Screenplay Edit: “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”

Screenshot by the author; © 2003 by Warner Bros.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King tells the story of Frodo Baggins and company as they complete their quest through Middle Earth to destroy the One Ring. The script was written by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson, based on the novel by J. R. R. Tolkien.

In this excerpt, a battle-worn Pippin and Gandalf discuss death while orcs and trolls attempt to breach the Sixth Gate of Minas Tirith.

💬 Original lines appear as code blocks, edited lines appear as “quote blocks,” changes appear as boldface, and commentary appears as regular text. Original lines that do not require editing are run into the same code blocks as original lines that follow them and do.

Original Text

EXT. THE SIXTH GATE, MINAS TIRITH - DAWNWIDE ON: A rabble of ORCS are clustered outside the SIXTH GATE as TROLLS pound on its WOODEN DOORS with HUGE HAMMERS.ANGLE ON: WOOD splinters ... The DOORS are near breaking point.ANGLE ON: GANDALF and PIPPIN sit on stone steps ... Both covered in sweat and grime, bone-weary from fighting, spirits and hearts bruised...PIPPIN looks towards the WOODEN GATES at which a NUMBER of SOLDIERS continue to build a BARRICADE...PIPPIN
(quiet)
I didn’t think it would end this way...
GANDALF looks at the SMALL HOBBIT a beat.GANDALF
(gently)
End? No, the journey doesn’t end here.
PIPPIN looks up at GANDALF, questioningly...GANDALF (cont’d)
Death is just another path, one that we all must take.
ANGLE ON: GANDALF looks down to see PIPPIN looking up at him with fear in his eyes...GANDALF (cont’d)
(remembering)
The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass...
(to himself)
and then you see it...
ANGLE ON: GANDALF breaks off, lost in reverie...PIPPIN
What, Gandalf? See what?
GANDALF
White shores ... And beyond... a far green country under a swift sunrise.
PIPPIN stares up at the OLD WIZARD’S FACE, softened, quiet and full of peace...PIPPIN
(quiet)
Well, that isn’t so bad.
GANDALF
(gently)
No... No, it isn’t.

Line Edit

EXT. THE SIXTH GATE, MINAS TIRITH - DAWN

Since the Sixth Gate is a structure inside a place (Minas Tirith), and not a place itself, let’s configure the scene heading to indicate as much; let’s swap the order of the information and replace the comma with a dash.

EXT. MINAS TIRITH — SIXTH GATE — DAWN

WIDE ON: A rabble of ORCS are clustered outside the SIXTH GATE as TROLLS pound on its WOODEN DOORS with HUGE HAMMERS.

Although references to camera angles are common in scripts, they are also unnecessary and irrelevant; such references are usually implied (such as ANGLE ON), and they contain technical information about how to film scenes instead of dramatic information about characters or settings. Thus, this information is better included in shot lists for the director et al. of the film, and not in scripts for readers. So let’s remove this and all other references to camera angles.

A rabble of ORCS are clustered outside the SIXTH GATE as TROLLS pound on its WOODEN DOORS with HUGE HAMMERS.

All-caps is used to denote character-name introductions, camera direction, and sound effects. Thus, since the words styled in all-caps in this sentence do not meet this criteria, let’s remove the all-caps styling. (And to avoid repeating this edit, let’s do the same for all other similar instances of all-caps.)

A rabble of orcs are clustered outside the Sixth Gate as trolls pound on its wooden doors with huge hammers.

A rabble is, essentially, a mob. Thus, describing the rabble of orcs as “clustered” outside the gate is redundant, as this description is implied. So let’s remove this redundancy. Also, that a rabble of orcs “are outside” the gate does not tell us why they are there or what they are doing. And although both may be implied by the trolls pounding on the wooden doors — meaning, the orcs are trying to breach the gate — it’s not immediately obvious that this is the case. So let’s make it more obvious; instead of describing the orcs as a rabble clustered, let’s remove A rabble of and simply describe the orcs as clustering.

Orcs are clustering outside the Sixth Gate as trolls pound on its wooden doors with huge hammers.

Since the scene heading already describes the setting as the Sixth Gate, let’s remove this redundancy by replacing Sixth Gate with gate.

Orcs are clustering outside the gate as trolls pound on its wooden doors with huge hammers.

Wood splinters ... The doors are near breaking point.

Although this line is descriptive of the strength of the trolls and the force of their hammers as well as of the precariousness of the doors, they nevertheless feel arbitrary and unnecessary; indeed, that orcs are clustering outside and that trolls are pounding on the doors is sufficient information to understand that the situation is dire. So let’s remove this line.

Gandalf and Pippin sit on stone steps ... Both covered in sweat and grime, bone-weary from fighting, spirits and hearts bruised...

Since we are encountering Gandalf and Pippin already performing an action (sitting), let’s indicate as much by using the present-participial form of the verb that references the action they’re performing (sitting). Also, the purpose of an ellipsis is to denote omission or trailing off, and the mark is also sometimes used in dialogue to denote hesitation or pausing; thus, since the ellipses in this sentence do not meet this criteria, let’s replace them with appropriate punctuation. (And to avoid repeating this edit, let’s do the same for all other similar ellipses.)

Gandalf and Pippin are sitting on stone steps, Both covered in sweat and grime, bone-weary from fighting, spirits and hearts bruised.

Since the specification of Both is implied by the language and punctuation of this sentence, let’s remove it. And let’s also improve the grammar of the sentence by specifying that the bruised spirits and hearts are theirs, or Gandalf’s and Pippin’s.

Gandalf and Pippin are sitting on stone steps, covered in sweat and grime, bone-weary from fighting, their spirits and hearts bruised.

Pippin looks towards the wooden gates at which a number of soldiers continue to build a barricade.

That Pippin “looks towards” the gate is vague, as this description fails to communicate Pippin’s reason or motivation for looking towards the gate. Given that Pippin is sitting on stone steps, I think what the authors mean is that Pippin watches as the soldiers continue to build a barricade. So let’s replace looks towards with watches. Also, since the soldiers have not previously been described as building a barricade, they should not be described here as “continuing” to build a barricade — in fact, they should not be described as building a barricade at all, as I believe what the authors mean is, not that the soldiers are building a barricade, but that the soldiers are reinforcing the barricade already built (the doors). So let’s revise this sentence accordingly.

Pippin watches as soldiers rush to reinforce the doors.

PIPPIN(quiet)

That Gandalf and Pippin are “sitting on stone steps, covered in sweat and grime, bone-weary from fighting, their spirits and hearts bruised” is sufficient information to indicate that Pippin is speaking quietly. So let’s remove this parenthetical. (And to avoid repeating this edit, let’s remove all other similar parentheticals.)

I didn’t think it would end this way.

The following lines must be considered and edited as a whole:

Gandalf looks at the small hobbit a beat.GANDALF
End? No, the journey doesn’t end here.
Pippin looks up at Gandalf, questioningly.GANDALF (cont’d)
Death is just another path, one that we all must take.
Gandalf looks down to see Pippin looking up at him with fear in his eyes.GANDALF (cont’d)
(remembering)
The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass.
(to himself)
and then you see it.
Gandalf breaks off, lost in reverie.

One of the authors of this script (Peter Jackson) is the director of the film made from it. As such — and as is often the case with scripts written by writer-directors — these lines contain blocking instead of action. The difference between blocking and action is that blocking refers to the actors’ movements relative to the scene (and camera) whereas action refers to the characters’ behaviors relative to their desires and motivations. And although the line between the two may, as in these lines, be thin, each is distinguishable by their consequences. For example, that Gandalf looks at Pippin, and that Pippin looks at Gandalf, and that Gandalf looks again at Pippin is inconsequential to the drama of the scene — indeed, these actions do not alter the characters’ decisions or otherwise move the story forward; they merely serve as beats for the dialogue. Thus, such lines are better given as direction to the actors portraying the characters, and not to readers of the script, as there is little interesting or useful to readers about characters simply looking at each other while conversing.

Further, the lines of action that describe Gandalf and Pippin looking at each other, as well as Gandalf’s parentheticals, although probably used by the authors for pacing, are interrupting the flow of the scene; indeed, Gandalf’s dialogue here is important, and readers are likely just as eager as Pippin is to hear what Gandalf has to say. So let’s remove everything preventing him from saying it; let’s remove the action and the parentheticals from these lines, and combine Gandalf’s dialogue.

GANDALF
End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass…and then you see it.

PIPPINWhat, Gandalf? See what?GANDALFWhite shores. And beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.Pippin stares up at the old wizard’s face, softened, quiet and full of peace.

Stare means “to look fixedly (at).” And although this word is accurate for describing Pippin’s action, it is imprecise, as it fails to convey both the motivation and the emotion of Pippin looking fixedly at Gandalf; indeed, Pippin is not merely looking fixedly at Gandalf, as if Gandalf were a mere spectacle to behold, rather gazing at Gandalf, searching the wizard’s expressions for hope and courage, attending to his every word. So let’s specify this action; let’s replace stares up with gazes. And since it’s more awkward than it is poetic, let’s also replace the old wizard’s face with, simply, the old wizard.

Pippin gazes at the old wizard.

PIPPINWell, that isn’t so bad.GANDALFNo. No, it isn’t.

Edited Text

EXT. MINAS TIRITH - SIXTH GATE - DAWNOrcs are clustering outside the gate as trolls pound on its wooden doors with huge hammers.Gandalf and Pippin are sitting on stone steps, covered in sweat and grime, bone-weary from fighting, their spirits and hearts bruised.Pippin watches as soldiers rush to reinforce the doors.PIPPIN
I didn’t think it would end this way.
GANDALF
End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass...and then you see it.
PIPPIN
What, Gandalf? See what?
GANDALF
White shores. And beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.
Pippin gazes at the old wizard.PIPPIN
Well, that isn’t so bad.
GANDALF
No. No, it isn’t.

I hope this demonstration has been useful to you, and that it furthered your understanding of editing as well as enabled and encouraged you to improve the quality and efficiency of your own work. See you next time.

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