The ZONE genre worldwide books movies
the science fiction
fantasy horror &
mystery website
 
 
home  articles  profiles  interviews  essays  books  movies  competitions  guidelines  issues  links  archives  contributors  email

The Two Tours: epic masterpiece or tedium tour de force?
by Simeon Shoul
Spoiler Alert!
And so, the task is two thirds complete. Peter Jackson's mammoth cinematic adaptation of Tolkien's epic fantasy has placed its second instalment before an eager public, and (as usual) broken box office records along the way. Six hours plus of screen time and counting. Is it working? Well, the reviews I've seen have been largely positive. "Better than the first one," "grittier," "tougher," seems to be the general tenor of the commentary.
   But I'm afraid I'm not convinced.
   Let me start with a little personal positioning. Mea Culpa. Yes, I am a long-time Tolkien addict. Hooked at the age of 10. Swept away into a wonderland of hobbits, wizards, evil rings, balrogs, orcs and lidless eyes! Thrilling stuff! Marvellous! Enthralling! Went on to read Moorcock, Lieber, Vance, Le Guin, McCaffrey, Zelazny. Then there was Dungeons & Dragons, tabletop war-gaming; the whole hog. Thirty-seven years old now, and there's no end in sight.
   But, when it comes to translating this mammoth, enormously complex work of literature onto the screen, I'm no purist. The books are so weighty, laden with such a rich burden of backstory (Numenor, the Men of the West, the tangled history of the Second Age, the decline of Gondor and Arnor, the Witch Kingdom of Angmar...) and so tangled in their plots, especially after the breaking of the Fellowship, when several separate groups of heroes start flitting here and there across the landscape, that they simply could not be brought to the screen intact.
   Certain things had to give. Shortcuts had to be taken. Jackson's work is (as it had to be) a film adaptation of the book, not a blow-by-blow, word-by-word retelling (unlike the early 1980s' BBC radio-play). The director had to make decisions, difficult ones. Some of them, in my opinion, were definitively right (more on this later). But more of them, many more, were wrong.
   Let me start by touching on the good stuff. What works?
Saruman's army on the march Big screen sweep and powerful visual imagination adds up to some gripping moments.

picture: New Line Productions ©2002

Well, the spectacle works. The big screen moments, the special effects (mostly). The opening sequence of The Two Towers, as Gandalf and the Balrog plunge into the abyss of Khazad Dhum, is staggeringly good. Down and down and down they go, ripping at each other, burning and flailing, banging off the walls... And then, oh lord! They come tumbling out of the bottom of the abyss, into a cavern so humongous that the lake far below them isn't a lake at all, it's like some stupendous underworld sea! This moment, when Gandalf and the Balrog, who have been literally filling the screen with their fight, come plummeting out of the ceiling above the sea, and are reduced in a long shot to the size of a floating scrap of thistledown, is to die for. It's brilliant. Inspired.
   The Eye of Sauron is another winner. I didn't much like the Eye in The Fellowship Of The Ring. It had no clarity. It hardly looked like an eye at all. It was too big, looming over Frodo like a great, distorted smear of orange light... Now, however, it's been transformed. Again, it's big, bigger in fact than in Fellowship. But, poised between the jutting spurs atop the pinnacle of Barad Dur, crackling with hot bolts of scarlet lightning, it's devastating; a swollen, blazingly angry, glare of evil, that really looks like it could dominate the world.
   The battle for Helm's Deep - um, well, it's good, mostly. I've got quibbles about the acting, and hang big question marks over the director's decision to march a troop of Lothlorian elves in to help out the Rohirim, but the big, clashing battle scenes are pretty stirring. Better, mind you, in the long, widescreen shots than the close up stuff, where everything becomes too quick and confusing to impress, but still, overall a positive experience.
   The Oliphant is a nice piece of animation. Big mother. Dinosaur-scale, but well rendered and the movement is realistic. Much superior to the flying ring-wraiths, whose pot-bellied mounts are about as credible as a flying pig (sorry to get negative at this point, but let's do all the big animal animation in one go). Then there are the ents - hmm, now this is a tricky one. I didn't like the ents, they were gawky, and a little bit ridiculous. But, then again, the ents are tough to do. I don't think I've ever seen a really effective calendar picture of them for instance. I've tried to imagine how they should look. Tree-like, obviously, but with an element of dignity, a touch of danger... Well, I just can't do it. I simply can't visualise what they should look like. Give the movie a C+ for a brave effort and leave it at that.
Grima and Theoden Theoden (on the right)
has seen better days, or has an extra from The Mummy Returns snuck onto the set?

picture: New Line Productions ©2002

Lastly, to get back to what works, there's the one piece of truly bravura acting that the film has to offer, and this is a really remarkable performance, because a human doesn't do it. Gollum, effortlessly, steals the movie. Can they give best supporting actor Oscar nominations to a piece of computer-generated imagery plus a voiceover? I hope so, because Gollum deserves one. When he first appeared I wasn't much impressed. He's a touch too obviously CGI in the early scenes, not moving like a real person, bouncing off the ground like he's made of rubber. But then Frodo and Sam get the upper hand and Gollum starts to talk and he just gets better and better. As he guides the hobbits into the dead marshes, as he begins to suffer the torment of temptation for the ring, Gollum's soliloquies become truly compelling. This character isn't so much torn by conflicting emotions, as ripped apart. He's schizophrenic. His arguments with himself are vicious, desperate, desolate things, deeply affecting, deeply sinister. He's ruined. He's trying to recover. He hates himself utterly. He longs to believe he can be saved. The moment when he collapses, believing Frodo has betrayed him, and his long, slimy hand soothingly strokes his own shoulder while his dark alter-ego whispers honeyed lies in his ear is paralysing.
   So. This is what's good about the movie, and if it were all that was in the movie it would be great - massively incomplete, of course, but great! Unfortunately, the bits I've described so far don't take up more than about 40 minutes of screen time, and this movie is three hours plus long. What fills the time, what fills the movie, alas, what dominates it, is indecision. Or wrong decisions. Foolish, muddleheaded decisions stemming from the director's choices regarding certain characters: Theoden, Treebeard, and Faramir.
   Now, Tolkien wrote these people as individuals who knew few doubts, though they had tough calls to make. Theoden had to find the will to fight Saruman. Treebeard likewise. Faramir had the toughest choice of all; either drag Frodo back to Minas Tirith, or join the desperate long-shot gamble of the Council of Elrond and wave him on his way to Mordor in the company of the obviously unstable and treacherous Gollum (Faramir was no fool in the books, he knew a rat when he saw one). But, once Gandalf had roused Theoden, once Merry and Pippin had nudged Treebeard out of his rut, once Faramir had divined the burden that Frodo was bearing and overcome his moment of temptation, they made their decisions, with resolve, and then carried them through with determination.    Jackson has chosen to do things differently. Both Faramir and Treebeard, quite simply, make the wrong decisions. Faramir arrests Frodo. Treebeard and the ents decide not to fight. In each case this gives the filmmakers the opportunity to indulge in a bit of angst and anguished appeals by hobbits to big (but wrong-headed) folk... before they fortuitously change their minds and get headed in the right direction. Does it add anything to the film? No, it doesn't. A bit more screen-time for Faramir, in Osgiliath, a touch more influence for Merry and Pippin, as they turn Treebeard around, and a passle of frustration for the viewer, as things drag on and on through what are plainly pointless digressions.
Gandalf and Theoden Serious discussion, but will Theoden get the message the way Tolkien intended?

picture: New Line Productions ©2002

But Theoden, and the fortuitous, turgid byplay that goes on around him, is by far the worst offender. Damn, but Tolkien had good storytelling instincts! He knew it would be dull as hell to watch someone being slowly, slowly dragged up out of the slough of despond. So he did it in an instant. Snap-bang! Gandalf marches into the hall of Edoras and Theoden comes roaring up off the throne like Thrust-2 breaking the world land-speed record! Well, Jackson starts off nicely enough, with Theoden throwing Grima Wormtongue down the steps of the Golden Hall, but he can't sustain it. It's as if Gandalf hadn't quite done the job right. With the evil influence of Saruman lifted, does Theoden pack off the women-folk to Dunharas, while leading his household troops in a desperate race to relieve the Westfold? Does he hell as like! He packs up the whole damn city of Edoras into a long, straggling, dreary refugee column and makes for Helm's Deep like a dog with his tail between his legs, hoping to hide in the hills. Slow? You bet it is. Dull? Immensely. Tedious? Stupendously. After the fifth or sixth shot of slack-faced peasants, huddling in stupefied misery in a damp cave, the coffin was nailed firmly shut as far as I'm concerned. Did the director think he was adding an element of human pathos to the movie? Sorry, no go. The viewers are, or want to be, involved in the trials and travails of the heroes. Not the spear-carriers, or the (I'm sorry) human scenery.
   So, Aragorn has to spend a lot of time jollying Theoden along, lifting his spirits, exhorting him to act like a rejuvenated king instead of a fatalistic, weary, despondent old man. Eomer is nowhere to be seen (exiled rather than imprisoned), and the movie plods along, and along, and along... briefly lifting itself into moments of excitement, before collapsing again into weary dialogue, or frozen moments of wide-eyed anxiety.
refugees and mountains The scenery is stunning,
but the refugees are trudging...

picture: New Line Productions ©2002

That then, is the movie we have been given. There are, however, a few more points to make and questions to ask about the movie we weren't given, most of them revolving around the character of Arwen.
   Now, I said earlier that I'm no purist. One of the best calls Jackson made in Fellowship was to write the character of Glorfindel out of the movie. If you recall book one of the Fellowship of the Ring, Glorfindel, one of Elrond's household, meets up with Aragorn and the hobbits in the wilderland east of Weathertop, after Frodo has been wounded, and conveys them to Rivendell. It's Glorfindel's white horse that bears Frodo over the river as the Black Riders pursue him to the Ford. There, however, Tolkien abandoned the character. Glorfindel just drops out of the story as if he'd never existed. So, in narrative terms, losing him altogether is small loss. And handing his job to Arwen is a big plus.
   The Arwen that Tolkien wrote was a classic fairytale princess - beautiful, but static. She did nothing. She was a prize, sitting on the shelf, patiently waiting for her man to do the job and come collect her at the end of a long day of dragon slaying. This was not an Arwen for the 21st century! Jackson's Arwen is a tough Rangerette, ballsy and quick thinking. Sure, Jackson dragged the flight to the ford out too damn long (tedium is his forté), but hats off to him for giving it to Arwen in the first place.
Arwen and Elrond Arwen and Elrond, given a breathtaking opportunity to be very boring on screen.

picture: New Line Productions ©2002

So why the hell couldn't he follow up this promising development in the second movie? It isn't as if Tolkien hadn't handed him a golden opportunity to do so. After Helm's Deep and the fall of Isengard, Aragorn and Theoden are overtaken by a company of northern Rangers, with Elrond's sons, Elladan and Elrohir, bearing messages, and the Banner of Elendil (which Arwen has made for Aragorn). Jackson has already, obviously, written out Elladan and Elrohir in much the same manner as Glorfindel. So why did he not slip Arwen into the second movie in their place? All he needed to do was advance the meeting between Aragorn and this northern group a bit, so that it happened before Helm's Deep, instead of afterward, and he could have given Arwen all the screen time she needed, helping out in the big battle. Instead (oh dullness incomparable!) he chose to give us a lengthy, deeply dispiriting scene between Elrond and Arwen, in which the mournful sacrifice of an elf who loves a mortal is harped upon... and, to all appearances, Arwen decides to do a fast bunk across the sea into the undying West. Was this meant to make Eowyn's infatuation for Aragorn more credible? Or hint that he might reciprocate? Didn't work for me.
   Perhaps, in fact, quite possibly, Jackson is going to pull the trick I've just suggested in the third movie. It would mean he didn't have to play with the timing, and it would get Arwen back into the main action... We'll see. Hope so, because I've had just about as much of the angst of the Elder race as I can stomach.
   Well, I think my tale is told. The Two Towers is, quite simply, the most tedious piece of film I've seen in ages. It takes liberties with the storyline that aren't justified by enhancing the movie, it plods where it should sprint, it moans where it should shout. It is a land of lost opportunities. I looked forward to seeing it with keen anticipation. Alas, I now look towards Christmas 2003 and the third instalment with a sense of weary resignation. I'll go and see it, yes sir, but only because I must, not because I hope to enjoy doing so.

Related item:
tZ  There And Back Again: the Animated Tolkien, and beyond - by Octavio Ramos Jr


home  articles  profiles  interviews  essays  books  movies  competitions  guidelines  issues  links  archives  contributors  email
copyright © 2001 - 2003 Pigasus Press