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Just End Already!

Of course, some folks always figured Hollywood and Evolution were in cahoots. But what are we supposed to think when archaeologists in Indonesia turn up proof of hobbits just in time for the Christmas shopping season and the release of the extended edition of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King? As if the fossil record were just another place to put a billboard?

These “hobbits,” such as they were, lived in nasty, dirty, wet holes with no cozies for tea and no pegs for hanging coats, were hairy all over instead of only on the tops of their feet, and spent most days either chasing around mini-elephants or getting chased by lizards big enough to pass for dragons. The stories they told at night around the fire probably bore little or no resemblance to Wagner’s Ring Cycle. But their discovery would have delighted J.R.R. Tolkien nonetheless.

A philologist, Tolkien approached his own creations as if he were translating some long-lost tale from some long-extinct tongue. There is the most beguiling sense in Tolkien that much has been lost and this epic alone has been found.

Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning The Return of the King owes its twin allegiances to Tolkien’s masterpiece and to the long tradition of Hollywood epics from Griffith to Lean to Spielberg. So whatever else the books might have said or meant, the adaptations are, like every other Hollywood movie ever, mostly about friendship, and learning to listen to one’s heart; and all the thrilling, disgusting things warring enemies can do to one another with swords, arrows, magic wands, rocks, fists, and, in a pinch, some poor Gondorian’s decapitated head flung through the air by catapult.

To tell you the absolute truth: All three Lord of the Rings films bored me silly in the theaters. It was easy to recognize their achievement-for all the grandeur and terrifying, vertiginous vastness, every detail is lovingly, intimately rendered-but I much preferred them later on, as I rewatched my little brother’s DVD’s. Empowered by the “pause” and “play” buttons, I could proceed through Middle Earth at my own pace like a tourist in some bizarre, untamed foreign country-little jaunts out and back again, with naps in between.

There are all sorts of wild things there, and astonishments: hobbits in their holes and hobbits in the burning wastes reminiscing about their cozy little holes; giant spiders and giant eagles; rangers and Black Riders; trolls, goblins, orcs and the Great Eye; talking trees mustachioed with moss; dead soldiers, phosphorescent green in the pitch-black of long-forgotten caves; the White Wizard emitting white light and heat and the belching, boozing, bigoted, battle-ax-wielding dwarf; not to mention all the elves clamoring aboard their departing ships like diplomats onto the last helicopters out of Saigon. After a while, the Elves’ stated excuse (“The time has come for the Dominion of Men”) starts to sound a whole lot like “Let’s get the fuck out of Dodge before shit gets really bad.”

Yes, in The Return of the King, the King returns and Sauron gets his and the One Ring to Rule Them All meets the same fate at the end as Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2.

And, yes, at the end: Frodo lives. Or rather, heads West and vanishes. So maybe all the buttons and graffiti and T-shirts were a wee bit hasty. Whatever happens after the ships sail from the Grey Havens, we do not know. Maybe they sink and sleep. Maybe they slide away from the surface of the Earth. We won’t ever know. Instead, we follow Sam, who comes back home, to the Shire.

For this DVD, Peter Jackson has added 50 minutes to what was already an extremely long film. (These extended editions of The Lord of the Rings together run well over 11 hours; as a point of comparison, that’s two hours longer than Shoah.) So you will finally learn what death the evil wizard Saruman fell to, and how the daughter of Rohan and the son of Gondor fell in love in the hospital wing; and cowering behind Aragorn, you will meet the Mouth of Sauron and see for yourself the terrible state of Mordor dentistry. By the midpoint of the now four-hour-plus film, you can’t remember when you weren’t watching The Return of the King, and you can’t imagine it ever coming to an end. Like the theatrical version, the special edition still suffers from an embarrassment of endings-there are, by my count, eight perfectly serviceable conclusions right in a row. After a while, I began to feel like Frodo on the steppes of Mount Doom: I’d been away so long I could no longer remember my home.

The special edition also includes 13 valedictory, only-slightly-self-aggrandizing documentaries, a gallery of over 2,000 production images (with audio commentary), two interactive maps and four feature-length commentaries by everyone from the cast to the caterer. So even if The Lord of the Rings has finally come to an end, Peter Jackson and Co. have left us plenty of room still to wander. Of course, there will be some fans who won’t be fully satisfied until there’s a seven-year-long documentary that records every single second of the films’ production, or at least a featurette that shows Mr. Jackson every night asleep and, in green-black night vision, zooms in on his vibrating eyelids as he dreams up battles, and broken swords knit back together.

[The New Line Platinum Series Extended Edition of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, PG-13, $39.99, 250 minutes]