Anwyn is from Rohan, Bill is from Isengard
Some of you thought it would never happen. Some of you actually prayed it wouldn't. But the unthinkable has occurred: It's the return of Bill and Anwyn! After hashing out a spirited book vs. movie debate on Fellowship of the Ring two years ago, the duo sat down and, after some friendly catching up ("So, Bill, still combing your hair with a weed-whacker?"), finally commenced with the long-promised look at The Two Towers.
Anywn: All right, so we could write this column, I had to sit down and slog through the EE of Two Towers. It was more tedious than I remembered.
Bill: "Slog?" "Tedious?" Are you sure you're not talking about the book?
A: Oh, here we go again. Are you honestly telling me, with your filmmaking background, that Jackson's pacing left nothing to be desired?
B: I thought it flowed pretty well for as long as a movie it is. Better than the book does, that's for sure.
A: What did you like better about Jackson's telling of the story?
B : Stuff happened, for a start. To prep for this discussion I skimmed through the book and at the 100-page mark I'd still found nothing of interest. By that point in the movie we'd had a beheading, a disemboweling, a Gollum brawl, hobbit vomit, an orc massacre, and a critter getting stomped by a tree. In the book: twelve songs.
A: Tolkien continues his story where it left off: hobbits have been captured, let's go find them through an astonishing feat of tracking across an empty plain. Whereas Jackson jumps all over the map: we're hunting, we're fighting, we're being taken down by ugly dogs ... and then, just for fun, we'll bring in a character you've never heard of, kill him off, and have his funeral. Okay, so you're telling me that Jackson taking a bit about the king's son, which is pretty well glossed over in the Tolkien, and dropping into the middle of the exposition worked for you? Bunch of guys come on a ford, "Look for the king's son!" ... what is anybody supposed to make of that?
B: Probably that the king's son is missing. I admit it's a bit obscure, what with them looking for him and all, but...
A: Okay. It really was just that simple for you? You didn't need any other intro to the character?
B: Not really, considering his entire contribution to the story is to be dead. You don't need a lot of backstory for that. Or acting talent, I'm guessing.
A: Well, in the regular movie they just had his funeral! Even less contact with the character. "Here's a guy, he's dead." In a movie that likes to play on our emotions worse than Titanic, that's pretty abrupt.
B: And that's a pretty harsh comparison. But yeah, even just the funeral was okay with me. It showed me how far Wormtongue's influence had spread, that the king's son could die without him noticing or caring.
A: Okay, so it gave you more insight into Theoden. That's good. But here's the crux of the difference between Jackson and Tolkien. In Tolkien, they've taken on this quest, and now it's an everyday thing-they live with it every day. It doesn't happen all at once. In Jackson, everyone is given an awful overemphasis on everything. Here we are going to a Big Place where we will see Big People and find Big Stuff going on. Every Line I Utter Has the Ring (no pun intended) of Fatality to it. It gets wearing. It was how *every single line,* and *every single walk to a mark* and *every single expression,* unless you were Gimli playing comic relief, was made with this Huge Purpose. If I had to see Elijah Wood roll his eyes one more time ... gah.
B: A look from Elijah says more about his suffering than five pages of, "O how weary is my heart! How heavy is my burden! How swollen are my glands!" But as to your argument that everything in Jackson's version has Big Meaning, I got a little secret for you, Anwyn-- ready?-- IT'S A MOVIE! We need that kind of stuff in a flick. We want action. We want drama. We want to feel like this is important, this means something. We don't want to sit through "everyday life" stuff. We don't want to see folks doing their laundry. We want to see some orcs die and some stuff blow up. For seven bucks, I expect at least one good beheading.
A: Nobody does much laundry-Jackson depicted that pretty accurately at least. But about beheadings--now we come upon one of my real peeves. The gratuitous horror. I just really did not need to see Gollum tearing the innards out of a rabbit, or the entrails of an orc go flying. There's a certain level of realism Jackson gives his characters, I'll admit, but he never seems to know when to stop. Especially when it's paired with that damn camp humor. "Meat's back on the menu, boys!" Is this a horror movie or a fantasy film? An adventure film or a splatter flick? Why can't he make up his fricking mind?
B: Why do you insist that it has to be only one thing? "Get in your genre and stay there!" Besides, I'd hardly qualify it as a splatter film. Sure, there's a little blood--you're going to get that in a war--but it's not like he drenches the lens with it. Better I think than Tolkein's wussy little bloodless descriptions. "Many arrows flew. Bodies fell. Gandalf stopped for a light lunch."
A: All right, it's not a splatter film. In some instances it might be better if it tended that way--when you combine his obvious tendency to ghoulishness (nasty orc after nasty orc after nasty orc) with the "look" of the rest of the film--grand as to landscape, ethereal as to Elves, all very ... I don't know, it all combined for a very "unreal" look when I was watching it the second time. It felt very hollow-plastic orcs and fake blood spewing stupid lines over some of the coolest sets ever.
B: So... you want... pretty orcs?
B: 'Cause you said...
B: Okay, okay. Don't go all Sauron on me. Y'know, you talk about Jackson imparting too much importance to things. I'd say your beloved Tolkien's just as guilty of the opposite. Take Helm's Deep, for instance. That's about--what? Twenty minutes of good on-screen ass-whooping and in the book this great, epic battle-the opening salvo in the war to destroy the world of Men, remember-is a massive nine pages. NINE. And most of that is more talking. Tell me Jackson's version doesn't whip all over Tolkein's.
A: Okay, so really we've hit on the fundamental difference between us: You like battles, I like good dialogue.
B : And yet you like Tolkien. Odd.
A: [head in hands] Look, Tolkein's dialogue is way better than what Jackson and his screenwriters came up with. Like the stunning repartee between Gimli, Aragorn, and Legolas when Aragorn turned up after that whole bizarre episode with the river and the horse? "Where is he? I'm gonna kill him!" "You're late. You look terrible." Are you seriously going to call that dialogue?
B: Deny me the "you look terrible" line got a laugh.
A: I can deny it all day, seeing that I didn't laugh. It was terrible. It was stupid. It was nothing.
B: It was comedy. It was a relief line. I'm sure Tolkien would give us five pages of "Look there! It is Aragorn returned! O happy is my heart to see him again. Heavy was my spirit at the thought of his passing into the golden fields of Foofoomore..." or whatever. Jackson gives us a little joke and then--Boom! On with the story.
A: Tolkien's story.
B: Bah. With Tolkien, you've got almost 200 pages before we even reunite with Sam and Frodo. The stars of the story and they're missing for half the book. Jackson, understanding they're the main characters, starts with them and quickly gives us the technical marvel of Gollum. Now that was some impressive filmmaking magic. And I've been wondering about your take on Gollum, Anwyn. After a lifetime of picturing the little frogboy in your mind, did they do justice?
A: Well, I'll say he was a hell of a lot better than Jar-Jar.
B : I thought we had agreed to never speak of him again.
A: Sorry. Well, all right, the justice was there for Gollum. Jackson was probably like a kid in a candy store, finding a character he could honestly be disgusting and pathetic with. Frankly, when I was a little girl I used to skip past the parts with Gollum because he's so heartbreaking, and it was tempting to do so now. The pain he felt from the rope, the fact that he couldn't eat the hobbits' food, it was all too terrible.
B: "It was all too terrible." Think about that. You felt heartbroken for a creature that doesn't exist. Jackson's team created an imaginary creature that you felt sympathy for. They made pixels emote. It's an amazing technical and cinematic achievement. Even you can't deny that.
A: I agree. I do have to give Jackson full marks for Gollum.
B: Now Treebeard on the other hand...
A: Treebeard was stilted. Period. And short. And stupid. You talk about completely stripping a character from Tolkien. Treebeard was wise. He knew where his enemies were. But in Jackson, he KNEW the orcs were wreaking and burning in his woods, but he said the Ents WOULDN'T go to war until he happened to go down by Isengard because of some doltish thing Pippin said and only THEN realized that Saruman was the enemy?
B: Was it not like that in the book?
A: No. The Ents were slow (in pace only) but not stupid. Treebeard knew already, before Pippin and Merry arrived, that Saruman was no longer his friend, that at his command orcs were burning the woods. He just hadn't quite decided what to do about it yet. Their coming helped him make up his mind, along with Gandalf.
B: Knowing something is one thing. Seeing it is another. Movie, Anwyn. Visuals. Cinematically it worked that seeing the entire forest leveled by Saruman would sink it home that, okay, maybe this guy's a bigger tool than I thought and we're going to have to do something about him. But I still think Treebeard's a dumb idea. It's dopey on screen. It's dopey in print. You've got a book that's already dragging and you put in a slow-talking, wheezing tree spouting poetry about how nice green is? Genius.
A: No matter how bad you think Treebeard was as a device, at least he wasn't a stupid *character*. Jackson completely ruined him.
B: Hey, Tolkien doesn't always do great with characters. How about how all-powerful Saruman, bad-ass wizard extraordinaire, who was ultimately brought low by a dozen old trees and some basement damp? Why is anyone scared of this doof?
A: Saruman? Besides the fact that he sent 10K orcs to knock out (entirely, as in wipe out every bit of their above-age male population) an entire western nation? That's the point--the Ents were extremely powerful in their own right. Saruman had nothing but his minions. Once they were neutralized by the Rohirrim and the trees, Saruman had nothing. Whereas the Ents had justice and TREE ROOTS on their side. Ever tried to chop through a tree root?
B: Well, there was this one time... funny story--
A: It wasn't just a dozen trees, it was a physical force strong enough to rip stone (i.e. Saruman's tower) and a flood big enough to drown all of his production pits. In the aftermath of a tsunami, I don't think I have to lecture anybody about the power of water. Now THIS is what I mean about Jackson's pacing!! Even you are left wondering what's to fear about Saruman, because they wiped him out in five minutes of screen time. You talk about TOLKIEN glossing over battles!
B: I wonder about Saruman's power because he doesn't do anything. Giant trees stomping around outside, busting stuff up, destroying his plans, and does he cast a spell? Throw a fireball? Call the cops? Anything? No, and he didn't in the book either. He sits and watches his entire future go smash and doesn't lift a finger. Saruman the White Quitter.
A: Okay, so if you don't accept Treebeard as character ruination, try this one--the darling of the fanboys and girls--Faramir. Do you remember anything about him at all from the book?
B: Not from the book, no. He's Boromir's brother, right?
A: Yeah. And unlike Boromir, completely incorruptible...
B : [snapping fingers] I remember him. Mr. "Daddy Doesn't Love Me".
B: [startled] Ahh!
A. Sorry. But you proved my point. In the book, the main point wasn't all this human psychosis about needing to please Daddy. He was unhappy because of his father's treatment, but he long ago chose to do what was right over trying to win his dad's favor. He never considers taking the Ring to get back into his dad's graces. You know, I understand Jackson's need to rebound against the criticism of Tolkien's characters as too black and white, but I think he might have left us this one.
B : Left us what? A movie character who says, "Hey, you got the Ring of All Power? Neato! What? Nah, I don't want it."? Just like with Treebeard, we don't have access to the man's thoughts on film. We need something external to drive the character and give him some conflict. Maybe it works in the book to have him just be a better guy than Boromir at heart. In a movie, we need something more, something we can see. It says more about his character to see him tempted, to have the answer to his problems right there for the taking and not taking it than to have him just be incorruptible and not tempted at all.
A: You know, it's really funny to bait you into sneering at the character's weakness and then make you defend the weakness just because it's Jackson's and not Tolkien's.
B: That's because you are evil and mean.
A: At first you were ticked because he whined about Daddy not loving him, then you have to defend it as cinematic conflictive drama.
B : I didn't say I enjoyed the whining. I'm just saying it made more sense to me to have him desire his father's love more than anything and give up the means to secure it than to not want it at all. That would be like the whole Aragorn/Eowyn thing. He's never tempted by her and so that whole subplot falls flat, book and film.
A: You want to talk weak subplots, can you really tell me that the whole Aragorn-in-the-river thing didn't make the movie too long by about fifteen ridiculous minutes?
B: Sure, 'cause it only lasted five. Hey, they had a cool horse trick they wanted to show off. I'm fine with that. But as we're speaking of nonsense subplots, what's with this Gandalf resurrection thing?
A: You mean, the only convincing "he's dead/no he's not" in the whole thing? As opposed to, say, the time in Fellowship when they tried to make us think Frodo was a goner (excuse me, the THREE times in Fellowship), the time in Towers when they tried to make us think Gimli was a goner, the time in Towers when they tried to make us think Pippin was a goner, the time in Towers when they tried to make us think Aragorn was a goner? If you ask me, Jackson messed up the only real resurrection story he had (Gandalf's) by pushing too many fake ones on us.
B: Um, we didn't think Gandalf was a goner. He was gone. Dude spends the better part of a week beating on a Balrog, knocks him off a mountain and then dies. He dies. And then he's "sent back" to "finish his task," apparently by a Power that's great enough to grant life but not give him some clothes. So are we to assume that he can just keep whizzing it time and again and he'll just keep getting sent back until he gets it right?
A: That's pretty much the meaning of an actual resurrection story-the guy was dead, now he's alive. As far as why that grace was granted to Gandalf, that's a whole philosophical/religious tenet of Tolkien that I really don't have space for in this column.
B: Translation: You don't know.
A: [sighs wearily] Briefly, Tolkien believed that the created beings of the world--i.e. Elves, Men, Dwarves, Hobbits--had to work through things as much on their own as possible. Gandalf's sacrifice sort of bought him a chance to come back and help some more, but the Power couldn't intervene any more directly than that. As for unlimited chances, no, probably not. If the Witch-king whacked him in plain battle, he may not have come back. This was a unique sacrifice-Gandalf gave himself up so early in the game, before it had come down to the big face-off with Sauron that would be remembered forever, because he had to in order to make sure that the rest of them would be there at that showdown. Beyond that, I can only say: Wizards are special, end of discussion.
B : Really? 'Cause I got a cousin who's special...
A: [pinching bridge of nose] Different kind of special, Bill.
B: Gets to ride this little bus...
A: And anyway, why do you need to object to Gandalf's resurrection? It's straight out of Tolkien, it works in both book and film, and most things to do with Gandalf are the highlights of all three films thanks to the screenwriters keeping much of Tolkien's stuff intact AND the actor genius that is Ian McKellen. Why carp about something that actually worked?
B: Because I think it's a cop-out and bad storytelling. You complain about Jackson making us think characters are goners (and there's a world of difference between cutting away from a character in peril and actually killing one on screen) but Tolkein goes and actually wastes one of his main characters, then says, "Just kidding!" and has him pop up with no other explanation than he was "sent back." I'm willing to bet that if it had been Jackson's invention to dust Gandalf and then have him turn up in the second movie with such a weak explanation, you'd be howling bloody murder.
A: Murder is what it would have been if Jackson gave in to his obvious desire to seriously rub out a main character or two, instead of just making us think it. That kind of departure from story would be totally unconscionable-oh wait! He did it anyway! Haldir, who wasn't even supposed to be at Helm's Deep! Well, regardless, I think it's safe to say that playing with death scenes or faux death scenes, whether of man, hobbit or wizard, is one of Jackson's favorite things.
B: Which brings us to The Return of the King.
A: Uh, Bill? We don't have time for that right now.
B: What? You don't have five hours free to watch the EE? Wait-- you didn't go and get a life, did you? No fair!
A: [patting hand] I'll get you one for Christmas this year, Bill.
But the threat is real. Bill and Anwyn tackle The Return of the King next time. Stay tuned!
Written by Anwyn and Bill