A pair of hobbits, Smeagol (Andy Serkis) and Deagol (Thomas Robins) are fishing. Deagol finds a golden ring in the river and Smeagol kills him for it. He runs to the mountains (sinner-man) and hides in the caves beneath the Misty Mountains, becoming more wretched and twisted by the ring’s power until he is Gollum.

Hundreds of years later, during the War of the Ring, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) brings Aragorn (Viggo Mortenson), Legolas the Elf (Orlando Bloom), Gimli the Dwarf (John Rhys-Davies) , and King Theoden (Bernard Hill) to Isengard, where they reunite with Hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) and see the wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) fall to his death. Gandalf takes the Palantir, a seeing stone with which Saruman kept in touch with Sauron. Pippin, a known brave idiot, peers into the Palantir and is seen by Sauron. From what Pippin says, Gandalf thinks Sauron’s forces will attack the Capital of Gondor, Minas Tirith. He rides off to warn the steward Denethor (John Noble), taking Pippin with him, for safety

Gollum leads Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) to the Great Black Gate of Minas Morgul, where they see the Witch-king of Angmar (Lawrence Makoare), leader of the Nazgul, lead a vast army of Orcs toward Gondor. The hobbits climb a stairway carved in the cliff that takes them to a secret tunnel to Mordor, not knowing that it leads to a trap. The Witch-king overwhelms Osgiliath, forcing Faramir (David Wenham) to retreat with his troops to Minas Tirith.

King Theoden gathers the Rohirrim army and Aragorn learns from Elrond (Hugo Weaving) that Arwen is dying, having given up her immortality for his love. She has convinced Elrond to re-forge the shards of King Elendril’s sword, Narsil, which had defeated Sauron last time, so Aragorn can claim his birthright as King. He will then be able to recruit the undead Men of Dunharrow to join them in the battle. With Legolas and Gimli, he enters the dead men’s lair, pledging to release them from Isildur’s curse of eternal half-life if they come to Gondor’s aid. Gollum disposes of the Hobbits’ food and blames Sam for it. He is trying to convince Frodo that Sam desires the ring. Half-crazy from carrying the ring, Frodo sends Sam away.

Faramir is wounded in an unsuccessful battle to recapture Osgiliath. His father, Denethor (John Noble), believing him to be dead, falls into madness. Gandalf must lead the defense against the Orcs, led by Gothmog (Body by Lawrence Makoare, voice by Craig Parker). As Denethor attempts to kill himself and the still-living Faramir on a funeral pyre, the Orcs force their way into the city. Gandalf saves Faramir, but Denethor leaps to his death from the heights of Minas Tirith, just as Theoden and Eomer (Karl Urban) arrive with Rohirrim backup. They are overrun by the Haradrim, mounted on huge Oliphaunts. The Witch-king mortally wounds Theoden and is killed by his niece Eowyn (Miranda Otto), but Theoden dies. Aragorn arrives with the ghost-army of the dead, who overwhelm Sauron’s forces and are freed from their curse. Aragorn then turns toward Mordor and marches to the Black Gate, drawing out Sauron’s reserve forces and leaving Mordor empty for Frodo and Sam to head for Mount Doom with the ring.

Gollum leads Frodo into the lair of the giant spider Shelob, who paralyzes and binds him in her web. Sam injures Shelob but is forced to hide as Orcs find and take away Frodo. The Orcs fight over his priceless elf-made mithril vest, which allows Sam to escape with Frodo. Just as Frodo reaches the ledge above the Fires of Doom, he succumbs to the ring’s power and puts it on. Gollum appears and though Frodo is invisible, he grabs him and bites off his finger to possess the ring. They fall off the edge. Gollum plummets into the fire, destroying the ring. Frodo clings to the edge and Sam pulls him to safety. Sauron and his remaining forces are destroyed as Mordor crumbles in a volcanic eruption. Gandalf flies in with giant eagles to rescue the hobbits, who wake up in Minas Tirith to find the remaining Fellowship surrounding them. Aragorn is crowned King of Gondor and Arwen becomes his Queen. The hobbits return to the Shire, where Sam marries his love Rosie Cotton (Sarah McLeod). A few years later, Frodo leaves Middle Earth with Bilbo, Gandalf, and the Elves and they take ship to the undying lands.

How do I love these movies? Let me count the ways. I love Tolkien’s words, his invented languages, his evocative and mellifluous names of places and characters, which Peter Jackson forged into some great moviemaking. I love the landscape of New Zealand, with vistas, mountains, and rivers of such unearthly beauty that many think they are special effects, and the music of Howard Shore, Enya, James Galway, Annie Lennox, and Billy Boyd. I love the Elves—their language that flows like water, their art-nouveau architecture, jewelry, and weapons, and their magical presence, so light on the earth that Elrond walks on top of the snow that others sink into. I love the creatures—noble or monstrous--and the Orcs, mostly portrayed by fierce Maori warriors. I love the Hobbits, with their rollicking, peaceful ways, their cozy, homey holes, and their stubborn, steely courage. I love Gandalf, with his sly, twinkling eyes and his towering rages. I love Frodo’s brimful eyes, and Sam’s death-defying loyalty, and Andy Serkis’ triumphant creation of Gollum, which inspires disgust and pity at the same time.