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The Two Towers Film: Tricks and Treats Tehanu's Nineteeth Note

Current Note
 The Return of the King
Past Notes
 Following Tolkien's Footsteps
 Tad Episode
 Scary Stuff
 Monstrous Regiment
 Kalevala and the Silmarillon
 Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, Middle-earth
 Silmarillion, Creation, sins of the artist
 Rarefied Air
 Quests, Myths and Archetypes
 Arthur: Quests and Legends
 Yin and Yang Quests
 The Power of Myth
 His Dark Materials
 Are We Not Geeks?
 The Two Towers Film: Tricks And Treats
 Two Towers Review, Part 2
 The Return of the King
 Where To From Here?

Because I am one of the founders of TORN, many people took it for granted that I would have some kind of meaningful review of The Two Towers, or of The Fellowship of the Ring, for that matter. At my first viewings I was surrounded by people wanting to know what I thought, as though that should count for something. I don't know what I thought. The films were too big to take in at once. They resembled the books in this way: just as I had to read Tolkien many times to learn the story, appreciate the journey, notice the subtleties of its language, come to know the characters and understand the themes underlying the story, so did the film demand multiple viewings. The first time, just to learn what happened, because of course the film was full of unexpected plot changes. On other viewings I focussed on the performance of one or two characters at a time, noticing every gesture - and how rich a mine that was! Other times I soaked in the costumes, the art and architecture, and the landscapes. (OK, I'm a New Zealander, so I was going "ooh, ooh ooh, I've been there!" when I wasn't just plain homesick.) In this way the films are, like the books, multi-layered. Impossible to swallow whole, at a gulp, and this would be to my mind one of the primary features that distinguish The Lord of the Rings, book or films, from most other fantasy.

I admire film critics, whose job it is to absorb the essentials of a new film and offer an informed comment after seeing it only once. It wouldn't be easy. The people who write the reviews for the papers do have to try and swallow the films at a gulp, and come up with a well-thought-out opinion overnight. I think the first time with FOTR a lot of them rushed in, and since then we've seen a change in the critics' approach to the films. With FOTR, some leapt in and blurted out their first impressions. Then time went on, and I think many of them must have become aware of the popular judgement of the film. Not only that the public liked it and kept going back to it, but that the more people spoke and wrote about The Fellowship, the more obvious it was that there was more to be said. It seemed to me that most reviewers went in with the preconception that FOTR would be a blockbuster fantasy, and they pretty much knew what that was all about. Over time I saw opinions change, with people revisiting their first impressions and deciding that there was more depth to what was going on, after all. The ones who hadn't thought in terms of an epic, or of mythmaking, started to reconsider, and the general tone of articles about the Rings films seemed to become more serious.

Have you noticed how the relentless drizzle of amused contempt for "fanboys and geeks that like Tolkien" has petered out over the past year? Before the first film came out it was just tiresome, and it was in the subtext of almost every article you read about the films; since FOTR came out we've seen fannish behaviour that would have seemed outrageous two years ago and now it it's regarded as, if not cool, at least perfectly understandable. This is of a piece with the critics' approach to the films, too.

Now we come to The Two Towers. I hardly had two opinions to rub together when I came out of my first screening. It was too surprising. BUT I noticed that the critics, too, had decided not to rush in where angels fear to tread and rip on the movie for what it was NOT. It's not a finished story, for a start. It's the middle of a longer story, and now people seem to actually realise that. It's not the whole story either - the release of the extended DVD last year made us realise that there are probably going to be more parts of the story revealed to us later this year. That knowledge had an interesting effect: even as I was viewing it for the first time, wherever the action seemed over-compressed I was already thinking "I bet they'll go into more detail in the DVD to explain this better." By now we're getting used to the films existing as a floating layer that sits over Tolkien's words, that is surrounded by stills and outtakes that we see dotted around in calendars and trading cards, that is elaborated on in the extended versions. We know that Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is itself afloat in an ocean of story - The Silmarillion, the Unfinished Tales, decades of published and unpublished notes that Tolkien left behind. Because of all these strata of knowledge, the films are different, and perhaps we will judge them by different criteria to most other films.

I find it more useful to ask not, "How close does the film come to the book?" but to ask, "Where there are changes, do the changes serve some meaning or purpose? Is it satisfying or not? Why?"

I'm going to tackle this in two bites, then. First I want to look at motivations -what motivations are we shown for each character, and what purpose that serves for the filmmakers, and what I find interesting about them. Later I'll write about the things I loved about The Two Towers, and about the plot holes that made me grit my teeth, and my speculations about where they might be leading.

I sense that the LOTR filmmakers are pulled in all sorts of different directions with this story, and they indulge that to some extent. This is why the tone of the film changes so much, and it zig-zags between Shakesperean or Zefirelli-like Biblical-sized drama, to initmate emotional tableaus, to adrenaline-rush action and sheer exuberant B-grade cheese. This confounds expectations in a lot of ways, but don't forget that Tolkien himself does that. Thus we have moments where characters speak like this:

'Alas! Thus passes the heir of Denethor, Lord of the Tower of Guard! This is a bitter end. Now the Company is all in ruin. It is I that have failed. Vain was Gandalf's trust in me.'

Can this really be from the same book as this:

After a few remarks about the weather and the agricultural prospects (which were no worse than usual), Farmer Maggot put down his mug and looked at them all in turn. 'Now Mr. Peregrin,' he said, 'where might you be coming from, and where might you be going to? Were you coming to visit me? For, if so, you had gone past my gate without my seeing you.'

Or this:

Turning back they saw across the River the far hills kindled. Day leaped into the sky. The red rim of the sun rose over the shoulders of the dark land. Before them in the West the world lay still, formless and grey; but even as they looked, the shadows of night melted, the colours of the waking earth returned: green flowed over the wide meads of Rohan; the white mists shimmered in the water-vales; and far off to the left, thirty leagues or more, blue and purple stood the White Mountains...

If you weren't used to it, you'd wonder if they were different books. The film does this strange mish-mash of tones too, and that's part of the enjoyment at least for me. So at times there are quiet, poignant close-ups, like Arwen's foreseeing of her bereavement at Aragorn's tomb (the tomb, the music, the veiled and mourning Arwen, the falling leaves, the desolate winter wood - for me, that was haiku-like perfection in film) Then there are moments where the film really indulges the action fans with multiple shots of the Deeping Wall blowing up, filmed from lots of different angles, with masonry blocks tracked lovingly as they come down in slow motion - that's pure action-movie filmmaking. The psychological drama between Gollum, Sam and Frodo is one kind of movie; Gandalf on his rearing white stallion backlit by the sunrise and the heroic downhill charge to break the seige of Helm's Deep is another kind of film. Somehow they're all shoehorned in together, and you either like that and it works for you, or it doesn't. But the books do the same thing, in their own way.

Well, Shakespeare does it too...you get those clowns and rustics that barge in after a tragic moment for a few moments of incomprehensible Elizabethan slapstick just after we've been screwed up to the highest tension by the drama immediately before.

The films remind me of the rich, intensely satisfying stews my grandmother used to make, that tasted wonderful despite some pretty questionable ingredients. Not everyone would enjoy the whole garlic cloves or peppercorns that lurked inside them, and I was purely disgusted by the chicken feet which she would suck on with especial relish. Despite our individual preferences for the ingredients, everyone could agree that the stew, taken as a whole, was absolutely delicious. (And yes, they included po-ta-toes...) Take out an ingredient and it would be bland and uninteresting. Jackson's films have this same quality of being mixed up in unpredictable ways that work overall, even if you have moments of wishing for less talking or less fighting or less melodrama, according to your individual preference. The end result has more power than it would if everything were tailored to match everything else in a way conforming to 'good taste,' like those showhome interiors where all the furniture is fashionable and colour-coordinated. You wouldn't want to live in such a place unless your personality'd been surgically removed. Yep, that's the thought I was reaching for - the films have that 'lived-in' feeling, with all the inconsistency and variety of experience that implies.

The Two Towers also reminds me of trying to do pottery on the wheel. Everything starts out in balance and the form grows up smoothly and under your hands, feeling almost alive, and then next minute there's a slight imbalance and the more you try to counter it, the more the pot flails around getting worse and worse out of shape. I do wonder whether the film started out with a clear outline which they filmed, which was balanced and made sense; then in the editing process of course everything they shot wouldn't fit into the three-hour limit they'd set themselves. I can imagine that as some parts were trimmed to fit (the Ents!), other parts lost their logical introduction, so more pieces had to be reshot and altered in order to make the whole thing hang together. Every little change from the original led to inconsistencies further down the line, and I suspect that at times it must have felt like the whole plot would wobble out of shape completely. Not that Tolkien is without inconsistencies: Legolas had lived how many thousand years without finding out that the Ents were still alive? They obviously fascinated him, yet he'd never found time to go to Fangorn before. (Side-note: Perhaps that's the difference between Men and Elves. If I lived for thousands of years I'd have explored all Middle-earth from end to end. Maybe the Elves don't explore or long for adventure and they only enter Tolkien's stories during the times when events force them to get involved in some kind of action. The rest of the time they stay put and live a Zen life.)

Meanwhile, back to the filmmakers, trying to wedge the film into under three hours. They could cut out everything that wasn't in Tolkien, or else cut it so that the film would have a satisfying rhythm of tension and resolution within itself, not as part of a the whole story. Which is sort of impossible, but they tried their best.

So I can see reasons why some things were done. The books are structured so that the story of Sam and Frodo is followed without interruption for over 200 pages, and in that span you need a certain rhythm of tension and relaxation. With the film cutting about between 3 different stories, that rhythm has to change within each story. In the film, keeping Faramir as an antagonist for longer meant that Frodo and Sam's journey could release that tension close to the end, which needed to happen at that point in the film. Otherwise in order to get the same tension/climax/release pattern for Frodo's story, they'd have had to carry on to the point where they confront Shelob. It does make sense to save that for the next film and build up to a really big scene with it; the filmmakers are on record as saying that including Shelob in TTT wouldn't leave much action for Frodo and Sam for the third movie - they'd spend much of it talking and slogging across Mordor right up until their big scene on Mt. Doom.

Having Aragorn nearly get killed was a way to crank up Eowyn's feelings for him, I think. In the book, Aragorn and the others spend a lot of time galloping over different parts of Rohan. It's difficult to keep track of what they're doing, and the film decided not to tax the viewers' comprehension of the geography and politics of Rohan any further. So the adventure with the wargs was substituted. That kind of change I can understand enough to find it reasonably interesting, even if it's not my favourite part. (On a side-note, the audience reactions when Aragorn was revived by the horse were really different according to how 'urban' the audience was, so the very citified audiences tended to go 'eeewww!' whereas others got the point: the fact that horses cooperate with people when they could just squish them like a grape is already rather wonderful; Aragorn must have even greater than usual power to command the allegiance of an animal that could just as well be free.)

Anyway back to the Eowyn/Aragorn sub-plot; Tolkien sums up Aragorn's reaction to her in very few lines. He saw that she was fair; he knew that her hand trembled at his touch when she handed him the stirrup-cup, and it troubled him. That reaction is captured beautifully in the film, when Eowyn asks Aragorn about the lady who gave him the Evenstar. You can see her feelings and his. It's fascinating to me that they develop the relationship further than Tolkien does. I disagree with people who say that there's no hint in the books that Aragorn would flirt with her; lines like "I walked this land ere you were born to grace it," or "No man would count such a journey [to see her] wasted," might be commonplace pleasantries, but Eowyn, like any woman in love, would dare to hope that they meant more than that. It's so interesting to see her character, 'like a morning of pale spring that is not yet come to womanhood' warm and blossom under Aragorn's kindness and attention.

Meanwhile what of Arwen? There is something very tricksy going on with the way the film implies that she has chosen to leave Middle-earth. In the film, it serves the purpose of making Aragorn's interest in Eowyn more understandable. That in turn gives them the chance to develop Eowyn even more as a sympathetic character. I think this will pay a huge dividend in the third movie, when she confronts the Witch-King. It also gives us an element of suspense. If you don't know the books, you wonder if Arwen will really go. If you do know the books, you wonder how it's all going to get back to the story as you know it. Or will it?

Who can resist coming back to ROTK to find out? In any case, I was struck by the ambivalence of that final look exchanged between Arwen and Elrond as she walks out of Rivendell: Her face is resolute, almost defiant, and his is anguished. Even though it looks like she is leaving with the others, their faces seem to belie that she has chosen as Elrond wished.

Bad guys are fascinating - I spent years wondering why Darth Vader was so evil, and what it all meant from his point of view. In The Two Towers I really liked the way Gríma's motives are shown- he's a great villain and I found his onscreen presence compelling. Tolkien mentions that Gríma's 'price' for serving Saruman is 'to take your share of the treasure, and take the woman you desire.' The way that's played out on screen is electric - Eowyn's despair and isolation is so great that you can see she is contemplating giving in, that she may really have no choice but to throw in her lot with Gríma. And for his part, he makes that tiny frustrated gesture after she storms out on him, as though thinking 'Damn, so close! But I screwed up again!' You can tell that for him his hopeless desire for her and her loathing of him is a torment that has probably gone on for years. If she won't go to him willingly, he deludes himself with the hope that he'll be able to manipulate the situation so she has to depend on him. That is how Saruman traps him. I just love the way the film plays that up and makes him have a terrible and convincing motive for being evil. Later on when he's standing behind Saruman and seeing the army that will destroy all his people, a tear rolls down his face, His realisation of his guilt makes great tragedy. If Brad Dourif can keep that pitch of tension and conflict in the drama between Gríma and Saruman in the next film, I'm eager to see how that will play out. Spikey wheel or not.

Now in the movie Faramir is a bad guy for most of it. He is an obstacle in Frodo's path. People object to the fact that in the book, Faramir is not tempted by the Ring, or at any rate he overcomes that temptation immediately. In the films, they're a lot more anxious to make the Ring an almost-impossible-to-resist temptation, and that choice influences the way certain themes are played out. Frodo seems a lot closer to succumbing to the Ring than in the books. Like a lot of people, I mourned the fact that Frodo wasn't shown resisting its agents the Ringwraiths at the Ford of Bruinen "Go back to the Land of Mordor, and follow me no more......you shall have neither the Ring nor me!" even if it wasn't possible to show in film his struggle against it on the Seat of Seeing at Amon Hen. (How would you show that visually? Have Elijah Wood gasp and squirm? I think shudderingly of Anakin Skywalker's embarrassing 'wet dream' sequence in Attack of the Clones. Having him say he was dreaming about his mother a moment later does nothing to erase the unfortunate visual impression.)

Anyway, so the film gives us a Ring that few can resist - remember how it implies that Aragorn lets Frodo go alone because even he's not sure what the Ring will do to him, given time. Frodo almost gives it to him, and he seems almost to reach for it, before making an effort of will and shutting Frodo's fingers closed over it. You suspect that Aragorn doubts he can resist the Ring for much longer.

All along the films have made a point that mankind is unusually susceptible to the power of the Ring. "Men, who above all things desire power," says Galadriel in the introduction; that is a keynote that rules much of the action from then on. Elrond says it twice, that 'Men are weak!' They choose to ignore Tolkien's implication that a strong will and pure heart could resist the Ring. So in the film Faramir is not an incorruptible version of Boromir. The films didn't choose to make Faramir a character who is good; they wanted to find one that had the capacity to become good. I found David Wenham's performance fascinating - perfectly capturing the doubt and cynicism you'd expect in a war leader who has to be more cunning than the enemies who vastly outnumber him. It was an interesting move to turn Faramir's line on its head 'A chance for Faramir, captain of Gondor, to show his quality!' There is a knowing irony in the way it was used to confound our expectations.

My only disappointment was that Faramir's change of heart seemed to come so quickly on the heels of Sam's speech about goodness, and I hope that the extended DVD will expand on that so it feels more convincing. Meanwhile I've heard other people speculate that having Faramir be so antagonistic and plain wrong in TTT leaves a lot of room for him to grow and develop into the hero that leads the retreat from Osgiliath in ROTK, and becomes worthy of Eowyn.

A lot of ink has been spent on discussing Gollum in every single review you will ever read; I don't think I have a lot to add to that. He is perfectly realized, and from watching him you understand the addiction and possession that the Ring causes. I loved that they gave him Elijah Wood's blue eyes, so we can see a terrible future for Frodo written in them. Gollum's body reminded me of the dessicated corpse of that Neolithic hunter which was found preserved in a glacier in the Austrian/Italian Alps. Thousands of years old rather than hundreds, and somewhat deader than Gollum, but the resemblence seemed appropriate.

Another drama that I enjoyed was the tension between Aragorn and Théoden. Aragorn knows how to act as a warrior; Théoden knows what it is to be a king. Time and time again the initiative is passed between them: First Aragorn is the action hero clearing a path through Meduseld so Gandalf can heal Théoden, who is sunk in apathy. Soon enough he finds he can't push Théoden around, and Théoden makes his own decision to retreat to Helm's Deep. 'Last time I looked, Théoden not Aragorn was King in Rohan.' When the refugees are attacked by warg-riders, both men are heroic defenders, but you wonder whether Théoden is slightly relieved when it seems that Aragorn is killed. He may have seen him as a threat to his authority. 'Leave the dead.' It's a horrible decision to make, and Legolas's face shows how much he hates it, but Théoden is King and he is obeyed.

At Helm's Deep Théoden loses the initiative again, because Aragorn has a better understanding of the threat they face. But then, when Aragorn voices his despair, Théoden gives him a lesson in what it means to be king, when he says 'What would you have me do? Their courage hangs by a thread!' A leader cannot afford to show doubt, and a king must inspire his people with seeming fearlessness. A few moments later we get the beautiful scene where Aragorn applies what he's just learned in an oblique way, testing and approving of the sword that a too-young warrior is trying to sharpen. Aragorn shows as much as tells the fearful boy that he should not give up hope. The Elves arrive and seem to put themselves under his command while Théoden directs the men fighting in the keep itself.

Gamling tells Théoden that his people will follow him 'to whatever end,' for he is their king. Yet Théoden gives up hope and tells people to stop defending the gates, for the keep is taken already. Now Aragorn takes the lead, persuading Théoden that they should ride out together and make at least a glorious show, even if it should be the end of them. Théoden rallies strongly to that, and then the dawn comes along with the aid Gandalf promised. But all the way through to that point we've seen Théoden and Aragorn leap-frogging each other, taking turns at being the leader. At the beginning, Aragorn is a warleader fit to lead a small company, or able to accomplish heroic deeds on his own. By the end of the film, you feel he has learned from Théoden what he needs to know in order to be a King.

Click here for Part 2


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