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Movie Review — The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

This is a difficult review to write, because I do like the film so very much.  And there, I think, is one of the problems – with me, not with the film: the first film, combined with the Two Towers marketing, has made me just a bit blasé.  If I had seen this film two years ago, I might have criticized some of the story changes, but would have roared an approving "Wow!"  And so, perhaps, I should do now; instead, I feel a sense of mild disappointment.

Alas, it is too easy to say things like, "It goes without saying that Gollum is phenomenal; the hordes of Saruman's orcs are staggering; that Treebeard is a wonder..."  Except that it shouldn't go without saying.  Likewise, the amount of Tolkien that is in the film is far beyond what anyone would normally expect in a movie adaptation, whether it is in Éowyn's fear of a cage, or "what's taters, eh?" or Théoden reciting the elegy for Eorl, or the vision of Elessar's death from the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen.  Finally, Jackson quite artistically uses the various characters to run a single thematic thread through this entire movie – the rejection of despair in the face of apparent certain failure, and the importance of Hope (even in Arwen's flashback scene with Aragorn, the Sindarin spoken for the word ‘trust’ is ‘estel,’ which Tolkien translates as both ‘hope’ and ‘faith’).  This is very much in keeping with Tolkien's themes – is not the whole theme of accepting mortality as the Gift of Men just this?  Yet, thanks to the first film, and endless viewings of trailers for this film, I find that I take all these things just a bit for granted and focus more on the film's defects.  The cost, I suppose, of success.

What are those defects?  Not necessarily changes in the story line.  Indeed, at least one such change, the moving of Théodred's death onstage (with some of Gandalf's accusatory dialogue with Gríma given to Éomer), was an excellent way of establishing these characters and situations for the audience.  Instead, the problems were general storytelling ones.  

I think that some of the emotional power of the first film – the deaths of Gandalf and Boromir, Sam walking into the Anduin after Frodo – is lacking in the present film.  Gandalf's reappearance should have been a lump-in-the-throat moment, but (probably because we'd already seen the moment in the trailer, due to a stupid New Line marketing decision), it was rather flat.  The matter of Aragorn's Indiana Jones-style apparent death was particularly false – even someone unfamiliar with the books knows that this guy isn't getting killed off in this film – and so the other characters' reactions to it also rang false.  And without an emotional payoff from Aragorn's disappearance, the whole Warg attack, while moderately exciting, really serves no purpose in moving the plot along (it kills off Háma, with whose young son Aragorn discusses swords, but this is probably lost on the audience anyway, and I might well be mistaken).  The whole episode would have been better omitted.  There were good moments, especially the aforementioned scene of Elessar's death, and Gandalf's dawnlight charge with the Rohirrim, but to me, these lack the impact of the Big Scenes in Fellowship.

I do not wish to go into a catalog of story changes and quibbles, but do want to say a word about the much-discussed Faramir.  The first time I saw the film, when Faramir told Frodo that the Ring would go to Gondor, my reaction was a silent "say what?"; when Sam said that they shouldn't even be there [in Osgiliath], I thought, "ya got that right."  This took me 'out of the movie experience', which isn't good.  The second time, when it was not such a surprise, it bothered me less.  It does, after all, allow Faramir to grow and understand the peril of the Ring and its bearer more directly than in the book.  In The Return of the King, it may be that Faramir will seem all the more heroic for having given up the Ring in this way, so I will withhold judgment for now.  I think the problem that a lot of us have with Faramir is that, unlike other characters in the book, he has a 'signature line', spoken twice in the book, not just once: "I would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway."  I cannot help wishing that, once Faramir changed his mind in the film, he could have spoken this line at the last.  If he had, I think we would all somehow have been happier with the whole Faramir episode.

In my review of Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring I wrote:

I was perfectly aware of the differences from the book (and duly appreciated when something was preserved verbatim),... but somehow, in some magical way, all of that just doesn't matter.  The movie is unmistakably Lord of the Rings – perhaps not exactly J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, but Lord of the Rings just the same.  Throughout the film, it passed my ultimate test for any Tolkien-derived art: it felt like Reading It For The First Time.  Not bad after 30+ years.

In The Two Towers, the movie magic did not take hold for me so readily and so I am not quite so enthusiastic this time around, but I think that on the whole, The Two Towers still passes my test.  As I said last year, "if the other two films are of this quality, Peter Jackson will have produced the gold standard by which fantasy films will be measured for decades to come." 

Still gold, Mr. Jackson, still gold.


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