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The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, written by Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, Stephen Sinclair, and Peter Jackson from the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien, directed by Peter Jackson, 2002, 180 min.

The Two Towers is the follow-up to the smash hit movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, and an adaptation of the second book of J.R.R. Tolkien's famous trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. The Two Towers also did quite well at the box office, but it seems like a much lesser movie to me. Iíve been waiting to do my review of The Two Towers until the Extended Edition DVD was available, mainly in the hopes that 43 minutes of extra footage could fix an already 180 minute movie. None of the main flaws of the movie are patched up by the extra footage, unfortunately. The Two Towers is still an amazing achievement, but it suffers in comparison to the first movie.

The Two Towers picks up just where The Fellowship of the Ring left off. The hobbits Frodo and Sam have split off from the rest of the fellowship on a journey to the heart of evil, Mordor; they are continuing the quest to destroy the One Ring that is sought by the evil Sauron (whose tower, Barad-dur, makes up one half of the title). The hobbits Merry and Pippin have been captured by orcs, and are being brought back to Isengard (the other tower), stronghold of Saruman. The three remaining members of the fellowship, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, a man, an elf, and a dwarf respectively, have decided to chase after the orcs and rescue Merry and Pippin. They never quite accomplish their goal, an amusing part of the story preserved from Tolkien; the three rescuers end up on their way into Rohan with a resurrected Gandalf, while the two hobbits end up in Fangorn Forest with the Ents (tree-like shepherds of the forest). Rohan is a country of horse-riding warriors, and soon the inhabitants of that country are forced into a confrontation with an enormous army created by Saruman.

Meanwhile, Frodo and Sam are lost, and their only hope of getting to where they want to go turns out to be the creature Gollum. Gollum was originally a hobbit-like creature named Smeagol, hundreds of years ago, but was warped by carrying the One Ring for so long. Now the same evil burden is on Frodo's shoulders and this affects him in two ways: a growing gap between him and Sam, and a burgeoning empathy with Gollum. Frodo has to believe that Gollum can be redeemed. If not, he sees much less hope for his own plight. The unlikely trio travels through Emyn Muil (a region of razor sharp rocks) and the Dead Marshes, all the way to the Black Gates of Mordor. They find the Black Gates impassable, but Gollum tells them there is another way, a secret way, into the land of Sauron. Frodo agrees to go this way, and subsequently they run into Faramir, a Captain of Gondor and brother to Boromir, the man who tried to take the Ring away from Frodo at the end of the first movie. Will Boromir's brother act in the same way?

The pacing of the movie deliberately builds up to the siege of Helm's Deep; the people of Rohan have taken refuge in this impregnable fortress, and Saruman's army of 10 000 besieges it. The siege is clearly filmed, always showing the viewer what is happening and why. This action spectacle is cross-cut with scenes of the Ents finally deciding to take action (egged on by Merry and Pippin) and with Frodo's showdown with Faramir.

Gimli as comic relief was probably the worst aspect of the movie; other characters constantly belittle him and make jokes at the expense of his height. It felt all wrong for the tone, and it was demeaning to boot. Merry and Pippin also make jokes, but in The Fellowship as here, they are light-hearted and natural at it. The plot according to Tolkien shuffles Merry and Pippin away from the main action, and the screenwriters here desperately try to make Merry and Pippin crucial to the story. It doesn't quite work and they feel sidelined and irrelevant. That means that the movie's comic load gets thrown onto Gimli, which totally unbalances the feel of the piece.

I was also disappointed with Gandalfís tacky white horse. Jackson and his team try their hardest to avoid the clichés of fantasy; their preferred approach of realism has paid off handsomely. But in the case of the "lord of all horses" we get a hint of how tasteless the rest of the movie could have been.

Structurally speaking, it was ambitious to combine all of the storylines by way of intercutting. I never expected Jackson and team to take Tolkienís approach, which was to separate the material into two separate sections. That would have been a horrible movie. But whatís here is in dire need of a polish; something about the pace of the editing just left me cold. The Fellowship of the Ring had a natural advantage, in that the fellowship was not split at that point: there was only one story to follow, which seemed to play to the strengths of this particular creative team. The Two Towers is an incredibly valiant effort to cover a vast amount of material and to shape a decent movie out of a story with no proper beginning or end. All the same, it's not the same triumph of tone and rhythm as The Fellowship of the Ring.

Most of the additions to Tolkienís text belong in the category of the good things about the movie. But I was particularly annoyed by the added scene which relies on an Aragorn-is-dead scare. Tolkien has more than enough instances of the fake death in the trilogy already, like Gandalf in the chasm and Frodo speared by the cave troll in the first book, so we didnít really need another one. These cases irritate me to no end, and Aragornís scene wasnít even done convincingly. Even people who hadnít read the book werenít falling for it for a minute. The characters have to be in peril and there has to be consequences to that peril, but figure out a better way to do it!

Flaws aside for the moment, The Two Towers is an amazing achievement. Like the first movie, the aspiration of the filmmaking team is to create a sense of Middle-Earth as a real place. This falters sporadically, but the realism always works to the best. The DVD extras point to the immense amount of work that this entailed, but every single minute of effort was worth it. More than anything, this is what I take from the movie: world-building done right. And that is not the meanest of achievements.

Gollumís characterization is top-notch. The accentuation of his positive side, the semi-redemption that happens along the way due to Frodoís faith in his Smeagol nature, works smoothly and effectively. And Gollum is a computer-generated character who actually acts, which involved much trial and error. The filmmakers ended up using a real performance by an actor named Andy Serkis and animating over top of Serkis's on-set work. Again, this seems like an immense amount of work, but the end result makes the effort worthwhile.

The Two Towers has taken some flak for changing Tolkien's text (although Boyens points out annoyedly in the extras that Fellowship changed more but took less flak). Iím inclined to examine the changes on a case-by-case basis. The aforementioned Aragorn sequence happened to tweak one of my pet peeves. Most of the other changes work well. In the book, Faramir shrugs off the temptation of the One Ring without much second thought; in the movie, Faramir is sorely tempted, and this naturally heightens the tension in the closing sequences. These closing sequences between Faramir and Frodo take place in Osgiliath, which was another admirable change. The book uses an encounter with a giant spider named Shelob to end the story of Frodo and Sam with a cliffhanger; Shelob is in the movie version of The Return of the King, so a different denouement for Frodo and Sam is necessary. Osgiliath fulfils that requirement because it wraps up the story of Faramir's temptation, although I wasnít quite convinced by the way he suddenly changed his mind. Iím thankful that the writers upped the ante, but some consistency please!

DVD Note: The DVD release strategy for The Two Towers exactly follows that of The Fellowship of the Ring. The second Lord of the Rings movie is available on a 2 DVD set that puts the theatrical release on disc 1 and uses disc 2 for a set of mostly useless extras from TV and other sources. Also available is the Extended DVD Edition, in a 4 DVD set. The first 2 DVDs have the movie split across them, with four commentary tracks and 43 minutes of extra footage. The extra footage mainly consists of more character development, just like the Extended Edition of The Fellowship of the Ring. The major new scenes are Elven Rope, The Banishment of Eomer, The Song of the Entwives, The Heir of Numenor, Ent Draft, The Funeral of Theodred, Brego, The Ring of Barahir, Sons of the Steward (a flashback to the relationship between Faramir, Boromir, and their father, and probably the most significant addition), "Don't Be Hasty, Master Meriadoc!", and a vastly expanded denouement for the movie that includes four new scenes, Fangorn Comes to Helm's Deep, The Final Tally, Flotsam and Jetsam, and Farewell to Faramir. The third and fourth DVDs actually continue the Appendices from the first movieís extended edition: here we begin with Part Three: The Journey Continues and Part Four: The Battle for Middle-Earth Begins. Itís a handsome package that once again documents the making of the movie in obsessive detail. Weirdly, the best documentary of the appendices is "J.R.R. Tolkien: Origins of Middle-Earth." This documentary covers ground that has already been covered ad nauseam, but it manages to be funny and insightful (mainly by talking about all the things Tolkien did wrong according to professional writing standards). Those looking for information on the creation of Gollum will find it here, as well as coverage of the movie's making from beginning to end.


Last modified: January 28, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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