‘The Lord of the Rings’ Extended Editions at 20
Editor John Gilbert explains how creating a fan-centric version of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations has improved both the theatrical version and the extended cuts.
Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy has plenty of aging to do before it catches up with Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) – remember the Hobbit is celebrating its 110th birthday with the long-awaited party that sets the early beats of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”. But with each entry in the series celebrating its 20th anniversary — last year’s Fellowship, this year’s The Two Towers and 2023’s The Return of the King — it’s worth pondering more than just that Shadows of the past reflecting on the films themselves. Or at least more than their theatrical versions.
A month before the premiere of The Two Towers, New Line Home Video unveiled the Extended Edition of Fellowship of the Ring, featuring 30 minutes of additional footage spread across six new sequences and 20 extended sequences. The DVD box set was packaged like a well-worn tome bound in green leather, and the making-of documentaries inside run almost as long as Jackson’s fan-focused edit of the film. Teams from all phases of the filmmaking contributed to the four feature-length commentaries; Like any other decent take on JRR Tolkien’s fantasy epic, there’s also Alan Lee artwork and a map of Middle-earth.
The special features are really extensive and offer a level of detail and passion for the material that seems to be unmatched – at least not in the streaming era. Which is a shame as they are an education in their own right, likely introducing many millennials to the craft and process of filmmaking, from script adaptation challenges and design work to ‘big-atures’ – scale models of various Middle-earth locations used throughout the trilogy – and special effects. Trial stories are inescapable as one flips through the expanded editions, whether it’s Orlando Bloom reflecting on how elves understand grief, watching John Howe develop the design of the Nazgûl in real time, or Richard Taylor and Richard through the trial the craftsmen of Wētā to be guided in the creation of creatures.
Warner Bros. / Courtesy of the Everett Collection
Tolkien’s encyclopedic level of elaborate and evocative detail gives Middle-earth its depth on the page, and the ‘appendices’ of the expanded editions – a reference to the additional material Tolkien places at the end of the books – are a big part of why Jackson’s trilogy evolved felt legendary back then and has only gotten more mythical since. Every single fan of the Lord of the Rings movies, including this one, is bound to share the behind-the-scenes anecdote where Viggo Mortensen broke his toe crashing into an orc’s helmet in The Two Towers stepped, with this attitude the one who made it into the film. This little thing has been achieved Meme status because the Extended Editions’ making-of materials don’t just show the process — they reinforce the sense that this most fantastical of stories is real and how it came together.
The longer run times of the Extended Editions also provided an outlet that allowed the theatrical release of The Fellowship of the Ring to show itself at its best. “Peter didn’t really like taking things out,” Fellowship editor John Gilbert recently told IndieWire. “And I remember there was a point where this fan version or extended DVD version was first discussed and that was kind of a godsend because it meant Peter could be persuaded to do a scene from the film remove it, and it wouldn’t just get lost.”
The possibility of a more accommodating edit allowed Gilbert to be the bad cop of the editorial team, focused solely on the mechanics of the screen story and not the lore behind it or a desire to see certain beats of Tolkien’s work realized on screen. His constant question for every scene: How has it driven Frodo’s (Elijah Wood) experience, our understanding of why he makes his choices and what it costs him to wear the ring?
“I wanted the theatrical version to stand on its own, and it wasn’t important to me to give the material as much credit as Peter and the writers,” said Gilbert. “So I was always like, ‘No, we don’t need this scene. We don’t need this scene. I give it to Mike Horton who is editing the second film. He can have it, or it can go in the DVD extras or something. I had this idea that the film should be less than three hours long.”
The theatrical version of “Fellowship” plays under three hours, albeit just barely, and the Frodo-Forward elements even make their way into the title card: Dropped over a shot of Frodo reading in the peace of the Shire, unlike the tour of Bag End and Ian Holm recite Tolkien in the Extended Edition.
The film’s early opening sets the story of The One Ring in a breathtakingly economical combat sequence. So, in terms of the adaptation, it would certainly make sense to return to the flow of Tolkien’s original material in the introduction to the Shire – which the expanded edition does, starting with Bilbo beginning work on ‘his’ book. In the theatrical version, however, this depiction is omitted in favor of Gandalf’s (Ian McKellan) arrival in Hobbiton. “I think that was the idea [starting with Frodo and Gandalf] was such an efficient, beautiful visual way of doing this rather than words on a page – no matter how reverent that was to the source material. The long version lasted four hours or three and a half hours. To be honest, I don’t think that was one of the harder decisions,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert’s focus on Frodo’s story in The Fellowship of the Ring can be found throughout the Extended Edition’s additional material, as scenes that form the basis for the sequels or expand our understanding of the supporting characters have been left on the cutting room floor. With the release valve of a version that could be more faithful to Tolkien, slower and less completely focused on the protagonist, the theatrical version could operate at maximum narrative efficiency and The Extended Edition will delight both pure movie fans and book fans who are now ready to see and hear more of the characters and places they already love – like Frodo and Sam (Sean Astin) watching the elves who are part of the Gray Haven’s journeys, or Aragorn (Mortensen) sharing his conflicting feelings about kingship in a quiet conversation with Elrond (Hugo Weaving).
The challenges of creating both theatrical and extended editing neared the end of the film, particularly in the battle with the Uruk Hai and the death of Boromir (Sean Bean). “Peter shot a lot of footage of Boromir’s death,” Gilbert said — so much so that fans of the extended edition can probably point to the exact moment in the Fellowship of the Cast documentary where Sean Bean talks about the coverage of his death scene , have lunch and then come back to die all over again. “Since then I’ve been working on films where there’s a lot more footage. I think people are shooting more and more these days. But back then I wasn’t used to getting three or four hours a day,” Gilbert said.
What to focus on in action sequences and how to create enough spatial clarity to match the film’s earthy, natural details were less easy questions to answer and less easy to process. Gilbert said he had to lock himself in for several days to piece it together, again guided by the moments that most affect Frodo’s sense of the chaos spreading on Amon Hen and which moments add to the tragedy of Boromir’s sacrifice. Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), for example, fell short in the theaters and more of their material comes back in the Extended Cut.
Looking back a few decades later, Gilbert is proud of how many scenes in each variation of the film intuitively fit together, visually advancing the plot, world, and tone of the story. “I particularly enjoyed editing the scene where Frodo runs down the pier and jumps onto the ferry and stops the horse right at the end of the pier,” Gilbert said. “It’s so well photographed. You looked at it and you thought, ‘I know how this fits together.’ And you really can somehow make the drama work.
Registration: Stay up to date on the latest movie and TV news! Sign up for our email newsletter here.
https://www.indiewire.com/2022/11/lord-of-the-rings-extended-edition-editing-1234781449/ ‘The Lord of the Rings’ Extended Editions at 20