December 19, 2002

Thoughts on Peter Jackson's "The Two Towers"

I've been lurking around various bulletin boards where self-identified Tolkien geeks are discussing Peter Jackson's "The Two Towers", and I'm surprised (though I shouldn't be) with the prevailing tone of hostility and negativity about the film.

I saw it at the first showing on December 18th. It's a terrific cinematic experience, and along with Jackson's "Fellowship", has quickly vaulted to near the top of my personal top ten movies drawn from science-fiction or fantasy themes. I recommend it to people who have read and loved The Lord of Rings and those who have never read the books. As long as you're not too bothered by violence, you'll enjoy it.

Unless, evidently, you're one of those people who loves his or her Tolkien entirely too well--the kind of person who kills what they love through excessive devotion. I actually agree, as you'll see, with some of the things that the hardcore fans find wanting in Jackson's "Two Towers". Unlike "Fellowship", a few of his deviations from the narrative line of Tolkien's work don't make a lot of sense, and occasionally detract from the film's excellence. But let's get a grip here. These are all minor issues, and need to be treated as such. Jackson is faithful to the emotional core of the books: in fact, he distills and enhances their themes beautifully. The characterizations are not only largely faithful to Tolkien: in many cases, Jackson's alterations improve considerably on Tolkein, bringing forth what is only implicit or even badly developed in the original story.

The problem with some fans is they seem evidently unable to grasp that stories can be--must be--interpreted, that the picture they have in their heads after reading a book is not the only picture possible. It's not that there are an infinite number of possible interpretations, of course. You ought to be faithful to the spirit of the source. But if you're like the fan who hysterically condemned Jackson as a modern-day cultural rapist for changing the color of GANDALF'S HORSE, then for god's sake, try reading a few more books or getting some therapy.

This being said, here is my own tally of the changes Jackson makes to Tolkien's The Two Towers, ranging from the inspired to the insipid. Spoilers abound.


The girding of Theoden for battle. My god, I had shivers down my spine. Beautifully written, beautifully acted, wonderfully shot.  

The "Forth Eorlinglas!" sequence where the few survivors ride forth into Saruman's army. Again, shivers down my spine. Perfectly done. Nothing hackneyed or familiar about the scene: it felt like it was the first time you had ever seen people ride forth into their last stand.

Gollum. Unbelievable. The most interesting and best performed character in the film. Human actors all around the world need to see this film just for that--they may get a shiver down their spine for different reasons. Oddly enough, the most sympathetic character in the whole film. I felt pity, sympathy and evena strange kind of liking for Gollum myself, and I never felt that very strongly reading Tolkien. The psychological tension in the Sam-Frodo-Smeagol/Gollum relation is wonderfully drawn.  

Eowyn/Aragorn. Now here's some brilliantly revised stuff. Because Aragorn has every reason to think that Arwen may actually have already left or being leaving Middle-Earth, because he *asked* her to, his attraction to Eowyn is real. Now it's an actual triangle. This is a great rescuing of the Eowyn character from Tolkien's vaguely misogynist casting of her as a hopelessly lovelorn and frigid battlemaiden who isn't worthy to kiss Aragorn's shoe.  

The Rohan "civilians". Jackson does a great job of humanizing Saruman's victims. We never really see 'ordinary' people in any kind of empathetic way once LOTR leaves Bree in Tolkien's narrative, at least until we get to Gondor and a few more plebian characters pop up for a second or two. Here Jackson makes the depredations of the Uruk-hai and the Wild Men painfully real in a way that is sentimental without feeling manipulative.  

The costuming/armor for the two different groups of Easterlings or Southrons that we see (the ones going in the Black Gate and the ones with the oliphants). That was a nice visualization of things I had no visual image of.  

The whole Helm's Deep battle sequence, possibly excepting the "Olympic torch barrier suicide orc" thing, though the visual of the wall exploding was stunning.  

The visual look of Eddoras plus Howard Shore's use of violins in the parts of the score that focused on Rohan. Wonderfully done.  

The general fleshing out of Aragorn as the central dramatic character of the saga. He's a much more human, conflicted, interesting character in Jackson's LOTR than in Tolkien's. This is Jackson's most stunning sustained accomplishment in the two films to date. Aragorn is more a plot device than a character in Tolkien: in the books, his nobility, like Faramir's, is intrinsic, and never in doubt. Here he must authentically struggle to become a king worthy of rule over all the lands of Middle-Earth.


Gimli as the designated comic relief. A few wonderful bits, a few things that came close to dispelling the "high fantasy" mood or felt forced.  One thing Jackson has done very well in both films is capturing just the right tone with the dialogue, of making it have the formality and poetic grandeur of Tolkien's language without using the literal words of Tolkien, which I think would sound forced and stilted on screen and make the movies come off more like a lousy dinner theatre performance of LOTR by self-important fans. But the use of Gimli as comic relief occasionally punctured that dialogic mood.

Frodo's confrontation with the Ringwraith at Osgiliath. That kind of screws up the narrative: the Ringwraith SEES Frodo with the Ring. This is an incredibly important thing in the books, that Sauron is gulled because he thinks the Ring is with Gandalf, Aragorn or maybe Denethor. He doesn't dream that a hobbit is carrying it to Mordor, and the last he hears of the halflings, they're heading for Isengard, at least until they get Frodo's stuff when he's captured in Mordor. If a Ringwraith saw Frodo with the Ring in Osgiliath, and then they find Frodo's stuff in Mordor, it's no longer credible that Sauron would fail to see the possibility that the Ring is being sent to its destruction in the hands of a hobbit.  This is a storytelling mistake, I think, though I see why Jackson did it. Without Faramir taking Frodo, Sam and Gollum captive and threatening to take them to Gondor, there's very little dramatic tension in their story that is particular to this chapter of the tale besides the relationship between the hobbits and Gollum, save for the misadventure in Shelob's lair, which has been moved to the next film.

Elrond's vision of Arwen's future. That changes somewhat my understanding of what she's doing by staying in Middle-Earth. In many ways, it's more bleak that giving up immortality and dying with Aragorn. Interesting, but I don't know that I like it.


The Entmoot. I liked the Ents visually but I disliked the way Jackson remakes them. I preferred Treebeard to be sagely aware and in cahoots with Gandalf, and perfectly ready to attack Saruman by the time he gets to the Entmoot. I really was irritated by the "Let's go south" thing, in part because Treebeard ought to know about the devastation of his trees *before* he gets there. I suppose it was so Pippin and Merry have something 'heroic' to do instead of just dangling at the heels of the great, but come on, their time is coming in "Return of the King". Possibly this also was done to get rid of the Huorns, who may have posed too great an effects challenge. I don't really know.

Aragorn being dragged over the cliff by the Warg and making his way back to Helm's Deep. Kind of pointless. In a movie where the narrative line is so crowded and there's so much to be done, what was the point of this? Other than a little important backstory with Arwen and a confirmation of Aragorn's manly resolve, it doesn't accomplish squat. Definitely NOT a good addition to the story. I'd really like to see an interviewer ask Jackson why he did this: it's the only change where I don't really see what it accomplished.

Galadriel's mid-film narration. I suppose this is so we know how and why Haldir gets to Helm's Deep, but it was awkward. It felt like, "Well, we paid Cate Blanchett, so let's get another scene out of her". Possibly there will be some more payoff here in terms of Arwen: I think we were being set up to think she was heading for the Grey Havens when Elrond watches her leave, but instead, I think she was doing just what Haldir was doing, marching with a group planning to join Aragorn in the south.

Gandalf's struggle with Saruman in the curing of Theoden. I thought Theoden's "poisoning" was overdone both dramatically and in terms of his makeup job. I had always seen him more as King Lear, with an exaggerated sense of his own age and infirmity, and possibly being poisoned by Wormtongue. I didn't mind the depiction of him as ensorcelled, but I wasn't wild when Christopher Lee's voice started issuing out through Theoden. It just didn't seem quite right.  

Rhys-Davies as Treebeard's voice. Too close to Gimli. Better to have found someone else.


It's a given now that the "Scouring of the Shire" won't be in the movie, which is a damn shame. There's nothing here that forecloses it, but Jackson just has too much left to do to get it in the film.

 I am assuming that the movie will open with Gandalf's visit to Isengard and the breaking of Saruman's staff and Frodo/Sam/Gollum in Minas Morgul, climbing towards Shelob's lair.  

I really have no idea whether Aragorn is going to go on the Paths of the Dead. It may be hard to explain or make work. We'll see.  

I'm assuming that Arwen will show up at Minas Tirith or before bearing the reforged sword--I think that's why Elrond takes such a long look at the painting of Isildur.  

How is Jackson going to keep the siege of Minas Tirith from looking like a dramatic reprise of Helm's Deep? It looks like that somewhat even in the books, though Helm's Deep is more intimate in scale and dramatic punch.  

Elijah Wood really needs to convey Frodo's ascension towards being one of the "Great" of Middle-Earth even as he falls towards darkness and despair. This is really dramatically important in ROTK, that Frodo grows in stature and wisdom through his suffering. He didn't really do that in The "Two Towers". Wood's Frodo is still stuck in his cringing, fearful, bug-eyed portrayal from "Fellowship", where it was more dramatically important. I hope Jackson found a way to elicit more gravitas from Wood in the final installment.

Looks like the Eowyn/Faramir romance might still come to pass. Good, if so: I always liked that plotline. Though I can also imagine Jackson choosing to kill both of them in the battle for Minas Tirith.