The Lord of the Rings films progress chronologically, following Frodo and the other members of the fellowship on their journey. A narrator relates the history of the ring at the very beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, which is the only background information we need to understand the urgency of the upcoming journey. From there, events happen in order, from Gandalf’s arrival in the Shire at the beginning of the first film to Sam and Frodo’s return at the end of the last. While Tolkien’s trilogy relies on appendices and companion books to augment the story with historical minutiae and tangents, Jackson elects to stay close to the central narrative—incorporating such obscure details into the films would have been all but impossible. After the fellowship breaks up at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, individual characters and smaller groups pursue their own journeys, and the scenes move back and forth between them. However, their stories take place more or less simultaneously and are related in the order in which they occur. Dreams, visions, and psychic messages occasionally appear and reveal images of past or future events, but since these occur within specific characters’ minds, they still follow the chronology of the action taking place.
Only one scene in the trilogy appears out of chronological order: the opening scene of The Return of the King. In this scene, the hobbit Sméagol kills his friend to acquire the ring of power and eventually becomes the withered creature Gollum, whose singular obsession is the ring. As a freestanding scene, this episode is unique in the trilogy. In a way, the scene reveals nothing new, since Gollum’s internal debates in The Two Towers reveal enough information for us to speculate about his history. Other background information may have been equally or more useful, such as the history of Saruman and Gandalf’s relationship or the story of Aragorn’s being raised by elves.
The Sméagol scene, however, has two important effects on The Return of the King and on the trilogy itself. Though the power of the ring has been evident from the very beginning, Sméagol’s transformation shows exactly how dangerous that power is. In a way, the story of Sméagol serves as a cautionary tale or a dire prediction of what could happen to Frodo if he gives in to the power of the ring. The scene also gives new edges and layers to the character of Gollum. Gollum is a complex combination of good and evil, and this ambiguity sets him apart from other characters in the trilogy, who are usually completely good or wholly evil. Gollum’s history provides a window into his psyche, and, with him more than with any other character, we can see what motivates both his actions and his anxiety. Gollum’s utter helplessness in the presence of the ring renders him, to some extent, an object of sympathy.