Paul brought over the Special Extended Edition DVD of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King yesterday, and we watched it. All four hours of it. Having missed the extended cuts of the first two LotR movies, I was unprepared for the exhausting length of RotK, the willingness of director Peter Jackson to let it all hang out. Of course, letting it all hang out is the point of a director’s cut, but it goes to show that sometimes those obnoxious studio contracts that require you to keep a film’s running length below a set time limit aren’t necessarily all bad.

I’m sure there were lots of minor cuts/additions here and there, but since I don’t have photographic memory (or maybe I only have photographic memory, and lack cinematic memory), I couldn’t tell you exactly which bits were added in for the DVD release. It’s hard to miss some of the more significant inclusions, though, since they help flesh out some of the more fondly remembered secondary storylines from the book. There are some added scenes with the ghost army that are fun to watch, but kind of ruin the “woohoo” factor of seeing them charge, deus-ex-machina-style, into the battle at Gondor. The Éowyn/Faramir romance, left completely out of the theatrical release, gets a scene in the DVD; this is still a drastic reduction from their tale in the book, but I always thought they talked too much there, so I didn’t mind seeing less of it. And of course, there’s the big showdown between Gandalf and Saruman, because it’s not a Special Edition unless you get to see Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee spitting chewed-up scenery at each other.

What’s truly insane, though, is what comes at the end of the credits: a listing of every “charter member” of the Official LotR Fan Club. (Apparently, these are in the credits for all three Extended Editions, but I didn’t see the first two). It scrolls for nearly 20 minutes — even in fast-forward, it takes forever to get through them. It’s about as close as you can get to including the fans in the film itself without actually going out and filming them. As if four commentary tracks and two discs of extras weren’t enough to bring in the fans, the producers had to go and show their appreciation for them.

The bonus credits — along with the interviews, mini-documentaries, concept art, and the massive movie itself — result in a kind of sensory overload: how much of this stuff can a person really take in before going into analeptic shock? On the one hand, it’s great that DVDs allow us to get our hands on all this extra-diagetic material that was previously considered off limits to the audience. On the other hand, it may be possible for there to be too much of a good thing: my eyes start to glaze a little when I think about the already-voluminous collections of bonuses on DVDs, and looking ahead to the next generation of high-density discs on the horizon (something I’m not looking forward to), I’m not sure how producers will come up with enough material to feed their audience’s ostensibly growing appetite for extras. Maybe more bonus credits.