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20 Years Later, the ‘Lord of the Rings’ Extended Editions Remain the DVDs to Rule Them All

Editor John Gilbert discusses how creating a fan-focused version of Peter Jackson's Tolkien adaptations made both the theatrical and extended cuts better.


“The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”

©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy still has a lot of aging to do before it catches up to Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) — recall that the hobbit is celebrating his 110th birthday with the long-expected party that makes up the early beats of “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.” But as each entry in the series reaches its 20th anniversary — “Fellowship” last year, “The Two Towers” this year, and “The Return of the King” in 2023 — it’s worth reflecting on more than the shadow of the past of the films themselves. Or more than their theatrical cuts, at least.

A month prior to the premiere of “The Two Towers,” New Line Home Video unveiled the “extended edition” of “Fellowship of the Ring,” with 30 minutes of additional footage spread across six new and 20 expanded sequences. The DVD box set’s packaging resembled a well-worn tome bound in green leather, and the making-of documentaries within run almost as long as Jackson’s fan-focused cut of the film. Teams from every phase of filmmaking contributed to the four feature-length commentaries; like any other self-respecting edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic, there’s Alan Lee artwork and a map of Middle Earth, too.

The special features are truly extensive, offering a level of detail and passion for the material that seems unlikely to be equalled — at least not in the streaming era. Which is a shame, because they’re an education in their own right, probably many millennials’ introduction 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. Stories of process are  inescapable when browsing the extended editions, whether it’s Orlando Bloom reflecting on how Elves comprehend grief, watching John Howe come up with the design of the Nazgûl in real time, or being walked through the process of creature creation by Richard Taylor and the artisans at Wētā.


“The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Extended Edition)”

Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection

Tolkien’s encyclopedic level of worked-out and evocative detail is what gives Middle Earth its depth on the page, and the extended editions’ “Appendices” — a reference to the extra materials Tolkien put at the end of the books — is a huge part of why Jackson’s trilogy felt legendary at the time and has only become more mythic since. Every single fan of the “Lord of the Rings” movies, including this one, is obliged to share the behind-the-scenes anecdote about Viggo Mortensen breaking a toe while kicking an orc’s helmet in “The Two Towers”, with that take being the one that made it into the film. That bit of trivia has reached meme status because the extended editions’ making-of materials don’t just show process — they enhance the sense that this most fantastic of stories is real, and how they came together matters.

The longer runtimes of the extended editions also provided an outlet that allowed the theatrical version of “The Fellowship of the Ring” to be its best self. “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 DVD extended version was first mooted, and this was kind of a godsend because it meant Peter could be persuaded to take a scene out of the movie and it wouldn’t just be lost.”

The possibility of a more accommodating cut allowed Gilbert to be the editing team’s bad cop, focused purely on the mechanics of the onscreen story and not on any of the lore behind it or any desire to see particular beats of Tolkien’s work realized onscreen. His constant question for each scene: How did it propel Frodo’s (Elijah Wood) experience, our understanding of why he makes his choices, and what it costs him to carry the Ring?

“I wanted the cinema version to stand alone, and it didn’t matter to me to pay homage to the material as much as it did for Peter and the writers,” Gilbert said. “So I would always say, ‘No, we don’t need that scene. We don’t need that scene. I’ll give it to Mike Horton, who’s cutting the second movie. 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.”

The theatrical cut of “Fellowship” does play under three hours, if only barely, and the Frodo-forward elements factor into even the title card: Dropped over a shot of Frodo reading in the peace of the Shire, as opposed to the tour of Bag End and Ian Holm reciting Tolkien seen in the extended edition.

The Fellowship of the Ring title cards for theatrical and extended cuts, placed side by side with theatrical version on top and EE version on the bottom.

“The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”

Screenshot/HBO Max

The film’s early going sets up the history of The One Ring in a breathtakingly economic battle sequence. So it would then certainly make sense, adaptation-wise, to return to the flow of Tolkien’s original material in the introduction of the Shire — which is what the extended edition does, starting with Bilbo beginning work on “his” book. In the theatrical cut, however, this exposition is dropped in favor of Gandalf’s (Ian McKellan) arrival in Hobbiton. “I think the idea was that [starting with Frodo and Gandalf] was such an efficient, beautiful visual way of doing it, rather than words on a page – no matter how reverential that was to source material. The long version was four hours, or three and a half hours. So I don’t think that was one of the tougher decisions, to be honest,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert’s focus on Frodo’s story in “The Fellowship of the Ring” is all over the extended edition’s additional material, as scenes that lay the groundwork for the sequels or augment our understanding of the supporting characters were left on the cutting room floor. With the release valve of a version that could be more faithful to Tolkien, more slowly paced, and less wholly focused on the protagonist, the theatrical cut could operate with maximum narrative efficiency and the extended edition gets to sweep up pure movie fans as well as book fans, who are now willing to see and hear more of the characters and places they already love — like Frodo and Sam (Sean Astin) observing elves traveling toward the Grey Havens, or Aragorn (Mortensen) sharing his conflicted feelings about kingship in a quiet conversation with Elrond (Hugo Weaving).

The challenges of shaping both the theatrical and extended cuts came closer to the end of the film, especially in the battle with the Uruk Hai and Boromir’s (Sean Bean) death. “Peter shot a lot of footage 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 doing coverage of his death scene, having lunch, and then coming back to die all over again. “I’ve worked on films since where there’s a lot more footage. I think people shoot more and more and more these days. But in those days, I wasn’t used to getting three or four hours of dailies,” Gilbert said.

Lord of the Rings Fellowship of the Ring Extended Edition Ringwraith at Buckleberry Ferry

“The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Extended Edition)”

Screenshot/HBO Max

What to focus on in action sequences and how to create enough spatial clarity to match the film’s earthy, natural details were less easily answerable questions, and less easy to even process. Gilbert said he had to lock himself away for several days to put it together, guided again by the moments that most impact Frodo’s sense of the chaos unfolding on Amon Hen and what moments heighten the tragedy of Boromir’s sacrifice. Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), for instance, got short shrift in theaters, and more of their material comes back in the extended cut.

Looking back a couple decades after the fact, Gilbert is proud of just how many scenes in every permutation of the film intuitively fit together and visually drive the story’s plot, world, and tone. “I particularly liked editing the scene where Frodo runs down the jetty and jumps onto the ferry and the horse pulls up right on the end of the jetty,” Gilbert said. “It’s so well shot. You looked at it, and you thought, ‘I know how this goes together.’ And you can really kind of make the drama of it work.”

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