Having been educated at a college – and in particular, an English department – firmly entrenched in the traditions of mid-to-late twentieth century criticism, it was ingrained in me that to fervently love a text is to sacrifice one’s ability to critique it without bias. As the term and the concept of being a “fan” consolidated over the last few decades it brought with it a corresponding negative connotation with regard to academic integrity. However, I soon discerned that there was a double standard at work. Most professors are “specialists” or “experts,” or, if they’re feeling particularly naughty, “aficionados” of the particular texts discussed in the classes of their own making – one professor, an expert on the Transcendentalist era, taught a class on it, and no one questioned his integrity. It was when a student (or academic) attempted to find the merits in a “popular” work that his or her bias was called into question. This may be something that passes with time; few academics would quibble with a lover of Dickens teaching a class on his novels.
J.R.R. Tolkien, however, seems to be a lightning rod for such debates. Everyone, from scifi/fantasy authors like Michael Moorcock to critics like Harold Bloom and Andrew O’Hehir seem to feel it necessary to loudly proclaim their belief in or against Tolkien’s literary merits. Moorcock’s dislike stems largely from an anti-populist mistrust of the Tolkien “cult” (one wonders at what point Moorcock will consider Tolkien popular enough that his fans no longer comprise a “cult”).
It was partly due such debate that I chose not to review The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring last year. A diehard Tolkien “aficionado,” I went into the movie with some doubts – I’ve read the book three times – but the film was all I’d hoped for, and more. I was so taken with it I knew a review would be fruitless; it would either be some brief ad copy (“The movie of the year!”) or an exhaustive analysis of the relationship of the book to the film, and the merits of each. Ultimately I chose to forego the review entirely.
Now comes The Two Towers, the second installment of the Rings film trilogy. This time around, while I admire the new film nearly as much as the first, I feel assured in reviewing it fairly and equitably. Part of my confidence, I’ll admit, comes from the rather stunning consensus of my critical peers; if Two Towers (TT) doesn’t win the Oscar for Best Picture, it won’t be for lack of critical acclaim.
Where to begin? The story picks up immediately where the previous film left off, with the intrepid hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) trekking through the wilderness of Middle-earth, heading for the volcano known as Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring, an evil golden ring that once belonged to the dark lord Sauron. There is a brief flashback to the first film – one of several reuses of previous footage, which is one of the few missteps director Peter Jackson makes in the sequel. But the flashbacks are worked into the narrative, rather than simply being a recap of the previous film’s events.
In the course of crawling toward Mordor, Frodo and Sam accost Gollum, a wretched former owner of the Ring desperate to get his “Precious” back. The hobbits persuade Gollum to guide them through Mordor. Gollum is far and away the most stunning achievement in the film. Rendered entirely in computer graphics but based on the movements of actor Andy Serkis, who also does Gollum’s raspy voice, the creature is miles ahead of Jar Jar Binks or even Dobby from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Gollum is, I think, one of the first realistic computer-generated characters to have not only a number of close-ups but even soliloquys. And since Serkis was actually interacting with Wood and Astin, there are none of those misdirected looks by hapless human actors that haunt the appearances of Mr. Binks. Voiced by Serkis, Gollum is a truly tragic, pitiable figure, torn between his lust for the Ring, his newfound loyalty to Frodo, and his guilty rage.
While the hobbits follow Gollum through Mordor, the fort is held down back in the Western lands by the human ranger Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the elven warrior Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and the dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies). As the film begins the trio is tracking two other hobbits, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), who have been kidnapped by the monstrous orcs. Along the way they run across the warriors of Rohan, a kingdom ruled by King Theoden (Bernard Hill), who has been ensorcelled by the evil wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee).
Like the novel, the film is loaded with characters. A friend of mine recently called Lord of the Rings a historical novel set in a fantasy world, and I think that sentiment perfectly captures why it is so uniquely compelling. It is not entirely, as Anthony Lane wrote of it in The New Yorker, “a last stab at epic” so much as a novel of war, not unlike War and Peace. Yes, it’s got elves and dwarves, but these races are presented in such a realistic detail, complete with their own well-defined languages, cultures and traditions, that it’s little wonder so many Tolkien fans lose themselves in the endless volumes of errata. It has all the pleasure of reading history combined with the pleasure of mythology or folklore. (On a side note, it would be nice if critics like Lane, and even O’Hehir, could come to terms with their fondness for Tolkien’s work without the vaguely insecure-seeming need to qualify that fondess with sniffed asides.)
Despite all the characters and the seeming complexity of plot, The Two Towers is actually easier to follow than its predecessor and zips right along, alternating between three plotlines: Frodo and Sam’s journey through Mordor, Merry and Pippin’s dealings with the Ents (huge walking, talking trees), and the tale of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, whose adventures lead them to a desperate battle with Theoden and the men of Rohan in a mountain fortress known as Helm’s Deep.
In the 1960s, as group of filmmakers approached Tolkien about making an animated film based on LR, and even offered a script treatment. Generally displeased with the whole script, Tolkien sent back detailed notes about what changes he disliked and why. He has this to say of Helm’s Deep:
“I am afraid I do not find the glimpse of the ‘defence of the Hornburg’ – this would be a better title, since Helm’s Deep, the ravine behind, is not shown – entirely satisfactory. It would, I guess, be a fairly meaningless scene in a picture, stuck in this way. Actually I myself should be inclined to cut it right out, if it cannot be made more coherent and a more significant part of the story…If both the Ents and the Hornburg cannot be treated at sufficient length to make sense, then one should go. It should be the Hornburg, which is incidental to the main story.”
–The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #210
Jackson, for his part, devotes nearly forty-five minutes to the battle. This decision may be responsible for many of the departures from the novel that TT takes, particular in the story of Sam and Frodo. As anyone who’s read the novel knows, TT ends with an excellent cliffhanger for the two Mordor-bound hobbits. Jackson has saved this for next year’s The Return of the King, claiming he didn’t want three battles at the end of the second film. In my opinion it might have been better to downsize the Helm’s Deep battle, or move it closer to the middle of the film.
But Jackson’s decision highlights one of the other reasons TT takes significant liberties from the novel: the emphasis on Aragorn & Co. versus Frodo and Sam. For all the lip service Jackson and his fellow filmmakers have paid to the centrality of the two hobbits’ story, the films have nevertheless expanded both the role and characterization of Aragorn. In the novel, Aragorn is an experienced leader with almost nine decades of experience behind him (his family usually reaches the age of 200 or so, so he’s not even middle-aged). The Aragorn of the novel is plagued by few doubts; he’s something of a demigod. Jackson’s Aragorn is far less sure of himself, making his story more dramatic.
But there’s also the form itself to consider. Jackson is trying to appease both fans and general audiences alike (and, judging by TT’s returns, he’s done an excellent job of it). An hour of Sam and Frodo traipsing around the outskirts of Mordor does not gripping cinema make. Gollum aside, their storyline lacks the epic feel of the Battle of Helm’s Deep, and so they are marginalized (at least for TT).
The other plot point that has many Tolkien purists miffed is the depiction of Faramir (David Wenham). They argue that Faramir should not be so tempted by the ring. But Faramir’s characterization is related to that of Aragorn. Jackson’s Aragorn is far more brooding and uncertain than Tolkien’s demigod. In the novel, Aragorn, like Gandalf and Galadriel and whatnot, is never really tempted to take the Ring. Faramir provides the self-doubting hero role (however briefly) that Tolkien denies super-confident Aragorn. In Fellowship of the Ring (the film)there’s a lot about Aragorn’s fear of being corrupted by the Ring, as Isildur was; and PJ even added that last meeting between Aragorn and Frodo, where Aragorn resists taking the Ring. To have this Faramir fellow – who is blood-related to Boromir, the only member of the Fellowship whom the Ring was able to corrupt – have a big scene where he resists the Ring would have made it seem like the brother of Grabby Boromir is as pure and self-restrained than Aragorn himself, if not more so.
But enough about plot. Visually, The Two Towers is incredible. From the stunning opening sequence – I won’t dare give it away – to Edoras, the capital city of Rohan, built upon a hill – to the sight of ten thousand orcs marching upon Helm’s Deep, TT is full of images that stun the imagination. True, some of the effects don’t quite work; the process by which the hobbits are shrunk doesn’t seem as effective this time around, and the Ents are a tad goofy-looking. But these are easily forgiveable when compared to the likes of Gollum.
And then there’s the acting. George Lucas should take a lesson from Jackson: the best way to make a good epic blockbuster, in this day and age, is to stack the deck with talent. I could write quite a lot on the acting in this film, but I’ll confine my praise to the aforementioned Andy Serkis as Gollum and John Rhys-Davis as Gimli. In TT, Gimli’s role in the films becomes clear: he’s the comic relief, and it works perfectly. In the midst of the hellish battle of Helm’s Deep, he is the Falstaff to Aragorn’s Prince Hal (minus the cowardice). Unlike the hobbits, the artifice surrounding Gimli’s portrayal is never evident; somehow, they’ve managed to shrink Rhys-Davies (who is not a small man) down to four feet.
With that observation, I will bring this long and rambling review to a close. Like many reviewers, I don’t think I quite grasped the substance of this film; I might try some choice words about escapism and the relevance of these films’ popularity in the current world climate…but that’s as much as I’ll say. I won’t try to convince you that this is a “good” or “bad” film. Maybe the hype has turned you off, maybe you don’t like three-hour movies, maybe it all seems like a lot of hooey to you. That’s fine. I loved this movie, I loved the previous one, and I’m fairly certain I’ll love the last one.