I’ve got a lot of opinions about media that other fans of it might find controversial. I love Rogue One and The Last Jedi. I can’t stand Damian Wayne. I think The Silmarillion is more readable than The Hobbit.
2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies' 20th anniversary, and we couldn't imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we'll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon's Year of the Ring.
But if there’s one controversial opinion the most likely to elicit a shocked gasp and an immediate accusation of being no real fan at all, it’s this one: I prefer the theatrical versions of The Lord of the Rings to the Extended Editions in the deluxe boxed set.
The Extended Editions of the Lord of the Rings movies are legendary among the canon of home video releases, and rightfully so. They boast “deleted scenes” fully integrated with the films themselves (so big you have to swap discs halfway through, like a VHS copy of Titanic or a 1990s video game), complete with fully treated special effects and a restrung score. Finished with the movie? There are dozens of hours of cast and crew interviews about the techniques used to make the film and the friendships forged on set — enough behind-the-scenes adventures for their own trilogy.
But when I sit down to watch The Lord of the Rings, I want to watch it the way it looked in the theater. The way Peter Jackson really imagined it.
Theatrical LotR is all killer, way less filler
There isn’t a wasted shot in the theatrical edition of The Fellowship of the Ring. It’s a near-perfect movie. The first act is perhaps the greatest example of seamless exposition in filmmaking ever produced, as the production covers 6,000 years of history, a textbook’s worth of world-building, and the introduction of a dozen immediately compelling lead characters.
Would I have liked it if there had been room for the scene where Galadriel gave the Fellowship gifts in Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Fran Walsh’s adaptation? Sure, she’s one of my favorite characters. Would I have liked to catch a glimpse of Gildor and his band of elves? See Aragorn visit his mother’s grave? Yeah, of course! Do I want those scenes to cut into the delicate pacing of The Fellowship of the Ring, jarring the exquisitely balanced flow of the movie? I do not.
The Two Towers is baggier than Fellowship, with a few detours that have never felt justified to me. Aragorn falls off a cliff and has a psychic conversation with his girlfriend, Faramir whiffles back and forth about the Ring, and it never quite matters. It’s still a great film, and is my go-to pick whenever someone asks, “Wanna watch a Lord of the Rings movie?”
I am only human, and a giant The Lord of the Rings nerd. Do I want to see what Jackson and his collaborators thought Treebeard’s house should be like? Yes! What about that bit where Aragorn admits that he’s nearly 90 years old? Obviously!
But when I’m sitting down for an all-day marathon, I want the tighter, better version of the movie, the one that’s engineered as a cohesive cinematic story rather than a collection of translated scenes.
The Extended Editions brought LotR home
The extended versions of Fellowship, Two Towers, and Return of the King came out when it was still astonishing that a broader public would invest monetarily and emotionally in something that was historically niche, lowbrow, and, for lack of a better word, nerdy. They also offered a way to bring an “exclusive” version of the Lord of the Rings movies into more intimate, fans-only spaces, where we could pause and rewind, gush and cheer without fear of judgment (or just of bothering other people).
Every year, my friends and family would see a Lord of the Rings movie just before Christmas. And the following year, the Extended Edition DVD would hit stores around Thanksgiving break. For three years, we would pop the disc in and dive back into Middle-earth just in time to ignite hype for the next installment.
The Extended Editions also fostered a sense of intimacy through hours and hours of filmed interviews on how the movies came together. There are Weta designers I can still recognize on sight today. Talking about how Viggo Mortensen breaks his toe on screen in The Two Towers — something you’d only know if you watched the special edition DVDs — is a meme now.
But the Extended Editions are not better movies.
And Peter Jackson agrees with me
“The theatrical versions are the definitive versions,” Peter Jackson told IGN in 2019. “I regard the extended cuts as being a novelty for the fans that really want to see the extra material.”
To Jackson, things like Treebeard’s home and Galadriel’s gifts are indelible parts of The Lord of the Rings, and he didn’t want the footage lost forever. The Extended Editions preserve that work, and are made with the understanding that fans want to see it. But, Jackson said, every addition has a detrimental effect on what he set out to make.
“Every time [I add something in] I think I’m spoiling the film, but I’m doing it because people want to see it and they’ll see it in their home.”
There is a difference between adaptation and translation, and perhaps it’s natural for fans of a beloved story to look to accuracy before quality. But a novel is not a movie, and adaptations have to make choices — and not just about what something that existed only in text looks like when it’s a living, breathing, costumed actor.
The theatrical editions of the Lord of the Rings movies made great choices. The Extended Editions chose completionism, at least partially to please fans rather than the creatives behind the work itself. And when you let fans take the wheel, things get really, really messy.
The shape of Lord of the Rings movie fandom would be entirely different without the extended DVD releases. But even to the director himself, those versions of the movies are novelties, not the real thing.
I don’t want to keep anyone from enjoying the Extended Editions if they do. I just wish people would stop calling me a bad fan when I say I prefer the theatrical ones. All I’m really saying is that I like the same ones Peter Jackson does!
That said, there is one Lord of the Rings movie that I think is better in the Extended Edition, and that brings me to my next controversial opinion: The Return of the King is actually kind of a mess, and the Extended Edition is necessary to complete vital character arcs and create emotional underpinning for the movie’s best moments. But that’s a story for another time. Please don’t yell at me on Twitter about it until then.