With the release of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, fans of Middle-earth had plenty to be excited about already, but this December brings one more major occasion to celebrate. 2013 marks the tenth anniversary of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the award-winning finale to director Peter Jackson’s original trilogy. Earning near-unanimous critical acclaim and grossing a large sum at the box office, the adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novels became a part of the zeitgeist in the early 2000s and have been a staple of pop-culture ever since.
As a franchise that has had a tremendous impact on society and the film industry, there are plenty of reasons to commemorate LotR as we reflect on the adventures of Frodo, Aragorn, and the Fellowship. Here are our ten favorite things about the Lord of the Rings trilogy, in no particular order.
It’s no secret that Hollywood likes to play things safe most of the time. The release schedule is always full of sequels, reboots, and reinterpretations as studios look to cash in on the popularity of existing brands. Even when something original like Inception comes along, the marketing team never wastes an opportunity to use The Dark Knight as a selling point.
So the fact that the Rings trilogy was filmed the way it was came as a surprise. Shot back-to-back-to-back, New Line Cinema took a huge gamble when they funded the project. Jackson himself was an unproven commodity, famous for directing low-budget B-movies such as Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles, and the cast did not contain a reliable box office draw. Even though the books were popular, there was no guarantee that the films would become smash hits and if the first one failed to connect, the studio could have gone under. In retrospect, it seems silly to worry about the movies bombing, but at the time, the ambitious undertaking was a massive risk for all parties involved. In fact, we would like to see more studios roll the dice and take a chance – instead of rehashing things we’ve already seen.
In his 2004 book Blockbuster, film critic Tom Shone expressed concern about the state of the film industry during the 1990s, claiming that the blockbuster system (which had once spawned commercial and critical hits like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark) had spiraled out of control. He concludes by saying the Lord of the Rings trilogy restored credibility to the blockbuster, showing that they could provide both aesthetically and artistically rewarding experiences.
The three films found tremendous success at the Academy Awards (an institution that typically ignores these types of films), earning 17 wins from 30 nominations. Not only were they obvious choices for the technical awards, they also contended in the major categories such as Supporting Actor and Adapted Screenplay. It all culminated with Return of the King tying an Academy record by winning 11 trophies, including Best Picture and Best Director.
It was a big moment for moviegoers who champion the blockbuster and the trilogy helped similar genre films be taken seriously as an art form. In the years since, the Academy and the American Film Institute have honored blockbusters such as The Dark Knight, Iron Man, and Inception.
With the heavily publicized innovation of motion-capture to create Gollum, the trilogy quickly became one of the few true “groundbreaking” works in terms of revolutionizing special effects. However, the digital creature was not the lone reason why the franchise took home three consecutive Best Visual Effects Oscars.
While the films wouldn’t be possible without the advancement of CGI, the movies were also noteworthy for their use of practical effects. Jackson used old-school techniques such as trick photography and miniatures in order to bring Middle-earth and its many inhabitants to life. By filming as much as they could in-camera, the world became grounded in reality. Given the fantastical elements of the movies, viewers needed the world to be believable and Jackson’s team accomplished that goal. The effects were invisible to the untrained eye – to the point that people rarely gave them a second thought.
The character of Gollum is the gift that keeps giving. It was through Sméagol we met actor Andy Serkis, the fan-favorite motion-capture performer who has gone on to have major roles in films like King Kong and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Introducing the world to such a talent could be considered more than enough, but Gollum himself was a treat to watch on-screen.
Serving as Frodo and Sam’s guide to Mt. Doom, Gollum was at times sympathetic, malicious, and friendly. Struggling with an internal conflict as he plots to take back the Ring, his inclusion in the Hobbits’ quest added an extra dose of dramatic tension to those sections of the films. Not only did he keep viewers on edge, Gollum also represented what Frodo could become, giving the audience all the more reason to care for the protagonist.
A multi-layered character that was captivating to watch, Gollum’s meaty role in the final two films was a main reason why they were so successful (as well as something to look forward to when the character pre-turned in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey).
The Musical Score
One thing most blockbuster franchises have in common is an iconic music theme. From John Williams’ Star Wars score to Hans Zimmer’s work in The Dark Knight Rises, the movies are full of examples of soundtracks that become as big as their films. Howard Shore’s Oscar-winning music for The Lord of the Rings is no different.
The composer had a terrific grasp on what music was needed for each scene. Juggling a variety of tones throughout the three films, he was able to create an assortment of tracks that set the mood as ominous, epic, or emotional. “A Knife in the Dark” told us danger was near while “The Return of the King” caused viewers to get swept up in a moment of celebration.
Without Shore’s score, the film’s many battles and intimate character moments wouldn’t have the same feel and it’s doubtful the story would have resonated with so many people.
Now that people have seen just about everything thanks to the evolution of visual effects, it takes more than CGI spectacles to impress those with a more critical eye. Luckily, the trilogy features some of the strongest characters ever created.
The films justified their three-hour run times by providing sufficient character development for each member of the Fellowship. Aragorn’s journey from lost soul to leader of men was a strong enough arc to carry its own film series. Legolas and Gimli saw their relationship evolve from blind hatred to lifelong allies, sharing friendly banter and touching moments. Ian McKellen made Gandalf both authoritative and fatherly. We’d be remiss to not mention Frodo and Sam, one of the most famous friendships in cinema, as they provided viewers with several poignant scenes that spoke about the values of companionship and loyalty. Every character was dynamic, changing by the time the end credits finally rolled. Even Boromir – alive for just one film – was fully developed when it was all said and done.
As the old cliché goes, a great hero also needs a great villain, and Lord of the Rings certainly had that covered in the form of Sauron and Saruman. The union of the two towers was quite intimidating, as they constantly watched the Fellowship’s movements, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike. Even though the two main adversaries do not play a huge role in films (as opposed to other famous villains such as the Joker and Darth Vader), the evil wizard and the flaming eye of Sauron were always a threatening presence that hung over the protagonists, with Nazgûl and orcs furiously hunting down the Ring.
The Battle Sequences
The word “epic” might be one of the more overused terms in the lexicon, but it’s a very fitting adjective to describe the awe-inspiring battles that Jackson crafted for the trilogy. Drawing in audiences with a brief look at the War of the Last Alliance in the opening sequence of The Fellowship of the Ring, the director kept raising the bar with each subsequent installment as the stakes were raised and the fights became bigger.
Diehard fans of the trilogy have so many fantastic moments to choose from, that it’s probably hard to single out a favorite one. Perhaps the most iconic battle took place at Helms Deep during the conclusion of The Two Towers. Viewers were thrilled by the underdog story of an undermanned Rohan army (even with help from elf warriors) taking on a never-ending army of Uruk-hai as they fought to defend their land. Return of the King continued to hammer home the gravity of the situation by showcasing iconic sequences such as the Battle of Minias Tirith and the march on the Black Gate.
Not only were the battles wonderful to look at, they also provided some strong character moments for a number of those involved, including Éowyn, Aragorn, and Boromir.
It Was An Event
With so many big budget films released each year, it’s becoming harder for certain ones to raise to the profile of being an “event” film – meaning that their release brings about a sense of excitement not just for dedicated fans, but for casual moviegoers as well. By combining style with substance, Jackson’s trilogy was able to reach the status of an event film and bring joy to millions of people.
The films were released annually, and their arrival created a holiday of sorts as people geared up to see the movies. Lord of the Rings was an early trendsetter of midnight screenings where people showed up in costume to celebrate opening day. But the trilogy didn’t get to $1 billion at the worldwide box office by being just a niche franchise. The films became must-see events for those who never read the novels, helping expand the brand to all kinds of moviegoers. When people talk about films bringing people together, this is what they mean.
When Jackson accepted his Best Picture Oscar at the 2003 Academy Awards, he thanked the Academy for “seeing past the trolls, the wizards, and the Hobbits” and recognizing his film. The fact that the third installment won 11 awards at the ceremony was a testament to the strength of Jackson’s writing and directing, as he was able to take fantasy stories populated by dwarves and elves, goblins and orcs and ground it in a sense of reality, making the characters – despite their otherworldly appearances – seem human.
Audiences and critics were able to see past everything because the themes of friendship, loyalty, and honor were so prevalent. Moments like Gimli and Legolas having friendly orc-killing competitions or Frodo and Sam reflecting on a more simple life in the Shire made everything relatable. Jackson (along with co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) rounded out the screenplays by balancing drama, dread, humor, and honest emotion to have things feel real, leaving viewers no choice but to buy in.
The DVD Releases
Lord of the Rings was so big that it didn’t just change the way movies were made; it also had a major impact on the home media market. When the trilogy was theatrically released in the early 2000s, DVDs were relatively new and had not yet become the dominant form of home media (they overtook VHS in June 2003). Still, Jackson and his crew took advantage of the updated technology to craft some of the finest home video releases (to date) – and probably influenced customers to trade their VCR for a DVD player.
The standard two-disc theatrical cut versions were solid enough, but The Lord of the Rings is also famous for the extended editions, which are a favorite among fans. The releases not only included hours of extra footage added to the film series, but also a bevy of bonus features that offered viewers a behind-the-scenes looks at the secrets of the movies (including four commentary tracks for each film and a three-hour “making of” documentary).
As some of the first major motion pictures to be released on the new format, the trilogy set the standard for what fans expect out of a DVD (now Blu-ray) release. Nowadays, films varying from Man of Steel to The Town come equipped with bonus materials and alternate versions to give consumers as much content as they want.
These are only some of the reasons why we love the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Be sure to include your favorite aspects of the franchise in the comments section below.
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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is now in theaters.