The Lord of the Rings
Part II: The Two Towers
A film by Peter Jackson
Based on J. R. R. Tolkien's Fantasy Classic
Part One of a Review by John D. Rateliff
Warning: Contains Spoilers

The long wait is over. After nearly fifty years, J. R. R. Tolkien's masterpiece The Lord of the Rings has finally gotten the film treatment it deserves. Join us in this comprehensive movie review brought to us by John D. Rateliff, who is both a Lord Dunsany and J. R. R. Tolkien scholar.

Having triumphantly brought his vision of J. R. R. Tolkien's fantasy masterpiece -- hailed by some as "The Book of the Century"[1] -- to the screen with last year's release of The Fellowship of the Ring, Part One of his epic film The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson with this second installment now faces the daunting task of living up to the extremely high expectations his own achievement has set. Many, scarred for life by the sheer ineptitude of the earlier film adaptations by Bakshi (The Lord of the Rings, 1978) and Rankin-Bass (The Return of the King, 1979), had feared the worse during the long months leading up to The Fellowship's release. Moreover, relatively few had ever seen a Jackson film before; he had a reputation as a maker of cult classics rather than movies for mainstream audiences. But Jackson met and exceeded their hopes. The first film won over not just the vast majority of Tolkien's devoted readers [2] but also the movie-going public at large, winning new fans among those who'd never read the book and in the process creating a new generation of fantasy fans.

The question, then, is whether The Two Towers is as good a movie as The Fellowship of the Ring. The answer is, almost. Certainly anyone who enjoyed Fellowship should go see the second part without hesitation, and they will leave the theatre saying "Wow." The stunning cinematography, attention to (visual) detail, special effects, generally excellent acting, and epic scope that made the first movie outstanding are all still in place here, and they have just as great an impact as before. Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, so far as we can judge from its first two parts, is not just a good movie -- it's a great movie.

In a very real sense, this is not a separate movie at all but simply the next part of one long film: Like Tolkien's book, Jackson's film is one long story divided into three parts, with each picking up right where the last left off. But where Tolkien's second volume exceeds the first with a broadening of the scope, an intertwining of the narrative parts, a deepening of the moral complexity, and the introduction of what many consider his best characters (Treebeard and Gollum, both consistently praised even by critics who dislike Tolkien), Jackson offers up more of the same. And while that "same" is very good indeed, viewers who hoped for the second movie to surpass the first may come away mildly disappointed.

Departures from the Book

The most obvious way in which Jackson's film differs from Tolkien's book is in the rearrangement of the material. Whereas after the breaking of the Fellowship Tolkien switches between Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli on the one hand and Merry and Pippin on the other but separated out the journey of Frodo and Sam (and Gollum) into one long continuous narrative, Jackson cuts back and forth between all three threads of the story, sometimes without transition, making his narrative harder to follow. While this method can be defended as necessary to remind the audience that all these events are occurring concurrently, it's worth noting that this is an approach Tolkien explicitly rejected in the scripts and adaptations he read (Letters of J.R.R.T., p. 275).

Beyond breaking up the narratives and interweaving them even more than in the original, Jackson's second film covers much less material than Tolkien's second volume. The opening chapter of the book had already been moved forward to provide a climax for the first movie, while roughly the final quarter of the volume (the final confrontation with Saruman and all of Sam and Frodo's journey after they part from Faramir -- i.e., Minas Morgul and Shelob) is deferred until the third film. Presumably this is to make up the shortfall created by Jackson's decision to drop the "Scouring of the Shire" from the third film[3] and, presumably, with it the whole dénouement following the climax (again, an approach Tolkien explicitly denounced). Ironically, the point at which Jackson chooses to end this second installment is exactly the same as that chosen by Bakshi a quarter-century earlier (reportedly, it's simply the point at which Bakshi ran out of money and had to stop rotoscoping), and it's just as clichéd and unsatisfactory now as it was then.

At its best, Jackson's rearrangement brings material on-screen that would otherwise be missing, such as Gandalf's continuing battle with the balrog even as they fell into the abyss (which in the book we only hear described in a report after the fact), or material brought forward from the appendices, such as Gimli's remarks on dwarf-women or much of the Aragorn and Arwen story. In a nice tribute to one of Tolkien's favorite devices, the balrog battle that opens the film is presented as a dream-vision Frodo has long after the event, allowing the movie to start with a dramatic moment without violating the chronological integrity of the story.

One nice feature preserved from the original, even though presented very differently, is that the film leaps right in without any prologue or voiceover: It assumes, I think rightly, that everyone interested in watching this movie has already seen the first movie and needs no screen time spent explaining what has gone before. Jackson has decided to trust his viewers to come immediately up to speed, giving the opening sequence considerable oomph that a more staid presentation, such as the one urged on him by the studio, would have lacked.

New Characters

One of the trickiest elements of the second and third volumes of Tolkien's book is the need, in the developing story, to add major new characters to his already crowded cast. In the book, he succeeds triumphantly: Faramir, Gollum, Treebeard, and the Rohirrim are among many readers' favorite characters. Jackson's results, while successful on the whole, are somewhat more mixed. The two outstanding performances here are Eowyn and Gollum; the worst is Faramir.

Miranda Otto's Eowyn is perhaps the best thing about the new movie; she does a stunning and convincing portrayal of a courageous and talented woman trapped in a culture that values the warrior's gender above the warrior's skill in battle.[4] Small wonder that she responds so strongly to Aragorn's advent, the dramatic appearance of someone from outside her claustrophobically closed circle who from the beginning treats her not as a princess but as an adult and an equal, as well as a fellow leader in the struggle to save her people. Jackson has juggled the love story somewhat, so that while Aragorn still loves Arwen he thinks they have parted forever and that she will now depart for the Undying Lands, leaving him open to the possibility of a life with a fellow mortal. Eowyn, for her part, acts with dignity and restraint throughout, understanding all too clearly that the man she's attracted to is attracted to her in turn but in his heart of hearts belongs to another who came before her. The presentation of Eowyn is an excellent example of a case where Jackson has changed details but remained true to the essence of Tolkien's work.

Similarly, Andy Serkis's Gollum is a triumph and an astonishing feat of acting that can hardly be recognized by existing award categories. Best rotoscoped performance? Best template for a computer-generated performance? Best supporting actor who doesn't actually appear in the final film? Serkis acted out every scene live, then his image was digitally replaced by a computer-generated character modeled very closely indeed on his own expression and movements (traditional makeup being unable to reproduce Gollum's skeletal thinness, even if they had subjected the actor to rigors of Lon Chaney proportions). The result is funny and unsettling by degrees; the subtleties of facial expression and body language between Gollum's two personalities is so fine that a second or repeated viewings may be needed to identify just which Gollum is speaking at any given moment. Jackson's Gollum looks like nothing so much as an evil child, vulnerable and dangerous, hateful and piteous, longing for approval and selfishly determined to have his own way all at the same time.

Of the other new characters, Wormtongue's role is small but nicely done; he comes across as an old-school Shakespearean villain (his seduction scene with Eowyn is straight out of Richard III) who overreaches himself. His undoubted villainy makes his later horror at the full realization of what he has done all the more effective: When Grima suddenly understands that Saruman does not intend to install him as the puppet-ruler over a vanquished Rohan but instead seeks to exterminate his people down to the last child, a silent tear runs down his face at the thought of the catastrophe he himself has brought about. It's not a subtle role, but it works very well in the context of the film, adding to the encaged claustrophobia of the early Edoras scenes.

Treebeard is a qualified victory: The character is much more tentative, far less forceful, and a good deal more dim-witted than Tolkien depicted him, but the basic appeal of the living, thinking tree able to express a point of view we would otherwise never gain comes across very well indeed. John Rhys-Davies did a good job with the voice-acting, though for my part I would have preferred Treebeard's voice to sound less Scots and more like Tolkien described him. Tolkien's friend Lewis claimed the ent's voice was based on Lewis's, which from surviving audiorecordings I've heard was similar to Alfred Hitchcock's: slow, deep, sonorous, resonant. I also found that Jackson's other ents reminded me of Muppets, but from talking to others who've seen the film I conclude this is a minority opinion; certainly their movements are very well done, especially the slow, deliberate way they plant their rootlike feet with each step. Alas that the idea of the ents as a dying race is omitted, as is any example of Entish; perhaps these omissions will be rectified in the expanded edition/director's cut of the DVD.

Theoden is similarly mixed; his initial enspellment is overdone to the extent that it releases him from any complicity in having let his kingdom get in such a state; the embittered, grieving man from the book is reduced to a dottering senile wreck with cataract-blinded eyes and crusted skin, literally possessed by Saruman (at one point he speaks with Christopher Lee's voice). Similarly, his recovery is too complete: The Theoden of the book was seventyish, able to muster his strength for a sudden charge but still an old man doing what he must in desperate times; the revived Theoden of the movie looks more like a vigorous mid-fifties and shows no signs of age at all. Like most of the other Rohan scenes, it's a very Shakespearean performance -- not entirely in keeping with the themes of the book, but overall successful.

The same cannot be said of the two remaining major new characters, Eomer and Faramir. Eomer, one of the major figures of Volume II who bonded with Aragorn even more deeply than Legolas and Gimli had done, is here reduced to a minor character with very little screen time. Essentially, he has been written out of the movie, with only a brief appearance at Edoras near the beginning, the encounter with The Three Walkers on his way out of Rohan, and then a brief glimpse at the end (where he replaces the very minor character Erkenbrand). He is not even at the Battle of Helm's Deep until the very end, when his cavalry rides to the rescue (not even under his command, but following Gandalf). This is unfortunate, because it shifts all effectiveness in the Rohirrim defense almost entirely upon outsiders: The Rohirrim themselves come off as the least important element in the battle.

But if Eomer is reduced to nonentity, then Jackson's Faramir is a disaster. Tolkien's Faramir is that rarest of men, a person who knows instinctively what he should do and does it as far as he can. He knows his country cannot win this war but is determined to make the other side pay for each foot of ground they take; he's essentially an officer defending a doomed position -- a man who will hold out to the last because of the carnage that will follow once he has fallen. Just as Gandalf the White is Saruman as he should have been, Faramir is Boromir as he was meant to be -- it was Faramir, not Boromir, who was meant to become a member of the Fellowship. All this falls by the wayside in Jackson's reading of the character; his Faramir succumbs to temptation at once, proving himself but a poor copy of his more heroic brother. The resulting mess involves rewriting Tolkien's plot to have Sam and Frodo present at the Battle of Osgiliath (the only unimpressive, disjointed battle in the movie so far, represented by a single bombardment), wherein Faramir sets them free just as arbitrarily as he had imprisoned them. To make matters worse, a more forceful actor might have brought some Hamletlike indecision and inner torment to the role, as Sean Bean did with Boromir; instead, the actor playing Faramir turns in a bland performance of a smug and self-satisfied man -- a character who utterly fails to stand out when surrounded by the excellent performances from most of the rest of the cast.

Check next week for the second part of two parts, where we continue with
an exploration of the returning characters, go over some final quibbles,
and see some thoughts about the third movie.

Notes

[1] See Tom Shippey's book J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (2000), which describes the various readers' polls Tolkien won, along with the horrified response from the literary establishment.

[2] Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens, Jackson's fellow scriptwriters, in an interview published in the current (Nov/Dec 2002) issue of Scr(i)pt magazine (a journal for screenwriters), stated they have not encountered a single devotee of the books who did not support their film with enthusiasm. To this I can only reply that they must not get out much. While the film has met with overwhelming acceptance from the fans, that support is by no means uncritical, and a significant minority of Tolkien scholars dismiss it outright.

[3] This decision was reported in an interview with Boyens and Walsh that appeared in Scr(i)pt magazine (Nov/Dec 2001 issue); Jackson himself confirms it in his director's commentary to the expanded edition of the Fellowship of the Ring DVD.

[4] Some have criticized Tolkien for not including more female characters in his work rather than crediting him for the (powerful and effective) ones he did include. When considering a gender-challenging role like Eowyn's, it's worth noting that in his professional life as a scholar of Old English, Tolkien devoted a good deal of his teaching and tutorials to female students, in an era when many of his fellow Oxford teachers (including C. S. Lewis) considered teaching women a waste of their time. He oversaw several of their dissertations, collaborated with them on academic projects (which he refused to be listed as co-author on, lest his name overshadow theirs), and recommended them to publishers looking for talented scholars to carry out various projects. Small wonder that today Oxford has a J. R. R. Tolkien Chair, a professorship endowed in his name, not at his own college but at one of the women's colleges there.

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