Tolkien, J.R.R. (film, 2002). The Two Towers. Los Angeles: New Line.

Reviewed 22 December 2002

Isengard The second book in a trilogy, or any middle book in any longer series, is almost always the most difficult to adapt for another medium. Frequently, it is conceptually weaker than either the beginning or ending book. Tolkein's The Two Towers is instead a stronger book than The Fellowship of the Ring. Does that mean that the movie version will be correspondingly stronger than the first one? Not necessarily.

Visually, at least, Peter Jackson's The Two Towers is somewhat stronger than was his The Fellowship of the Ring (3 stars). This is partly because the action is much more centered on specific locations, rather than journeying. Although nobody could realistically criticize the sets of Fellowship as cheap or chintzy, structures simply do not have the feeling of solidity found in The Two Towers. The contrast between Moria, with its attempt at decrepit subterranean airiness that just doesn't hang together, and both Edoras and Helm's Deep reveals much about the problems of visual design for chase sequences as opposed to setpieces.

The cast, particularly the hobbits, is also somewhat more comfortable in their various roles. Frodo (Elijah Wood) seems to have overcome his ghostly reliance on the assistant director, probably because he has so much less dialog in The Two Towers and can thus concentrate the more-physical aspects of acting with which he appears more confident. Ironically, this occurs just as a CGI character—Gollum—becomes more prominent. This points out Jackson's wisdom in having Gollum played by a human actor (not just stuntman) and then overlaid by CGI for the final print. Gimli has started to become a pain in the butt, just like in the books. Eowyn (Miranda Otto) is a nicely understated performance. The role has the distinct danger of falling into adolescent puppylove; the actors actually do better with the situation than did the book, leaving Eowyn as a more-real person.

However—you sort of knew that was coming, didn't you?—

Eowyn--a girl who can clearly kick some butt; the assult on Helm's Deep

this adaptation does make two serious errors that undermine the film. First, and least surprisingly, the battle at Helm's Deep is too Hollywoodish, with inadequate attention paid to basic physics. For example, as Saruman's forces begin their assault, they fling 15-meter ladders up the wall with an orc or Uruk-Hai at the top. The moment-arm required to raise that ladder with a 50-kg load at the far end, for a wooden ladder weighing perhaps 200kg or more by itself, is several tons, all of which must be applied at one end of the ladder. Similarly, the culvert explosion was not handled properly, as virtually all of the force went straight up and did little damage to the remainder of the wall's foundation. And so on. In some sense, this is forgivable because the audience expects to see an exciting battle. With some thought, though, these problems could have been prevented with no loss in "excitement"—and given this budget, should have been prevented. For example, there would have been no less excitement in properly placing ladders and having Saruman's forces crawl up them in the face of rocks, arrows, firebrands, and so on, while those at the top strive to push the ladders off the parapet.

Nearly fatal, however, is a severe misediting of the film. The Two Towers as a book is distinct from most contemporary fantasy series in that the different threads of the quest are kept separate. There is little intercutting between Frodo/Sam/Gollum and the others. This is critical to understanding the shadowing and doubling of characters and themes in the book, because it allows consideration of the context instead of being smacked in the face with the thematic parallels. Jackson, however, chose to follow Hollywood convention in the name of "simultaneity" and intercut the sequences so that chronology, not narrative coherence, dictates the order in which scenes appear. Thus, the film tries to have the critical climaxes for each set of characters occur at the end of the film. This misses the narrative's point. Study Kurosawa's Rashomon, for example, to see how and why this kind of story needs to be told in separate threads. Tolkein's decision in The Two Towers to separate the sequences was correct on the page, and would have made for a stronger movie—particularly one twice as long as the typical Hollywood film these days (median length just over 98 minutes). That is more than enough time for two distinct climaxes of equal weight, my Precious. When the "extended version" DVD comes out, it will be interesting to see if there is an alternate sequencing; if not, I just may program the DVD player that way and try it myself…

Overall rating: 3 stars
Very Good
. Despite these serious flaws, The Two Towers is still a superior film. Jackson deserves a lot of credit for how he translated individual scenes to screen, and for his general faithfulness to the material. However, he fell into two Hollywoodish traps that could have been avoided, which makes this film roughly equal to The Fellowship of the Ring on balance. Although that is nothing to be ashamed of—and in fact is something to be applauded, in general—it is nonetheless not what it could have been.

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