By nearly anyone’s reckoning, New Line Cinemas’ The Lord of the
Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was one of the best movies of 2001. For
most fans of science fiction and fantasy, it was the best movie of the year.
For most fans of J. R. R. Tolkien, it was the reason movies were invented in
the first place. Why else, but to take the wonder of a favorite tale and give
it the immediacy of sight and sound?
The Fellowship of the Ring was made great by its contrasts. It was
a sweeping epic with the intimacy of a summer sunset. It was a revelatory re-envisioning
of a story that millions know better than they know their own families. It was
a 300+ page novel distilled down to three hours—that somehow remained true
to its source.
It was not a fluke. Like Fellowship, its sequel The Two Towers
is as good an interpretation of Tolkien's novel as we could possibly have hoped
for. If we doubted before, now we can have faith: These movies are
doing it right. They are what is great about The Lord of the Rings. More
than that, they are what is great about fantasy. To paraphrase Tolkien’s
friend C. S. Lewis (I’ll never hope to say it so well): "Here are
beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here are films that
will break your heart."
The Two Towers is quite a different experience from The Fellowship
of the Ring. Where Fellowship was the horror and heartbreak of ordinary
people (hobbits, specifically) leaving their homes and going off to war, The
Two Towers is the grim resolve to see that war carried through to what may
be a bitter end. But it is the middle of the tale. It abandons exposition, leaving
it to the viewer to have absorbed the essentials in Fellowship, and it
ends with only hints (easy enough to answer; read the books) as to how it will
all play out. If Fellowship left you stunned, The Two Towers will
leave you energized—and a little trepidatious, knowing that all this was
only a warm-up for what's coming in The Return of the King.
Unlike Fellowship, The Two Towers is all action—it throws you
into the thick of it, from Gandalf’s duel with the Balrog to the massive,
brutal, hopeless siege of Helm’s Deep. Director Peter Jackson proved his
skill with small-scale battles in Fellowship; in The Two Towers,
he amplifies that visceral breathlessness without losing any of its grimy detail
or fear. Ideed, there’s so much action, and it’s so furious, that
there's no time for weighty considerations. The interludes sometimes seem too
brief, whether in the beleaguered kingdom of Rohan with the despairing Eowyn
and the king's slimy advisor Wormtongue, in perilous Fangorn Forest with Merry
and Pippin, or on the cruel road to Mordor with Frodo, Sam, and Gollum. (Gollum!
How on Earth did they wring one of the film's most moving performances from
a completely computer-generated character? Simply amazing.) Yet those moments
make imminent the cost of all the violence and the consequences of failure.
And that contrast helps keep The Two Towers true to its source. For
all the departures that the filmmakers took from the novel—and they are
much more substantial in The Two Towers than in Fellowship—their
devotion to Tolkien’s vision of The Lord of the Rings remains one
of the most moving aspects of this trilogy. I have always been amazed that these
people, long-time Tolkien fans who were also award-winning filmmakers, managed
to win approval from a major Hollywood studio to film these movies and tailor
them to their own vision, hewn as close as could be to Tolkien’s own. The
details sometimes vary widely, and some of the divergences are so substantial
as to seem strange (Faramir’s reaction to Frodo and the events with Frodo
and Sam at the climax of the film; the Elves at Helm’s Deep; the possession
and exorcism of Theoden)—but the heart of it is intact, and it is made
accessible and sensible by the elements that were changed.
I expect many Tolkien purists will disagree violently on that last point.
Tolkien crafted his story, every piece of it, with great care; who are these
filmmakers to change it in so many places, to alter some characters so deeply?
I can understand that view. But there’s no point telling a story—not
this kind of story, anyway, where the essence is in the substance, not the style—if
the audience can’t make sense of it. The filmmakers set out with their
audience in mind, not only their fellow fans of Tolkien but casual moviegoers
who have never read a page of the books. And why dismiss them? Every
Tolkien fanatic fell in love with The Lord of the Rings at some point;
let a new generation find that moment in the films.
In fact, I’ve found an unexpected joy in The Two Towers—the
reviews! Not those of fannish sci-fi reviewers like me, but the high-browed
critics who are quickest to see and decry the hollowness of image and spectacle.
They are the ones to challenge with a film that you want to endure. The ones
who loathed Star Wars long before The Phantom Menace; the ones
who saw Blade Runner as nothing more than a dimly lit pastiche of tired
genres; those lovers of Welles when he was young and feverish, of Kubrick before
he was saddled with the weight of his own technique. The ones who were Kurosawa
when Kurosawa wasn’t cool. Those are the writers you want to reduce to
film-school giddiness with the sheer magic of your moviemaking, and that’s
the effect of Peter Jackson’s middle tale. The Two Towers is a film
that inspires critics to the eloquence of lovers.
As for the rest of us, we can enjoy the satisfaction of having been there
all along. The Two Towers is why we’re so crazy about these things.
It is why fans are the way we are. We’re driven to wonder, and we cling
to stories that make our imaginations soar.
To all the converts, however momentary; to all the newly spell-bound cynics:
Yes. We know exactly what you mean.