The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers won the first ever Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form in 2003, and the Nebula for Best Script of 2003 (awarded in 2004). It also won two Oscars. IMDB users rank it top film of 2002 on one system but only seventh on the other. For both Hugo and Nebula, it beat Minority Report and Spirited AwayHarry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Spider-Man, and the other Nebula finalists were Finding Nemo and a Futurama episode. As with the previous film, The Two Towers scored a knockout victory with Hugo voters, and I think I'd have voted with the majority again even though it is definitely the weakest of the three LOTR films.

Just before I dive into this film, I want to point readers to this critique of my review of Fellowship of the Ring, with a follow-up post including some very interesting links for the reader/watcher who wants to go farther down the rabbit hole.

Most of the actors in The Two Towers who had been in previous Oscar/Hugo/Nebula-winning films were covered last time. There are however two additional old faces to add to the mix, both from Oscar-winners rather than Hugo- or Nebula-winners. Bernard Hill, Théoden here, was the captain of Titanic five years ago, and also attempted to quell Gandhi twenty years ago.

Going back a lot further, Gríma Wormtongue, Saruman's mole in Théoden's court, is played by Brad Dourif who was Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, twenty-seven years ago.

This is the film that should not in fact have been made. Peter Jackson's original vision for LOTR was to make two films, or a trilogy with The Hobbit as the first installment. With the death of Boromir in the first film, and everything post-Isengard and post-Faramir in the third film, The Two Towers only uses 70% of the material of the original (more or less seven out of ten chapters in both Books) and new material is introduced for the sake of dramatic tension; which means that for the Tolkien fan, it does feel a bit padded. The worst bit of padding is the exciting bit where Aragorn appears to have fallen off a cliff and died. It seems about as dramatic as Father Jack losing his slippers in Father Ted. The shift of Faramir's character to i) wanting to take Frodo and Sam to Minas Tirith and then ii) changing his mind is also not terribly smoothly done. One thing that is in the book but a bit disappointing on film: the Ents, who I'd always envisaged as much more thickset and tree-like. Very difficult to get that designed, I guess, especially given that every frame with Treebeard in took 48 hours to render. I remember Ralph Bakshi having similar problems. I also still wince at the infantilisation of Merry and Pippin, though they are starting to grow up here.

But there are two tremendously good things about the film, at the beginning and the end, quite apart from the fact that New Zealand is also made to look fantastic. To start at the end, the Helm's Deep battle sequence is spectacular and shows the money and time thrown at it, while also giving the protagonists some space for character development. (With the flaw that again the extra Elves seem a bit bolted on, and there is a downhill cavalry charge which doesn't seem all that realistic.) I had forgotten that the explosion bringing down part of the wall was also in the book. It's difficult to convey a sense of topography in a filmed battle (well, I imagine it's also difficult to understand the topography of a battle when you are actually fighting one), but I think the film does it pretty well.

(I see when I first wrote up the film trilogy I was also impressed by the flooding of Orthanc; it made less impression on me this time, watching the three-hour theatrical presentation rather than the four-hour director's cut.)

And the Top Thing I Love about The Two Towers is the establishment of Gollum as a character. I never had a good sense of what he might look like from the books – there's a sense of webbed feet, a slightly amphibian note; an unpleasant narcissist with an over-riding obsession. But Andy Serkis' performance combined with the post-production treatment of Gollum's appearance makes for one of the most spectacular bits of character development I've seen between page and screen. This doesn't feel bolted on at all: it's true to Tolkien's concept of the character and at the same time gives it a little extra.

I'm putting this just under halfway down my list of Hugo- and Nebula-winning films, below Who Framed Roger Rabbit and above Bambi, also both films with a lot of animation in. Next up is the only film to win Hugo, Nebula and Oscar.

I went back and reread the book as well, or rather Books 3 and 4 of The Lord of the Rings. The second paragraph of the third chapter (of Book 3) is:

He [Pippin] woke. Cold air blew on his face. He was lying on his back. Evening was corning and the sky above was growing dim. He turned and found that the dream was little worse than the waking. His wrists, legs, and ankles were tied with cords. Beside him Merry lay, white-faced, with a dirty rag bound across his brows. All about them sat or stood a great company of Orcs.

Obviously I love the whole book with a deep deep love, and it's difficult to write about the middle bit in isolation. But I'll say this – often the second volume of a trilogy, or even the middle third of a long book (which this is) suffers from middle-book syndrome, getting the characters from the beginning to the end. I think Tolkien largely avoids this problem by throwing in surprises throughout – we do not know if Merry and Pippin are still alive until the third chapter, we do not know if Frodo and Sam are still alive until the second Book, Gandalf reappears from the dead, and Frodo briefly seems to have been killed by Shelob at the end. He also plotted out the movements of the characters against the calendar meticulously, and the fact that he has done his homework is modestly obvious. I still love the whole thing, with a deep deep love. Even if there are more named horses than women.

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