The Cineluxe “Comfort Viewing” Guide to “The Lord of the Rings”
Maybe you saw Peter Jackson’s epic The Lord of the Rings trilogy in cinemas back in 2001, 2002, and 2003 and haven’t dug back in since. Or perhaps you’ve caught the films individually here and there on cable over the years. Or maybe you’ve never seen The Lord of the Rings at all. (That might seem improbable, but I see new YouTube clips on my timeline every couple of days proclaiming “I’ve never seen Fellowship of the Ring” or “FIRST TIME WATCHING Lord of the Rings: The
Fellowship of the Ring” or something to that effect.)
No matter what your relationship with the films may be, settling in to watch them from beginning to end can be an uplifting experience, which is something all of us need right now. What the series’ fans know—and what new viewers are learning with ever-increasing frequency—is that The Lord of the Rings is emotional nourishment. Spiritual sustenance. In other words: It’s comfort viewing. Despite the focus on hobbits and elves and dwarves and magical artifacts, The Lord of the Rings is, at its heart, about times like those we’re currently living through. It’s about defiant endurance in the face of uncertainty. It’s about clinging to hope when there seems to be none.
But committing to an 11-plus-hour movie marathon can be daunting, no matter how inspirational the films themselves may be. In addition to the time investment, there’s the fact that the films have been released to home video so many times that choice overload starts to kick in.
That’s where this guide comes in. The goal here is to help you enjoy The Lord of the Rings in the best quality
possible, whether for the first time or the twentieth, and to help you navigate the wealth of bonus materials based on your personal interests and preferences. Before we get to all of that, though, the first thing you need to decide is which version of the films you should watch.
Director Peter Jackson has famously said the theatrical versions are his preferred cuts, and that the extended editions are simply “a novelty for the fans.” That is absolute rubbish. The theatrical edits are a roller coaster of unevenness, with the first and third films—The Fellowship of the Ring and The
Return of the King—being perfectly enjoyable for what they are, but only as self-contained films with no connection to the rest of the trilogy.
On the other hand, the second film, The Two Towers, is a confusing mess of a thing in its original edit. At 178
Watch the Extended Editions.
Forget the theatrical cuts even exist.
minutes, it’s a laborious slog, filled with one non sequitur after another, packed with characters whose motivations make little sense. The 228-minute Extended Edition, by contrast, positively whizzes by. It also gives you a deeper understanding of the histories and motives of its characters and the mythical lands they populate.
From a purely narrative perspective, the Extended Editions of Fellowship and Return aren’t quite that essential, but they still add some much-appreciated depth and context. They also insert some connective tissue that ties the three films together
into one unified work.
Skip the Extended Edition of the first film, for example, and you may be left wondering where certain items and artifacts central to the plot of the second film came from. Watch the shorter theatrical cut of Return of the King, and one of the second film’s major characters just disappears from the narrative with no explanation and no resolution.
So if you’re committing to watch all three films—and why wouldn’t you?—the Extended Editions are certainly the preferable option. But before you go traipsing off to Vudu or Amazon or some other digital retailer to buy the trilogy, allow me to make the case for why streaming doesn’t do these films justice.
That’s an odd pronouncement coming from me, especially given that I’m probably the biggest cheerleader for streaming here at Cineluxe. But streaming falls short of
for HD. Second, the streaming versions of the Extended Editions lack the amazing Appendices, which we’ll dig into in just a bit.
That leaves Blu-ray Discs and the Kaleidescape downloads as your best options if you want to enjoy The Lord of the Rings to the fullest. If you opt for Blu-ray, each film is split across two discs to keep the compression from getting too out of hand.
This actually works to the advantage of The Fellowship
The first and third films can be viewed in halves, while The Two Towers should be approached as one long film with a quick potty break between scenes.
of the Ring and Return of the King, though, since you can treat the first and second half of each as a film in its own right. Take a break at the halfway point to grab a meal or take a nap or even sleep for the evening and you won’t disrupt the flow of the experience too much. The Two Towers, the middle film in the trilogy, doesn’t break quite so cleanly, so you’re better off treating it as one long film with a quick potty-break intermission between scenes.
If you’re watching on Kaleidescape (or if you ignored my counsel and bought the films on iTunes or whatever), you don’t get such neat breaks, since the films run straight through from opening to closing credits. But you can always hit the
If you want to explore the extras but you’re not sure you’re up for all 21 hours’ worth, you can go straight to the groups of Appendices that suit your specific interests.
intermission button on your remote right after “The Council of Elrond” in Fellowship of the Ring (you’ll know it when you get to it, I promise) and just after “The Siege of Gondor” in Return of the King. (That one’s not quite as obvious, but just remember to take your break right after the orcs start pushing a big flaming battering ram shaped like a wolf’s head toward the gates of the city of Minas Tirith and chanting “Grond! Grond! Grond!” That’s the name of said flaming wolf-headed battering ram.)
And that’s it. Congratulations! Make it through one more
disc (or a few more hours of film) after that point and you’ve finished the epic journey through the lands of Middle-earth in the best way possible.
But hang on a minute. If you’re like most people, once you’ve experienced all three films, you’ll be itching to know more about the books that inspired the trilogy and the process of adapting them for the big screen. That’s where the Appendices come in.
On both Blu-ray and Kaleidescape, the Appendices are broken into six parts (two per film, with each Appendix getting its own disc if you opted for physical media). The neat thing is, they follow a reasonably predictable structure, so if you know for sure you don’t want to watch all 21 hours’ worth of documentaries (not a typo), you can hone in on the sort of background information that interests you most.
The odd numbered Appendices (the first disc or batch of bonus content) tend to dig into the history, themes, and meaning of the books themselves, along with the writing and planning that went into adapting this supposedly un-filmable book into three of the best films ever made. As such, Appendices 1, 3, and 5 explore the life of author J.R.R. Tolkien; the publication of the book; the characters, the peoples, and the locations of Middle-earth; and preparatory work like writing the screenplay, adapting the scripts from two films to a trilogy once Miramax passed on the adaptation and New Line stepped in, and creating the costumes, sets, props, etc.
The even-numbered Appendices are probably more your speed if you’re primarily interested in The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy of films and not so much as an adapted work. Appendices 2, 4, and 6 explore the long process of shooting the films, as well as post-production work like editing, special effects, sound effects, and score music.
“But wait!” he says in his best Billy Mays voice, “There’s more!” Each film is also accompanied by four full-length audio commentaries. Again, there’s some consistency here,
Appendices 1, 3 & 5 focus on the book, its author, and the translation from page to screen.
Appendices 2, 4 & 6 are more like typical behind-the-scenes documentaries
with one track for each film focusing on the writing, one on the design, one on production, and one with the cast.
Still hungry for more info? Each film has 4 commentaries that range in appeal from “must listen” to “for hardcore nerds only.”
The cast commentaries are the best by a long shot, since Sean Astin is a walking/talking film encyclopedia and Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd are straight-up laugh-out-loud hilarious throughout. Andy Serkis also performs part of the commentary for Return of the King in character as Sméagol/Gollum, which is something you don’t want to miss.
The commentaries featuring Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh,
and Philippa Boyens are also absolute gems if you want to take a deeper dive into the process of adapting the book than the documentaries in the Appendices provide.
The other two commentaries for each film, I must admit, are for hardcore fans only, so unless you’re absolutely obsessed by this point, you can probably safely skip them. To wit, I’ve only listened to the design and production commentaries two or three times over the past two decades. (By contrast, I watch all 21 hours’ worth of Appendices every other year, and dig into the cast and writers’ commentaries at least once every three years.)
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Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.