Yes, Indeed: A Towering Achievement

The Two Towers

As I mentioned in a previous post (quoting Erin), journalists do so love their puns. Had The Two Towers faltered, the headlines would have read "The Towering Setback" or some such guff. As it is, most of the critic community loved the movie, so "Towering Epic", "Towering Achievement" and "Towers over the Rest" are the order of the day.

But see the movie for yourself. I think you'll like it. Going into the film, I was worried that the movie wouldn't live up to the promise of The Fellowship of the Ring, and although Peter Jackson did tread a fine line between fine and flawed in a couple of scenes, the risks he took paid off, and the changes he made worked.

Please be warned that this review contains spoilers.

Oh, yes, this movie takes some liberties with the second book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. However, I firmly believe that it stays true to the soul of Tolkien. As I said in a previous post, what works on the page doesn't work on screen, and Peter Jackson's first priority is to make a good movie.

The Two Towers works better than the original theatrical release of The Fellowship of the Ring (although it isn't as good as the Fellowship's extended DVD release) possibly because fewer introductions and setups are needed. Now that the first movie has established the characters and their world, we can get on with the story. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli run across Rohan in search of Merry and Pippin. Sam and Frodo contend with Gollum and the hard trek to Mordor, and Merry and Pippin escape and meet up with Treebeard and the Ents. The movie switches back and forth between these plot threads, and risks destablizing the flow of the narrative, but there is enough time for the characters to interact, and everyone is given a fair amount of attention.

The battle sequences are extremely well-filmed, and comparisons with Kurosawa are merited. Helm's Deep is turned into the centrepiece of this film (a move which some may find controversial), but the spectacle made me set any objections I had aside. Unlike some battle sequences, the action was easy to follow, and it was shown in such a way that I couldn't help but care for what happened to the participants. Even though the outcome is assured, you still get the sense that the losses are great, and Rohan is losing right up to the last minute.

Now for the changes. The most substantial is Faramir. In the book, he meets Frodo and Sam in Ithilien, gives them provisions, and sends them on their merry way. He is not tempted by the ring at all, in sharp contrast to Boromir. In the movie, he realizes that Frodo has the ring of power and, like Boromir, works to have it taken to Gondor. They pull Sam, Frodo and Gollum to Osgiliath, where the Gondorians are losing the battle to hold the bridge over the Anduin. After Frodo almost ends up giving the ring to one of the Nazgul, Faramir realizes that the ring has to be destroyed, and releases Sam, Frodo and Gollum back to Ithilien.

My mother, a Tolkien purist, has great difficulty with this (although she hasn't seen the movie yet), but I think the changes works in Faramir's favour. It also gives the second movie a climax that the second book does not have. Without this temptation (and everyone in the movies is tempted by the ring, including Aragorn), Faramir becomes the only character not affected by the ring, with the exception of Tom Bombadil. This is a more realistic treatment, and it still contrasts Faramir with Boromir, since Faramir accepts the inevitable and lets the ring go.

It does make for a moment of unintentional humour, however, when Sam is trying to rally Frodo as the Nazgul attack Osgiliath. He goes on and says "I don't think we're even supposed to be here, Mr. Frodo!", to which half of the audience probably thinks "NO! You're NOT! You're supposed to be in Ithilien!!!" Peter Jackson came close to crossing the line, here, but it still works. The soul of Tolkien's books was not violated.

They also tread a fine line with Gimli, who takes on the mantle of the movie's comic relief. This is possibly the closest the movie comes to making a serious mistake, since Gimli is not a character for whom comic relief comes naturally, at least in the books. Still, he holds his own in the battle for Helm's Deep, there are some genuinely funny moments, and the relationship between him and Legolas is furthered. It's possible that, had I not seen the extended DVD release of Fellowship, I would have been more irritated, but we'll see what the extended DVD release of The Two Towers does.

Then there is the insertion of Arwen and Galadriel. During an attack of Warg riders on the line of refugees heading for Helm's Deep (not in the second book), Aragorn is sent off a cliff and left for dead. There are hints, however, that Arwen lends him strength. We flash back to Aragorn and Elrond working very hard to try and convince her not to forsake her immortality and go over the western ocean, and then we see Elrond, apparently in a contemporary setting, telling Arwen what to expect should she stay behind and marry Aragorn.

The scenes between Aragorn and Arwen come dangerously close to crossing the line, but the scene between Elrond and Arwen pulls things back. Arwen has a vision of Aragorn on his deathbed, and her as a widow wandering the abandoned woods of Lothlorien. This is authentic, straight out of the appendix, and it's a powerful scene, well worth its inclusion in the second movie. It also helps mark a character climax for the elves, as Elrond and Galadriel apparently decide not to vacate Middle Earth just yet, and to lend support to the people of Rohan in Helm's Deep.

Finally, the final confrontation between Gandalf and Saruman is ignored (unfortunately), but I expect the matter will be taken up again in Return of the King. We do, however, see the Ents attack Isengard, and the spectacle, the sense of justice received, and my desire (thankfully repressed) to shout "There! Up yours, Saruman! How do you like THEM apples!" left me very satisfied indeed.

Whatever doubts I had about the second film were more than made up for by the battle of Helm's Deep, and by Gollum. Gollum steals the movie. Although it's clear that a lot of computer animation has gone into his character, it still feels as though there is something real there. The facial expressions, the voice, the sheer acting of Andy Serkis makes Smeagol impossible to look away from. And, believe it or not, we feel sorry for the character. Gollum isn't in this movie nearly as much as Smeagol is, and Smeagol is noble, brave, simply fantastic -- at one point trouncing the spirit of Gollum out of his body. It's the film's greatest victory, worthy of an Oscar nomination for Andy Serkis.

The Two Towers does take liberties with the second book, but it never violates the soul of it. The sheer magnitude of the movie, and the little personal victories and details, combine to produce a great continuation of the Lord of the Rings saga. King Theoden is this movie's second best character and actor, restoring his throne and his people's dignity thanks to Gandalf's help. Gollum, Frodo and Sam tell a great story of their own, and we even see Wormtongue shed a tear as the landscape-altering legions of Uruk-hai set off to destroy Rohan. It's a wonderful movie, the best of this year, and if Return of the King lives up to its promise, the three films together will be this century's first masterpiece.

Oh, litmus test: my mother-in-law did not like the theatrical release of Fellowship, but she loved this film.

Further Reading

  • Poor Glorfindel gets short-shrift whenever an attempt is made to film the Rings saga. Here, Arwen takes his place but, in the half-finished 1970s animated movie, Legolas comes to the rescue. Read here to see the interesting similarities and differences between the animated version and Peter Jackson's masterpiece.
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