This is an unpopular opinion: I like the ending of Return of the King. I do not think it’s too long. Nope. It’s just right.
Yeah, I probably lost you there. Let me explain.
I was rewatching Return of the King last week with my friend Duc, and when we got to the end, she got up, because as she put it, “The movie’s too long. It should end after the coronation.” She left, and I stayed through the extra ten minutes or so of story, wondering if she was right.
Spoiler alert: No.
I agree entirely that the film version of Return of the King has a lot of endings. It does feel a bit long. But I argue that every single one of those endings is necessary for some reason. Let’s break them down.
The first ending: Sam and Frodo huddled on a rock on the side of Mount Doom, while lava flows around them, and they reaffirm their bromance.
Obviously, this couldn’t be the end, right? I remember sitting in the theater, and when the screen went black, I screamed because I so mad. They couldn’t end it there! How dare they! While it’s true that at that point in the film nearly all of the storypoints had been finished up, the major issues resolved and the future of Middle Earth determined, there was absolutely no closure.
The second ending: Gandalf comes by and picks up Sam and Frodo with some giant eagles. Whiteout as we fly over the lava.
I didn’t want this one to be the end either, because it felt tacked on. It’s not much more resolution than we already had, just a quick assurance that Sam and Frodo would live, and probably be okay. Yeah, that’s not going to cut it, buddy.
The third ending: After a merry romp of bed-jumping, the reunited Fellowship smiles gently at each other inside Frodo’s room in the Houses of Healing.
Now here, we’re actually starting to get more closure. Everyone from the Fellowship except for Boromir is alive and well, they’re all happy to see each other, and we can tell that the emotional healing has begun. You could leave the story here, and it wouldn’t be awful. I mean, the fans would gut you, but you could. The story would feel relatively wrapped up.
But not entirely.
The fourth ending: Now, this is where Duc says it should have ended. Aragorn is crowned King of Gondor, everyone applauds, he gets back with Arwen, we see that Eowyn and Faramir have hooked up, and the hobbits get their due. It’s sweet, well done, and a fitting end.
This is where things get tricky. You see, I do think that this is where Return of the King should and does end. Everything major from this part of the story is resolved, and we’re not left with any lingering questions.
Return of the King is not a whole story, and, really, it’s not a whole movie. It’s just one part of a three-part film, and that’s what needs to be wrapped up here. Return of the King ends at the coronation. The Lord of the Rings keeps going.
Because, when you get down to it, Lord of the Rings isn’t about a war, or a King, or even a shiny ring. It’s about two little hobbits who go on an adventure. They see the world, many beautiful things, and even more horrifying ones. They go to war, and then they come home.
They come home.
That’s the important part of the story. Tolkien actually made a point in the books of showing that the hardest part of any war isn’t the fighting or even the making peace, it’s the end, when you come home and realize that no one else has seen what you have. They all have their own petty little problems, and they don’t give a crap that you’ve been through hell. The hardest part of war is coming home after.
So, Tolkien made a conscious choice to show that. And, let’s be fair, Peter Jackson cut out a hell of a lot of the end of Return of the King when he made this movie. Believe it or not, but the original version is actually a whole third of the book, where the hobbits come home and find that the war has made it even there. They have to defeat Saruman (again) and retake the Shire. It’s heartbreaking and poignant, and totally not in the films.
Instead, Peter Jackson went with a lighter touch, but one that still conveyed the same message: it’s hard to come home, and it can be good.
So, ending number five: The hobbits return home to the Shire. Nothing’s changed, and they’re still as disregarded as ever. Sam goes after Rosie Cotton, whom he’s been in love with since our story began, and Frodo finishes the story that Bilbo left him. They settle down, and they get back to life as usual.
But it doesn’t end there.
The sixth ending: The Grey Havens. The four hobbits accompany Bilbo and Gandalf to the Grey Havens, where a ship is waiting to take the Ringbearer, Gandalf, and the remaining elves to the West. Frodo realizes that it’s time for him to leave as well, and after a lot of tearful goodbyes, he gets on the boat.
This is important to me, not just because I’m enough of a fan that I would have been outraged if the Havens had been cut, but also because it completes Frodo’s journey. Yes, he came home, but he found that home had nothing left for him anymore. He’d been utterly changed by the Ring, and as much as he wanted to stay in Hobbiton, playing with Sam’s children and fighting with the Sackville-Bagginses, he can’t. He doesn’t belong there anymore. It’s time for a new adventure.
In the end, this is a story of two ordinary little hobbits, who became extraordinary through no fault of their own. There are consequences. They have been changed. And sometimes home isn’t home anymore.
Which brings us to the final ending, my favorite one: Sam comes home.
That’s it. It’s just Sam walking down the path to his front door, picking up his kids and kissing his wife. It’s the most ordinary of ordinary, and after everything they’ve been through, it’s perfect.
Now, in the books, the endings do continue. Aragorn was a great king, and ruled for a very long time. Eventually, though, he died, and Arwen stayed by the side of his grave until she eventually passed as well. Merry and Pippin went on to marry, have many children, and generally be the sort of rascally old men that they were when they were young. Legolas stayed with Gimli for many years, and when the time came, he built a boat and sailed them both to the West.
And Sam. Sam and Rosie had thirteen children (!), and he lived to be extraordinarily old. He finished Bilbo’s book, and was very respected in the Shire. When the end came, he went to the Grey Havens and found a boat waiting for him there. He followed Mr. Frodo one last time.
Urgh. I just made myself tear up there. I really love Sam’s story.
Okay, so what’s the point that I’m making with this? Just that there was a lot more to the ending, and we should be glad we got as little as we did? Obviously not.
No, the point of this is that ending a story means knowing what the story is about. If all Lord of the Rings was about was a Ring and an evil army, then the movie was over when the Ring was destroyed, the army defeated, and all our heroes together again. But that wasn’t the point of this story.
Yes, the movie was long. I remember feeling like I was going to burst by the end of it. (Midnight showings require caffeine, okay?) But movies need to end when the real story is over, when it’s come full circle, when things make sense again.
To this end, I actually do defend the epilogue to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Yes, that movie was also hella long, and totally, the epilogue was cheesy and badly executed. (Sorry, HP fans.) But it was important. You had to see the world after it was at war, a world starting to heal. You had to see how these kids, with whom you’d just spend seven years, would turn out. The plot of this movie was over, but the bigger story, that needed wrapping up.
“How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart you begin to understand there is no going back. There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep... that have taken hold.” - Tolkien, at the end of Return of the King