Lord of the Rings Return of the King
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Credit: New Line Cinema

This Week in Genre History: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King ended an age (not just the elves')

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Dec 16, 2020, 12:43 PM EST (Updated)

Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world's greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.

We live in a polarized, deeply divided nation, something that's obvious in our politics but also in the way we all individually experience the world. The internet, and social media, in particular, have splintered us from any collective, making any sort of universal appreciation of anything next to impossible. You see this constantly in the movies too. Every movie, no matter how lauded and critically acclaimed, will end up with a backlash against it (there were people who didn't like Moonlight, for crying out loud). For the first 91 years of Oscars history, the Academy gave the Best Picture and Best Director awards to different movies only 26 times, but the categories have been split in five out of the past eight years. We can't even agree on the things we love.

Which is why what happened with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which premiered in theaters on Dec. 17, 2003, all the more remarkable... and something that will surely never be repeated. The film was the culmination of a trilogy of movies that had been massive financial and critical successes, which, today, would likely build up such outsized anticipation that no film could possibly survive it. There'd be backlash before anyone had even seen it.

But not only was the team universally beloved when it came out, beat out every other film at the box office that year, was nominated for 11 Oscars and... won all 11! Suffice it to say: That won't be happening again. Our current world won't let it.

Why was it a big deal at the time? It is important to remember that when Peter Jackson was hired to pull off the passion project that was J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, there was much, much skepticism. First and foremost was the raw audacity of the project, one that had thwarted attempted adaptations from filmmakers as diverse as Stanley Kubrick, Richard Lester, and Walt Disney himself. Only one had made it to fruition, animator Ralph Bakshi's infamous disaster in 1977. And there was reason to be skeptical of Jackson as well. His one Hollywood film, The Frighteners, was not highly regarded and did not make much money. For all his inventiveness with Heavenly Creatures and his splatter films in New Zealand, giving him a project this massive was an incredible leap of faith. (It was one that was too much for Harvey Weinstein, who originally was working with Jackson but wanted the trilogy to be just one film and threatened to replace Jackson with Quentin Tarantino if he wouldn't relent.)

It was only New Line who was willing to take it on, and it was obvious, immediately, how good a bet they'd made. By the third film, the question was not whether The Return of the King would make the most money, but whether it would make all of the money. Each movie in the trilogy made more than the last, and each film was nominated for Best Picture. But to land the plane the right way, after the first two, Jackson had to do it one more time.

And do it he sure did. Considering how many third-films-of-a-trilogy have fallen short in recent years (see: The Dark Knight Rises and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker) it remains sort of a miracle that Jackson pulled off what he pulled off here. The whole film is an act of supreme confidence — opening with Smeagol back before he became Gollum, building up to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, landing all the right emotional beats with Frodo and Samwise (and giving Sean Astin his huge, trilogy-defining moment), and giving every major character the resolution they deserve and the audience is waiting for. And, oh yeah, somehow topping some of the truly staggering battle sequences of the first two films. Perhaps the most impressive thing was how Jackson made it look so effortless when it obviously was not. It blows your mind the more you think about it.

What was the impact? Return of the King basically exceeded all the insane expectations everyone had for it. There were all those Oscars, of course, and it ended up becoming the highest-grossing of all the films. It also shouldn't be understated how much larger the film is than the first two — two pretty massive films in their own right. Jackson truly did save the best for last.

And it wasn't just Tolkien fans lapping it up. The film somehow scored the incredibly rare "A+" CinemaScore, the ultimate indicator of audience satisfaction. Think about that: The movie wrapped up one of the biggest, most successful, most beloved film trilogies so successfully that everyone's expectations were met, in a truly roaring fashion. That doesn't just seem like something that would be difficult to do now: It seems like it'd be impossible.

Still, it was more intimate than that. It was still all a bit muted compared to now. Sure, there was still Comic-Con back then, but then it was still just a convention, rather than the all-encompassing celebration of brand capitalism it is now. (This report from an independent fansite is so charmingly low-fi and sincere it sort of breaks your heart.) But the film met all the hype and anticipation. Because Jackson had made all the films at once, they were unified and thus more pure objects than they might be today, when fans could all have their input and studios would insist filmmakers listen.

Instead, it became, indeed, that rare collective experience, a film we all had to see and discuss together. It made more money than any other Lord of the Rings film and paid off all we'd been waiting for. It was tough to ask for much more. It's no wonder everyone embraced it. It was the complete package.

Has it held up? How powerful was Jackson by the time the third film came around? He was able to get away with that interminable ending in the Shire, which diehard fans appreciated but the average viewer lightly tapped their foot while sitting through, a little bored but enthralled enough by the rest to be willing to indulge Jackson and those diehards. The film remains incredible, stunning, and expansive, a labor of love not just for Jackson but hundreds of millions of fans across the world. And even if you're not a fantasy enthusiast — this critic is not — the story is so simply and plainly told that you can't help but get caught up in it. It's clear that Jackson just wanted to tell this story right, and it's clear that he pulled off exactly that.

But still. Even if these movies were made in exactly the same way, with exactly the same expertise, and shared with exactly the same passionate fanbase, if all that happened today, the same hosannas and bouquets would be much less forthcoming. It's not because the films are different. It's because we are. All those people who never gave the movies a chance, or maybe didn't like Tolkien's politics, or just decided they were grouchy that day, they would have been after the movie from the get-go, if simply because of the film's omnipresence and ubiquity. There'd be a backlash before the backlash before the backlash. The movie still would have made a ton of money, and it still might have won Best Picture. But it would have taken some beatings. And it sure as heck wouldn't have gone 11-for-11.

The Return of the King is still a wonderful movie; it would be a wonderful movie no matter when it was released. But to glide so gracefully to a comfortable landing the way it did... it had to happen at the very moment it did. And not a bit later. By 2005, Jackson was making King Kong, another terrific film but with much more divided reactions. We were all fighting about Crash by then, and Christopher Nolan was making his first Batman movie. The Lord of the Rings was in the past by that point. Our relationship with the films is better for it. All told, we're lucky the films were made when they were. We get to just enjoy them, rather than constantly fighting about them. You know, the way we fight about everything else.

Will Leitch is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Tim Grierson review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.