The Long View 2002-12-21: The Two Towers

I find it refreshing to look back to 2002 and remember Peter Jackson's accomplishment in the Two Towers. That movie was just about right, long, but the source material was long and beloved. The temptation of Boromir is masterfully done, and Helm's Deep was even better than I imagined it. Unfortunately, this massive success at turning at 1,000 page book into three long movies has meant that Jackson has moved on to turning a 300 page book into three long movies. Like George Lucas, Tom Clancy, and George R. R. Martin, Jackson has gotten big enough to have it exactly the way he wants it, which isn't necessarily good for his art.

If you want to see how it can be done differently, look at the career of Jerry Pournelle. Pournelle has had multiple New York Times best-sellers, but he still takes seriously the advice he got from Robert Heinlein on his first best-seller: be your own harshest editor. This usually means cutting and cutting and cutting. To be fair, Clancy [100 million] and Martin [60 million] have sold approximately an order of magnitude more books than Pournelle [10 million]. On the other hand, Richard Adams, who wrote Watership Down, sold 50 million copies, and his books aren't doorstops.

The Two Towers
I saw the second Tolkien movie this afternoon. Feeling is just beginning to return to the lower part of my body. Here are a few impressions:
The movie begins very abruptly, so much so that it took a while before I came out of the stupor induced by the half hour of coming attractions. The Two Towers makes just one concession to recapping the story, by having Frodo dream about Gandalf's fall into the crevasse in Moria. Unfortunately, one of the coming attractions was for a film that is apparently yet another remake of Journey to the Center of the Earth. I was briefly bewildered. I expected Frodo to say: “It was terrible, Sam. I saw Gandalf fall into a summer movie.”
The scriptwriters for all three Lord of the Rings films had an impossible task. Their principal audience consists of people who have already thought about the plot too much. Like me, they can recite dialogue from the books from memory. The screenplay therefore dare not depart arbitrarily from the books. On the other hand, the writers really do have to nip and tuck the story to make the films short enough to watch. And let's face it: key parts of the books are as chatty and actionless as a play by George Bernard Shaw.
Some of their compromises are better than others. For instance, Gandalf says, “The courtesy of your hall has lessened of late, Theoden King,” as soon as he enters the Golden Hall. That's a good line, but no one has yet had an opportunity to be rude to him. It no longer fits into the scene, which has become an exorcism. On the other hand, the writers spared us the trial of Smeagol before Faramir. Instead, they created an entirely new episode involving Faramir and Frodo, one that provides real suspense. It also gives the film a far edgier conclusion than the book has, despite the lack of a cliffhanger ending. (There is a total lack of giant spiders in this movie.) The film version of The Two Towers persuades us that Frodo is desperate, not just because of the external dangers he faces, but because he knows that he himself is unreliable. To the extent The Lord of the Rings is the memoir of a very junior officer of the First World War, that is what the story is all about.
The special effects are so good that you don't notice them. This film's battle sequences are wonders on two counts: they are visually interesting for reasons in addition to gore, and they make it possible to tell what is going on. As for other animations, there are super elephants that are as persuasive as any of the behemoths from Jurassic Park. I found the ents particularly interesting, because they are the only Tolkien creatures I could never visualize. Even the makers of The Two Towers could not make them biologically plausible. Nonetheless, they function excellently as characters, which is all you can expect.
And then there is Smeagol. As other reviews have noted, it's hard to call him “Gollum” after seeing this film. He is more animated in every sense of the word than any of the human actors. The film makers hit on precisely the right way to show which side of his dual personality is on top at any given time.
There are elements of the films which will no doubt endear them to Tolkien buffs for all time to come, but which may grate on the unconverted. Gimli the Dwarf is the designated comic relief, for instance, and it's a heavy burden to bear. Despite all the work that went into the sets for Edoras and Helms Deep, the computer-generated architecture remains the most believable. Also, although that New Zealand landscape remains spectacular even after six hours of film, it's starting to look, well, generic. Except for one green patch in the Shire, all Middle Earth seems to be covered with scrub grass and surrounded by alps.
None of this is a criticism, however. We can have every confidence that the War of the Ring will be brought to a satisfactory conclusion in 2003.
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Here is my review of The Fellowship of the Ring. Here is my review of The Return of the King.

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