I remember sitting down in the cinema, the now-demolished Grand Central, the five of us, all eager for the second instalment of The Lord of the Rings. I remember the sense of anticipation, the marvellous opening shots skimming over the towering, snow-capped mountains as graddually the dialogue from Gandalf’s confrontation with the Balrog rises into audibility, the plunge inside the mountain to repeat the footage of that scene, and the shock as the camera plummets with him, and Gandalf hewing and hacking the Balrog throughout that interminable fall, ultimately into the deepest cavern.
A magnificent introduction: I was pumped and primed by it.
And I remember my growing shock and revulsion at the structural changes Peter Jackson and Co made to the story, until I grew angry and smouldered with resentment even through the gloriously choreographed twin-spectacle endings of the Battle of Helm’s Deep, bringing the book to flaring life, and the Ent’s destruction of Isengard, lifted out of the back story to become a worthy addition to the film. Show, don’t tell: it should be stencilled on every story-maker’s forehead.
Seventeen years later, on a grey, damp, Sunday morning, I still disagree profoundly with the four major story-line changes Jackson headed, but knowing them to be a part of this version of the script, I can accept their existence and evaluate the rest of the film around them.
And, leaving these aside for the moment, The Two Towers is a much better film, a finer, more well-made offering than it is usually taken to be, and than its position as the middle-film, the runt of the litter.
In rising above that role, The Two Towers has the advantage of Helm’s Deep. It comes in the middle of the novel, but the novel at this point is telling two stories, parallel in time, and splits itself in two, to deal firstly with the adventures of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, Merry in Pippin, and only afterwards Frodo, Sam and Gollum.
The film can’t do that. It has to adhere to one progressing time period and so it has to juggle, to intercut, backwards and forwards, between the three parallel strands. That isn’t easy to do, the risk being that you give too little time at a time to each thread, diminishing the impact of each, or that you allow stories to play out for so long that the audience has lost its place by the time you return.
Jackson judges the length of time each theme needs, and is advantaged in the first half of the film by having all three groups on the move constantly, so that he can, for the most part, drop into each new change of scene with an actual change of scene. And since all these scenes are mind-blowingly awesome New Zealand mountains and valleys, it makes it easy.
Watching the Extended Edition today means that the film stays very close to the book, adds off-page scenes, especially at and around Rohan before Aragorn’s party, and the resurrected Gandalf the White, get there. Very faithful, very impressive: but we’re not far from the end when the first egregious change is made.
We’re in Edoras, Gandalf has freed King Theoden (a superb performance from the great Bernard Hill, rock solid in every line and heart-breakingly vulnerable as the parent who has to bury their child), restored his vigour and his determination. In the book, he gathers Rohan’s army, including his banished nephew and now-heir, Eomer, and goes out to attack the forces that have attacked the Westmark and killed his son, from where he is forced to Helm’s Deep.
But Jackson has him turn all defensive, and even cowardly, ordering his people to flee to Helm’s Deep, to avoid a fight but bottling himself up in an inescapable, but theoretically unbreakable fortress.
Ok, this is like The Fellowship of the Ring, streamlining, compressing, accelerating. But it’s something else that I’ll come back to.
The next one is the Warg attack on the Rohan exodus and the quite riduculous and comletely unecessary cheap melodrama of Aragon falling off a cliff and being believed dead. It’s stupid. You don’t need to know the book to know that Aragorn isn’t dead, and that he’s not going to die only just into the second half of the second film. At a stroke, the film descends to Saturday Morning Serial level, and they were never filmed to the highest of standards. Even the kids were disgusted at that, and one of them was only eight.
Watching it again, it’s still dumb, a piece of gratuitous action in a quiet spot in the film but nevertheless wholly unnecessary. Watching it play out, I think the effect Jackson was aiming for, especially with Aragorn’s dreams of Arwen, and being nuzzled back to life by the horse, was to try to suggest a death-and-resurrection parallel to Gandalf. If so, it fails on the stupidity of the scene, on being too nebulous, and on the difference between the two characters. Aragorn may be long-lived (he confesses to Eowyn, the lovely Mirando Otto who I’d never seen before, that he’s actually 87) but he’s still a mortal, whereas Gandalf is a Wizard, a Maia. We accept his resurrection with a sense of anticipation.
I’m going to jump slightly to the Ents, now. I’ve got to say that I’ve never found Treebeard convincing. He moves too slowly, too mechanically, and he’s too obviously a CGI figure to fully stand on the screen like the rest of the characters, but that’s me. Johnson again diverts the novel’s narrative by having the Ents decide to stay out of the War: not their business. This is done to manipulate the story so that Pippin can divert Treebeard to Isengard, to witness the assault on the Forest and rouse the Ents’ wrath.
The problem is that it instantly diminishes the Ents in general and Treebeard in particular, by removing agency from them. In the book, Treebeard knows about Isengard already, and he persuades the Ents: Pippin and Merry are the pebbles starting the avalanche by waking Treebeard up to immediately take in what’s going on, but that’s not enough for Jackson: they have to lecture the Ents from a position of superiority.
I’ve saved the worst for last, to let me draw together the common thread between these changes, and one other addition, into what is wrong with the film. I speak, of course, of Faramir.
In the book, once Faramir learns of the Ring, and that Frodo has it, he faces a Galadriel-like test. Does he take it for himself? But Faramir has already said he would not reach out for the Ring if it lay beside the road, and he has the almost-pure strain of Numenor in him. Though he is unregarded in his father’s eyes (John Noble is an absolute monster of favouritism and personal gluttony), the point is that Faramir, brother of Boromir, is superior to his elder in every way.
So Jackson has him seize the ring, at which point I nearly howled. The film-maker’s explanation, in the extras on the DVD, was that we were continually being told that the Ring was all-powerful, that no-one could resist it, Gandalf and Galadriel both turn down the gift of it out of the fear and knowledge of what it could do to them. And yet everyone resists it. Jackson thought we had to have a scene of someone being tempted by it, or we wouldn’t believe in the Ring’s potency.
It’s the single biggest thing on which I violently disagree with him, and it’s made worse by his choosing Faramir. It besmirches him at a stroke, it poisons his purity, it reduces the potency of one of the major characters in the final film (though David Wenham as Faramir is one of the very few castings I debate as he’s too flat throughout). The change was also made to create an obstacle for Frodo and Sam when it was decided to postpone Shelob into the final film: sorry, no. Just No.
The writers do try to soften the impact by showing Faramir as motivated by his father, Denethor’s desire for the Ring, and wanting to improve dear old Daddy’s impression of him. All it takes to shake him is Sam blurting out that this is what happened to Boromir, which he waits to do until Osgiliath instead of any sooner, and Faramir changes his mind.
I’m also going to mention the insertion of a number of scenes, dream sequences or flashbacks, between Aragorn and Arwen, remnants of an earlier subplot when there were only going to be two parts. Some of these are used to counterpoint the scenes showing Eowyn’s developing love for Aragorn, his regard for her and his regret at the inevitable sorrow she will experience. Jackson has Elrond dead-set against letting his daughter marry Aragorn and stay in Middle-Earth to die, whilst Arwen loses faith and hope and decides to pony off to the Undying Lands to weep forever at not getting herself throughly rogered by her lover Man.
The common factor to all these changes (except the dumb cliffhanger one), which makes them so wrong in a film like The Lord of the Rings, is that they are all about compromise, and they are about compromise with evil, or rather Evil. Theoden loses faith immediately and seeks to run away. Arwen doubts, and seeks to run away. The Ents decide not to get involved and run away. And Faramir does the business of the Enemy. Every change strikes at the heart of the story.
They may be ‘justifiable’ as making the story more realistic, but that’s not what the film is. The Lord of the Rings is a Fantasy, a High Fantasy. It’s not about realistic things and realistic doubt or compromise. It is about Good or Evil, and being one or the other. You cannot make Good figures equivocal, and Jackson doesn’t understand that, and that is why The Two Towers is flawed.
That said, I had a good, long and thoroughly enjoyable time with it. And there is so much that is good about it, without the defects. I’ve already mentioned Bernard Hill, and Viggo Mortensen is, if anything, even better as Aragorn than in the first film. His scenes with Mirando Otto, where everything between them is done in their faces, are marvellous, and demonstarted that she was a superb pick as Eowyn (my elder stepson and I both found her fascinating). And Brad Dourif is the incarnation of creepiness as Grima Worntongue: I would never let him near my sister.
Of course, you cannot talk about The Lord of the Rings without talking about Andy Serkis as Gollum. I used to think that David Woodthorpe was an unbeatable Gollum in the BBC Radio adaptation, but Serkis is electric, in voice as well as in caper. His leaping, his bounding, his constant movement make the CGI Gollum look like something from another movie entirely but his gift is that this hysterical figure is fully part of this one. And he’s playing two parts, in reality, Gollum and Smeagol, and is miraculous in both.
So, that’s the middle one in Middle-Earth. I so look forward to next Sunday and the last one.