The plot of December 17's ''The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King'' is hardly a secret -- Hobbit lovers first learned the ending of J.R.R. Tolkien's saga nearly 50 years ago. But it's a sign of the fervency of the ''Rings'' fan base, and of director Peter Jackson's seemingly boundless skills, that moviegoers are awaiting the final chapter as if the story were unfolding for the first time. And thanks to clever tweaking of the beloved books, some moments in the ''King'' movie will catch even fluent Elvish speakers with their swords down. (Tread carefully: SPOILERS -- though no giant spiders -- lurk ahead).
HOW PRECIOUS Andy Serkis gave ''The Two Towers''' most memorable performance (as demented, speech-impediment-suffering Ring seeker Gollum) without ever showing his face: The character was a computer-generated creation. But in ''Return of the King'' the first person (well, Hobbit) seen is Serkis, in the flesh. Decked out in a greasy wig and pallid makeup, Serkis portrays Gollum in the distant past, when he was an ordinary halfling named Smeagol. The film's opening scene shows how Smeagol first encountered the One Ring that will become his ''precious'' -- and why that was very bad news for his cousin Deagol.
MONSTER MASH Which is cooler: A giant man-eating spider or a horde of war-loving dead people? ''Return of the King'' viewers don't need to decide -- they get both. Early in the film (in a sequence the books place in part two, ''The Two Towers'') a treacherous Gollum leads Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) into the clutches of the gigantic arachnid known as Shelob -- whose fleshy presence is one of the trilogy's most stunning visual effects. Later, the movie expands upon the book's account of Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) using an army of ghosts -- the Dead Men of Dunharrow, who owe a debt to his royal ancestors -- to defeat Sauron's wicked army. Expect Eddie Murphy to pull off a similar stunt in ''Haunted Mansion 2.''
GIRL POWER Even as he populated Middle Earth with Hobbits, Orcs, and Elves, there was one exotic creature Tolkien tended to neglect: women. But in ''The Return of the King,'' the brave Eowyn (Miranda Otto) is an essential figure, slaying the faceless, villainous Lord of the Nazgul. When the creature tells her that no man can harm him, she memorably replies, ''I am no man,'' before smiting him with her blade. Wisely, Jackson eschewed the book's considerably less snappy version of that dialogue: ''But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am.'' A woman she may be, but talk like Yoda she does.
MAGIC AND LOSS In the book, the evil wizard Saruman (played by 81-year-old actor Christopher Lee in the movies) suffers an ignoble death after the forces of good reduce him to a beggar. But the movie has an even more undignified fate in store for the magician, leaving him out of the story altogether save for a throwaway line referring to his powerlessness. Jackson had originally filmed an opening for the film that included a new fate for Saruman -- meant to be more dramatic than the book's version -- but ultimately decided it was out of place. Lee's costar, Ian McKellan, says the veteran actor shouldn't be upset at being sliced out of the film, though: ''It will be there on the DVD, and people will be able to say to Peter, 'You should have put it into the movie!'''
WORLD WITHOUT END Unlike, say, ''The Matrix Revolutions,'' no one could accuse ''The Return of the King'' of ending abruptly. While the film avoids most of the book's lengthy epilogue (dropping a subplot about corruption in the Hobbits' Shire), it still offers an unusual number of false endings after the climactic battle is finished. Among the seeming finales are a wedding, a coronation, a return to the Shire, and a trip with the Elves away from Middle-Earth. All that's missing is an ''American Graffitti''/''Animal House''-style coda showing each character's future -- for that, you'll have to turn to Appendix A of Tolkien's novel. Really.
With additional reporting by Liane Bonin