), show us aspects of the variety of cultures in Middle Earth (“Concerning Hobbits” scene right at the beginning of Fellowship), or fill us in on the backstory surrounding the events that have led to the current climate (Boromir’s scene in Two Towers being the greatest example of this). All these scenes add richness and texture to the proceedings, helping transform Peter Jackson’s version of Middle Earth into perhaps the most fully realized cinematic world ever created.
- More rounded characters – The extended editions help us to deepen our understanding of the central figures in the story somewhat, but it is in fleshing out the backstories of the peripheral characters that the extended editions truly shine. Tertiary characters like Eomer, Eowyn, Arwen, Theoden, and Faramir are given something close to full character arcs thanks to their extra scenes. And especially given the highly male-dominated nature of this story, this is definitely a welcome addition for characters like Eowyn and Arwen.
And yet despite all of these welcome additions for fans, I argue that it is precisely this act of filling out the world that diminishes the storytelling in two main ways:
- Pace – I realize at first glance talking about pace in a trilogy where each instalment runs at least three hours even in the theatrical cuts might seem a little silly. But in long and sweeping epics like LOTR, pace is actually absolutely crucial to helping the long run-times not seem like a slog to get through. And as I will show, the extended editions end up crippling the pace of these movies time and time again, ultimately making them feel much longer as a result.
- Focus – What the theatrical cuts make clear is that there are basically only two storylines that we should actually care about. The first (and most important) is Frodo’s quest to bring the ring to Mordor. This is the story thread that runs from the beginning to the end of the trilogy. The second story thread is the fate of the Fellowship of the Ring as they try to aid Frodo in his quest. All other story threads, from the individual arcs of the members in the Fellowship to their interactions with tertiary characters are thus only important insofar as they impact these central threads, and the runtime for these side threads are thus appropriately allocated in the trilogy for their importance. But as I mentioned earlier almost all of the extended edition scenes deal with either world building or rounding up tertiary characters which ends us blurring the focus of the movie for significant periods of time.
But enough about this large scale overview of why I think the theatrical cuts are better. Instead let’s dive in to each and let me show you how this happens. I’ll focus mainly on the biggest and most obvious examples in each movie, or else we’ll just be here for too long a time. And before I go further, I should give some credit to the people at movie-censorship.com because of their systematic breakdown of the additional scenes in the extended editions which saved me the time and effort of having to go through BOTH the theatrical and extended cuts to write this piece.
THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (2001) dir. Peter Jackson
Theatrical Cut Runtime: 2 hours 58 minutes
Extended Edition Runtime: 3 hours 28 minutes (+30 minutes)
The Fellowship of the Ring is without a doubt the most straightforward movie of the trilogy plotwise. Structurally it is divided into three major acts, with each mirroring the other quite closely. The arcs look like this:
Arc A: After an extended period in the Shire, Frodo and his companions frantically try and transport the one ring of power to safe passage in Rivendell while being pursued by the Nazgul of Mordor.
Arc B: After an extended period in Rivendell, Frodo and the Fellowship frantically try and transport the one ring of power to safe passage in Lothlorien while being pursued by orcs and a Balrog.
Arc C: After an extended period in Lothlorien, Frodo and the Fellowship frantically try and transport the one ring of power to Mordor while being pursued by Saruman’s Uruk Hai.
This marvellous symmetry is obvious in the theatrical cut, as periods of calm, reflection, and exposition suddenly change gears into a frantic journey in which our heroes have to defend themselves and try to evade their pursuers. But as we shall see, this rhythm gets disrupted in the extended edition starting with:
The “Concerning Hobbits” scene
In the extended edition, the prologue that details a brief history of the one ring of power transitions into Bilbo narrating what a hobbit is and their interests. It is in itself a fantastic little sequence that harkens back to the opening chapter of “The Hobbit” and firmly establishes the Shire as a quiet and carefree backwater that is completely unconcerned with the world at large.
The problem with this scene however is that this scene delays the introduction of Frodo, our main character of the movie to somewhere around the 10-minute mark. Instead for a brief moment the movie posits that Bilbo Baggins may be the main character instead or at least the narrator of the story. In addition the information that Bilbo provides about the Shire – namely its carefree nature and isolation from the larger world – are themes that will be established again in later scenes (and with much less obvious exposition).
However with this scene taken out, the end of the prologue where Galadriel states “For the time will come when hobbits will shape the fortunes of all,” is immediately followed by a panning shot to Frodo, which firmly establishes that he is the main character of this story. That quick transition is a clear example of the movie’s focus, where world-building takes a back seat to the central narrative, and pace, where the movie tries to find the most expedient way to get the story going. In addition to immediately introducing us to Frodo, the movie then proceeds to introduce us to Gandalf thirty seconds later. Thus within a minute of the prologue’s ending, we have been introduced to two of the main characters in the story and their relationship to one another as opposed to waiting until almost a quarter of an hour into the movie for that to happen.
“Merry and Pippin Dance in the Bar” scene
Just before the story really kicks off Frodo and Sam are shown in their local tavern where Merry and Pippin are engaged in a lively dance on the tables. It is a brief scene that once again illustrates the carefree nature of the Shire and ends with Frodo and Sam walking home slightly inebriated.
On the surface there is nothing wrong with this little scene, but it clearly illustrates a consistent problem in the extended editions because of where this scene is inserted in the narrative. It comes right after a scene where Gandalf learns the truth about the Ring and its inherent dangers which is followed by a shot of the Nazgul of Mordor approaching the Shire. It is clear that the movie is quickly upping the tension and switching to a higher gear, but that momentum gets brought to a screeching halt by this brief scene of domestic frivolity.
Without the dancing scene in the theatrical cut, the tension of the Nazgul approaching the Shire is immediately followed by an inebriated Frodo stumbling into his home that has clearly been invaded by an unknown person with it at least being implied that the person could be a Rider and that Frodo is in immediate danger (it turns out to be Gandalf ransacking his house). It is a clean transition where the stakes are increasingly raised, resulting in the quest to destroy the Ring firmly getting underway.
Extra scenes after the Fellowship is formed in Rivendell
After the Fellowship is formed at the Council of Elrond, several vignette scenes are included in both the theatrical and extended versions before the Fellowship finally sets off for Mordor. These sequences are as follows (with extended version scenes in parentheses):
Forming of the Fellowship —> (Elrond talks to Aragorn about being Isildur’s heir) —> Frodo and Bilbo’s farewell —> (Elrond’s farewell speech to the Fellowship) —> Departure of the Fellowship.
Acute readers will notice that the added scenes do not focus on Frodo at all but rather on Elrond who imparts wisdom first to Aragorn and then to the Fellowship. In the case of Aragorn, Elrond simply makes explicit what had been strongly implied before when it was revealed that Strider is actually Aragorn and the rightful heir to Isildur’s throne. And ultimately Elrond’s farewell speech is similarly unnecessary.
The insertion of these scenes egregiously bury the through line of the perilous journey ahead for the Fellowship and the danger of the Ring. In the theatrical version, the forming of the Fellowship is immediately followed by Bilbo’s farewell to Frodo in which Frodo discovers the great power of the Ring to corrupt by how it transforms Bilbo. This is truly one of the most terrifying moments in the trilogy and its impact is deepened by the fact that this is the last thing we see before the Fellowship sets off with the underlying message plainly clear: The ring and the quest to destroy it is going to be perilous and the ring itself is treacherous. But with the extended scenes, this through line gets blurred by exposition to other story lines.
This scene, whereupon Galadriel gives individual gifts to the Fellowship, is the clearest example of something that is unquestioningly awesome for fans like myself as it is one of the iconic passages in Tolkien’s novel and yet completely unnecessary in the context of the film. In the theatrical cut, the scene is cut to about a minute and only includes Frodo’s gift of the Light of Earendil, which is consistent with the rest of the movie in that it keeps the focus firmly on Frodo and his journey to Mordor. In addition Galadriel’s short interaction with Frodo was preceded by the moment when the ring of power tempts her and turns her into a frightful creature (echoing Bilbo earlier). Thus the scene in the theatrical cut is not as tranquil but a brief aside as the Fellowship gets their journey underway.
But in the extended edition, this scene goes on for five minutes where in her slow monotone, Galadriel bestows individual gifts to all the Fellowship and there is time for them to react to their gifts. It is a beautiful scene but it also brings the movie to a screeching stop, from which it never really recovers in Arc C. It is the most egregious offender in this movie of an extended scene both negating the pace and focus of the movie in favour world-building exposition.
A further thought on pace:
As we have shown, most of the scenes in the extended edition of Fellowship don’t actually have any direct impact on our understanding of the major characters or major storylines in the movie. And so it is tempting to think that because all it adds is more texture to the movie that it is harmless. But there is an added cost to these extra scenes and it is perhaps most clearly seen in the cumulative effect in delaying the major events of the film.
For instance, it only takes ten minutes longer for Frodo to reach Rivendell in the extended version (72 minutes vs. 82 minutes) which isn’t so damaging to our expectations of when things should happen in movies in general. But by the time we get to the first major action set-piece in the mines of Moria the time differential has shifted from happening at the 1 hour and 50 minute mark in the theatrical cut (or the length of an average drama film) to happening twenty minutes later in the extended edition. With these important storyline moments happening later in the movie, they tend to lose their impact because they are happening out of sync from our usual expectations of when these storyline moments should be appearing in other similar epic blockbusters.
THE TWO TOWERS (2002) dir. Peter Jackson
Theatrical Cut Runtime: 2 hours 59 minutes
Extended Edition Runtime: 3 hours 43 minutes (+44 minutes)
In many ways The Two Towers is the movie that suffered the most from pacing and focus issues even in the theatrical cut. This is in part because the Fellowship, which had been united in their journey, gets split up into three groups:
Group A consisting of Frodo and Sam as they find a way to cross over into Mordor.
Group B consisting of Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli as they first try and rescue Merry and Pippin and then get embroiled with protecting the kingdom of Rohan from Saruman.
Group C consisting of Merry and Pippin who first are captors of the Uruk Hai and then are guests of the ancient Ents who they are trying to convince to enter the war against Saruman.
In the movie Group A mostly meanders through the lands directly outside Mordor, and most of the focus in this movie is on building the relationship between Sam and Frodo, while introducing Gollum as their slippery and increasingly treacherous guide into Mordor. While this Group is perhaps the most psychologically interesting group to follow, it is also the group with the least plot progress as the end of the movie still finds them outside of Mordor looking to get in.
And with Merry and Pippin of Group C mostly stuck interacting with the mostly sloth-paced Ents, who are fantastic but understandably frustrating in their talking speed, it falls on Group B to provide almost all of the plot thrust of this movie. Because of this, it is clear that the Battle of Helm’s Deep is the focal point of the movie.
And therein lies the main problem with the extended editions. The movie up to the Battle of Helm’s Deep is short on the action that made Fellowship such a propulsive action movie. And where Fellowship merely skirted by the politics and history of Middle Earth, The Two Towers is rife with Royal Court intrigue, as we are made privvy both to Rohan’s complicated political situation and are given glimpses into Gondor’s problems courtesy of Faramir’s run-in with Frodo and his group. There are many conversations about what actions should be taken, but very little action happens especially amongst our central protagonists.
So even in the theatrical cut Peter Jackson is stretching our patience close to breaking point for the moment when Aragorn finally arrives at Helm’s Deep with news that a massive Orc army is marching to their door to set up the movie’s iconic finish. In the theatrical cut this happens 1 hour and 56 minutes in, or at exactly the two-thirds mark of the movie. Meanwhile almost all of the additional scenes in the extended edition happen before this mark. Aragorn’s moment occurs at the 2 hours and 32 minutes mark, meaning that the central event of the film only occurs after close to 75% of the movie has passed. It should be no surprise that this a less-than-ideal way to organize your movie and that these added have dramatic impacts on lessening the pace and focus of the trilogy.
But before I move on to Return of the King let me just highlight a few of these scenes to highlight how they affect pace and focus:
Merry and Pippin’s Extra Scenes in the Forest
Let me go on record and say that Treebeard is great and that there is something fantastic about a major blockbuster film devoting time and space to a character who so completely flies in the face of blockbuster conventions. In the theatrical cut, he is used just enough to convey the infuriatingly methodical pace with which he lives his life. Additionally during the climatic Battle of Helm’s Deep, his slow pace actually increases the tension as like Merry and Pippin, we desperately want the Ents to join in the fight to save our other heroes in peril and to do so in something approaching a timely manner.
But in the extended editions, the additional appearances of Treebeard and the Enchanted Forest drag an already slow-paced movie to a grinding halt. In a three-minute scene we are treated to not one but two Ent poems that are so enrapturing that they end up putting Merry and Pippin to sleep, to speak nothing about how we the audience might feel at that point. Literally nothing else happens in the scene, other than Treebeard slowly lumbering through the forest. Sure, from a fan standpoint the chance to hear some Ent poetry is nerdily exciting, but compelling filmmaking this does not make.
In the second scene with Merry and Pippin, they find themselves waking up from their Ent poetry induced slumber, drink some water that makes them grow (but not enough to be noticed in the future apparently), engage in some general tomfoolery, get attacked and swallowed by a tree, and then rescued by Treebeard. The scene takes four-minutes to get through, and literally nothing new is added to the central focus of the story. The magical water does not seem to have any lasting effect on their growth, because none of their Fellowship companions ever comment on it and when all the Hobbits are finally reunited in Return of the King they all look exactly the same height anyway. It has already been established that Merry and Pippin are lighthearted pranksters in The Fellowship so their tomfoolery is nothing new to us.
Meanwhile these scenes are keeping us from Gandalf and Aragorn’s group from finally making it to the Royal halls of Rohan to rescue its king from his slumber. It is only after Gandalf’s confrontation with Theoden that the movie truly starts to take shape and pick up the pace. Thus these two scenes add close to eight more minutes to a section of the film that was already dragging.
Aragorn Gets a Horse and Saruman Plots a War
In what you should recognize as a common theme, the extended editions break up the momentum of two connecting scenes by inserting more background information in between. In the theatrical cut, the announcement by Theoden that they should make for Helm’s Deep to protect themselves from Saruman is followed immediately by a montage scene of the city of Edoras emptying out, wasting no time between words and action. In the extended version, we are treated to two expository scenes before the montage.
The first scene shows Aragorn calming down a wild horse in the stable, followed by an extended conversation with Eowyn about the horse’s name and we get a bit more background about Aragorn, and ultimately ends with Aragorn asking for the horse to be set free. It’s a nice little character-building scene, establishing the relationship between Aragorn and Eowyn a little bit more. In addition it does help make sense of a scene later on when it is revealed that the horse Aragorn releases comes back to save him after he falls off a cliff. But the information we gain from this scene is not nearly enough to sacrifice the flow that gets broken up.
The following scene is even more egregious of this, where Saruman has a conversation with Grima about Isildur’s heir. Here he merely reiterates information we already knew, making explicit that which once was implicit. Together the scenes add three more minutes right before the film finally picks up speed plot wise.
Boromir and Faramir Flashback Scene
Very soon after the capture of Frodo and Sam by Faramir we are treated to a long flashback scene which gives us more background information about Boromir as he retakes the Gondorian outpost of Osgiliath from the Orcs. We are then introduced to his brother Faramir and his father Denethor revealing some dysfunctional family dynamics which in turn helps to explain both the actions of Boromir in Fellowship and Faramir in The Two Towers. From a strict theatrical cut point of view, Faramir is at this point noting more than an impediment to Frodo and Sam’s quest. In addition Boromir’s own arc is one of a dubious ally who tries to steal the ring but ultimately redeems himself by his death. So both of these characters getting some redemption in this five-minute scene is on the surface a good thing.
It is a good thing except for the fact that both of these developments have absolutely no bearing on the main story of the LOTR trilogy. Not to be crass but at this point in the story, Boromir is long dead and in his final sacrifice he has already redeemed his character, making this retcon of his character unnecessary. Meanwhile Faramir is at best a tertiary character who for all intents and purposes does not need to be fully fleshed out as a character. He exists in this movie to be an impediment and eventual helper to Frodo and Sam and that is all. All that we need to know about him, namely that he is Boromir’s brother and finds himself living under his shadow, is strongly implied in the scenes we already have so the flashback is unnecessary. The inclusion of this scene also has the odd effect of giving Faramir, who we have already established is a tertiary character in the plot, a more complete story arc than main characters like Gimli and Legolas which is all you need to know about how this scene and scenes like it affect the focus of this movie.
THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003) dir. Peter Jackson
Theatrical Cut Runtime: 3 hours 21 minutes
Extended Edition Runtime: 4 hours 14 minutes (+53 minutes)
Unlike The Two Towers, which even in the theatrical version suffered from pacing, the finale to the Lords of the Rings trilogy is packed in any of its forms. Most of this has to do with the fact that the movie version of The Two Towers really only covered two thirds of the novel, leaving The Return of the King to pick up the slack.
But while the film has perhaps the most amount of plot to cover, this in fact helps the film’s focus and pace, as it moves at a breathtaking clip in order to set up and execute the endgame of this trilogy. In my recent viewing of the theatrical cut it struck me just how much this movie does not feel like a three hour plus epic.
This is partly because at the centre of this movie is the epic Battle of Minas Tirith, involving three kingdoms, thousands of soldiers, the Nazgul riders, every living member of the Fellowship sans Frodo and Sam, and every tertiary character in the series. It is an almost unbroken action set-piece that takes close to an hour to complete and is intercut with the most action packed sequences in Sam and Frodo’s quest whether it is Shelob’s Lair or the goblin tower. In short it is an exhilarating hour that flies by making the runtime feel much shorter than it actually does.
Including Minas Tirith smack in the middle, the movie is broken up into four sections. The first section is the most exposition heavy but not as burdensome as in The Two Towers because it is purely about setting up all the major pieces for the epic Battle of Minas Tirith. The battle occupies the second section and is the longest. The third focuses on Frodo and Sam’s mad dash to Mt. Doom to destroy the ring. And the fourth is the often mocked series of never-ending endings which functions as a coda to the story. In the theatrical cut, this sections are clear and easy to delineate, but as you might surmise by now the clean pace of the theatrical cuts gets muddied up by the additional scenes in the extended editions. Let’s go through a few of those now:
The Death of Saruman
While I have spent a lot of time criticizing the inclusion of extended scenes as superfluous and breaking the pace and focus of the film, here we have finally arrived at the one scene that I do wish actually was in the theatrical cut. This is because at the very least, the great Christopher Lee deserved better than to be summarily dismissed as a threat offscreen especially when he has been the chief threat to our heroes in the first two movies. The inclusion of this scene in the extended edition also gives the movie some symmetry as the beginning of the movie details the death of Saruman, the master of the first tower, while the end of the movie details the death of Sauron, the master of the second tower.
But it is undeniable that the scene contributes to the beginning of the movie feeling a little bit slow in the extended edition as opposed to the economical speed at which the theatrical cut gets the gang back together. Fortunately I have a simple proposal: the banquet scene in Edoras really has no function but to get the Rohan side of the gang together and could easily be shortened to make way for this scene which is perhaps the only essential addition to the extended editions.
Gandalf and Pippin Arrive at Gondor
Most of the added scenes in LOTR commit the cardinal sin of breaking up the pace of the movie by inserting scenes with heavy exposition in it. However this four and a half minute sequence commits the added sin of inserting a heavy exposition scene in the middle of two other heavy exposition scenes.
The scene comes after a long and slow dialogue between Arwen and Elrond that serves as an important Cliff Notes primer for the Battle of Minas Tirith ahead. In this scene Gandalf and Pippin rush to the citadel in Minas Tirith and have a long conversation that serves as a Cliff Notes primer for the history of Gondor. Unlike Arwen and Elrond’s scene it is much less essential as (a) these pieces have more or less been mentioned before and (b) all we really need to know about Gondor is that it stands as the scene for this battle and is divided which will be established more vividly by Gandalf’s upcoming conversation with Denethor. And because that scene with Denethor follows this scene, the end result is close to 15 minutes of pure exposition in the middle of the first section. As one can expect, this criminally grinds whatever momentum had been built to a halt.
Faramir and Eowyn’s Extra Scenes
I have already discussed the problem with giving Faramir, who is a tertiary character, a complete story arc in The Two Towers so I won’t belabour the point here except to note that the Return of the King extended edition adds about eight more minutes to his arc.
But it is Eowyn’s extra scenes and what they do to her character arc that is more problematic. In the theatrical cut, the romantic dalliance that she has with Aragorn is quickly squashed and instead the story quickly moves on to placing her as the eventual successor to Theoden as ruler of Rohan. And the climax of her arc is that she, a woman who has to sneak onto the battlefield to prove her worth, is the one to kill the Witch King. It is a refreshingly powerful arc for a female character in a trilogy that is unfortunately bereft of female characters.
However in the extended edition this powerful arc is undercut by several scenes. She has another scene that plays up her Sam-and-Dianne relationship with Aragorn. And then most egregiously at the moment of her triumph by killing the Witch King she is then shown to be pursued by the Witch King’s general. She is shown to be generally helpless in stark contrast to her immense strength just a few moments earlier. She is eventually rescued damsel-in-distress style by her unrequited love interest Aragorn. And then to make it worse an additional scene in the Houses of Healing shoehorns in a new love interest for her in Faramir (I realize that this “romance” exists in the books as well but that doesn’t make it any less inorganic and false). The end result is that one of the only female characters gets robbed of a powerful arc in favour of ultimately looking boy-crazy.
Paths of the Dead scenes
In the theatrical cut Aragorn’s journey into the Path of the Dead with Legolas and Gimli is one steeped in mystery all the way down to the ultimate outcome of that journey as he tries to convince the King of the Dead and his armies to join the fight. This entire sequence adds to the tension of the Battle of Minas Tirith because the Path of the Dead scenes are intercut with the ever worsening situation in Minas Tirith as orc forces descend upon the capital. In fact there is a clear possibility that Aragorn might have failed as the last thing we see in the Path of the Dead is the ghost army fading away from Aragorn. Now because we have no idea what the outcome, it makes their appearance on the enemy Corsair ships at the tail end of the Battle of Minas Tirith all the more surprising and uplifting as they swoop in to save the day.
However in the extended editions, we get to see that Aragorn is successful in persuading the King of the Dead. There is also the scene in which the army of the dead attacks the Corsair ships. These two combined have the effect of completely deflating the tension in Minas Tirith because while the theatrical cut makes clear that a Corsair fleet of pirates are going to join Sauron’s forces due to arrive soon, in the extended edition we know that the Corsair ships contain Aragorn’s forces to save the day. Thus the potential surprise is spoiled, to say nothing of the way these extra scenes break up what is the longest sustained stretch of action in the movie.
The effect of the overall runtime on the coda of the movie
The coda of the movie is often mocked because it just seems to be a sequence of endings upon endings. By my count there are at least seven different moments that feel like the end of the movie with at least half of them qualifying as entirely appropriate for the series. In the theatrical cut this coda of endings begins 2 hours and 50 minutes into the movie which is undoubtedly a long time to then tack on an additional twenty minutes of endings. The 3 hour 20 minute runtime puts the movie in the same ballpark as movies like Ben-Hur, JFK, Titanic, Schindler’s List, and Doctor Zhivago. While these are all long epics, they are in lengths that are somewhat familiar to us. We know how to mentally pace ourselves through these movies and the theatrical cut of The Return of the King is no different. As a result, the codas feel less like an endless stream of endings and more like a proper goodbye to the characters we have spent so much time with.
The extended edition is a different beast however. It runs 4 hours and 14 minutes. That makes it longer than Gone With the Wind and Lawrence of Arabia. It is 1/6th of a day. In other words the extended edition’s runtime is prohibitively long as it is, and twenty minutes of endings end up feeling less like proper goodbyes and more like a test for the limits of our endurance.
I realize that I may have come across as unreasonably harsh with this evaluation of the extended editions. As I stated from the outset, the are one of the few director’s cuts that are worth watching. However in revisiting the theatrical cuts it is clear that as much as the extended scenes add in terms of world building and exposition, they take away from the pace and focus of the story.
It is telling that most of these additions do not happen in any of the action sequences, aside from a few extra seconds of violence here and there. Instead almost all of these scenes are exposition scenes that are heavy with dialogue or that focus on filling in Tolkien’s admittedly deep world. In the theatrical cuts there is a delicate balance between exposition and action that is upset in the extended editions in favour of exposition. As a result the movies end up feeling much longer than they actually are, with the action happening too few and far between moments of exposition to jolt us into a higher gear.
The extended editions also end up muddying up the storyline bringing in tertiary characters like Faramir and Eowyn, arguably giving them more complete story arcs than members of the Fellowship (Legolas and Gimli’s arc basically amounts to them being able to say in the future “I’m not a racist! My best friend is a/an dwarf/elf!”). Additionally almost none of the extended scenes deal with Frodo and Sam who are part of the most important part of the story so these extended scenes have the odd effect of diminishing Sam and Frodo’s importance. But the biggest problem of all is that these additional scenes slowly but surely stretch the runtime of these already long movies to the point that they become less epics to be enjoyed and more like marathons you have to slog through.
It is clear that the extended editions are for fans who can’t get enough of Tolkien’s world and are willing to devote close to a full waking day in order to watch them. But that ultimately does not make them better movies. For the first time viewer, and for the better movie experience in general, watch the original cut.