Peter Leithart posted again about the last scene of The Return of the King, referring to a 2004 interview with Peter Jackson. (See here for my first post on this topic.) Here’s how Jackson addressed the alterations to the climactic scene (spoiler alert again):
One of the major themes is that in the very last stage, Frodo fails. He is spared the fate of Gollum and Isildur only by … chance, fate, Providence , whatever you want to call it. Do you think that for us, watching the film, as we struggle with our own inner demons, that this has any resonance? I’m thinking particularly in regard to some of the ideas in some of the addiction-recovery programs of the acknowledgement of a higher power. Do you think there is anything we can take away [to that effect] from the films?
It’s a good question. I’m not sure. We modified the film a little bit from the book. We tried to have our cake and eat it too. This is not really answering your question, but … we did want to honor the sense that it was the pity of Bilbo that was ultimately going to lead to the destruction of the Ring.
Bilbo not killing Gollum, and Frodo not killing Gollum at various stages of the story —many people would have regarded that as the sensible thing to do. Frodo showing pity to Gollum was a factor that led to the destruction of the Ring directly. Tolkien made that connection very simple in the book. In the book he had Frodo injured with his finger being bitten off and then Gollum dance for joy on the edge of the Crack of Doom, and then he slips and falls into the lava. Tolkien just did it the most simple way that he could for what he was trying to achieve.
In the movie, we felt that there was a problem with that. We felt that audiences — a lot of people haven’t read the book, of course — would feel very let down and would actually judge Frodo badly for just sitting there watching as the ring got accidentally destroyed, and they’d feel that Frodo would have failed essentially in his quest, and it was an accident that stepped in. We had to be careful in the movie to keep Frodo from looking bad because of that.
So I said to Elijah, “We’ve obviously modified it. So when Gollum dances on the Crack of Doom, we want you going back for the Ring. Now, you know, it’s really got to be ambiguous as to whether you’re going back to take the Ring and destroy it and complete your mission or whether you want to take the Ring for yourself [in a way] that’s got nothing to do with destroying it.” And Elijah said, “Oh, I think I want it!” [chuckles] So I said, “Just play it in a very ambiguous way.” So Frodo went for Gollum — Elijah went for the Ring. The two of them fought: Andy Serkis was there, and Elijah, and the two of them fell in.
So we still tried to preserve what was important to Tolkien — the sense that it was the pity that [resolved the conflict.] There’s nothing that takes away from that. If Gollum hadn’t been there, if he had been killed earlier, then Frodo would have just kept it. We still had the presence of Gollum being the catalyst that led to its destruction.
[Regarding the added scene of Sam rescuing Frodo from the cliff.]
We didn’t want to make Frodo heroic. We wanted to make Frodo feel that he had failed. At that point, he’s free of the burden — the Ring is destroyed and it’s no longer having that power over him. There’s a sense that Frodo feels like he wants to let go, he feels that he has failed, and Sam says, ‘No, don’t do that.’
You might enjoy the rest of the interview as well.