A reader whom I’ve never met wrote an e-mail the other day requesting that I review The Two Towers. Unaccountably, this had never occurred to me.
When the note arrived, I was just about to go see the film for the second time. I endeavored to keep the idea in mind as I watched the film, more or less unsuccessfully.
The first time I saw the film I was distracted sufficiently by a couple of alterations that director Peter Jackson made to the plot (in comparison to that of the book) that I was uncertain, on balance, how I felt about the film. Additionally, Vivian and I were seated somewhat farther back from the screen then I would’ve preferred, and thus I found myself at a loss in forming a personal opinion, in itself somewhat odd.
The second time we saw the film, we were seated much closer to the Cinerama’s gloriously huge screen, and I found it more satisfactory. Predictably enough, it was more difficult to apprehend the details in comparison with the longer vantage afforded us by our previous seats in the balcony. However, this superabundance of visual stimuli contributed positively to the viewing experience.
In the end though, I was clearly disappointed. The first film’s experience for me was such a unique moment – such a remarkable fusion of an important childhood experience with an adult enthusiasm, capably translated and with similar emotional effect – that The Two Towers, like the book is largely draws from, is an emotional letdown.
The structure of the novel places the characters of Frodo, Sam, and Gollum in the midst of their cheerless, excruciating journey through the wild, and Tolkien’s leaden prose in this section has defeated more than one reader. In an effort to avoid this narrative pitfall Jackson has chosen to, firstly, cut back and forth between the three main narrative threads, and secondly, to omit one important, if niggling, plot point while utterly fabricating another.
it speaks well for Jackson’s judgment and execution that in the case of the first alteration, I did not know the difference, and again for him in that the second did not grate. I’ll not note it here, as it adds nothing to the experience of the film to realize what’s been shifted about.
The second alteration did, however, cause me a moment of some curmudgeonly frowning first time I watched the film, and an outright nitpicking failure of the suspension of disbelief the second time I viewed it.
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In the scene, which is beautifully envisioned, and wholly invented for the movie, Frodo faces a Nazgul and the wraith’s steed, an enormous flying saurian creature whose Tolkien-name escapes me. Doughty Sam saves Frodo in the nick of time and Faramir, a military commander of Gondor, is somehow convinced by this that he should free the captive hobbits.
On second viewing, I actively questioned the movie Faramir’s judgement. If the ring draws his enemies to it, it conclusively demonstrates not its danger but its power. Faramir must actively dismiss his own military judgement in addition to making a decision of the heart in the film’s narrative, a determination that would directly undercut his ability to function as a military commander on the field of battle.
Jackson could easily have avoided this problem by filming the scenes as written in the book. No moment of heart stopping dinosaur-baiting occurs in them and Faramir must rely on his heart’s judgment alone.
Less problematically, some of the CG rendered elements of the film simply collapsed on second viewing. For example, in the scenes of Treebeard carrying Merry and Pippin in his hands, rather than focusing on the Ent’s face, I focused on the figures of the hobbits. Unfortunately, the figures were unconvincing for several reasons, including the weird, gravity-free motion of their oddly elongated limbs.
This is not unlike a moment in the first film, in which Legolas leaps to the back of a cave troll and for brief moment the computer generated illusion fails. In both cases the figures’ movements briefly become too crisp, too videogame-like.
It should be noted that the great majority of the effects in both films – the invading horde at Helm’s Deep for example, and, interestingly, the dragon-like beast that faces Frodo in the scene critiqued above – are both unobtrusive and spectacular.
Gollum, for all the hype, was not as successful as might be hoped. His presence in shots is ungrounded. Interestingly, this is appropriate to his character as a corrupted victim of the ring. Still, I found it distracting. The creature is without a doubt the most successfully integrated CG character in a film of all time, but why haven’t filmmakers concentrated more on meshing the CG into the actual space being photographed rather than the impressive mechanics of the bitmapped flesh or multiply articulated facial muscles?
For example we have no difficulty accepting the advertising mascot Jack, of Jack in the Box, despite his big round ball of a head. I know he’s not CG. My point is, simplicity in detail combined with true visual integration into a space is more than enough to convince us of the reality of the character. Likewise, greater success in integration, and less fretting about rendered detail will be necessary to carrying synthespian depiction forward.
Really, these are relatively minor critiques. They do predominate in my memory and reflections on the film. What about Rohan, you say? And don’t forget Helms Deep! Well, uh, yeah, that was OK, I guess. I hated Legolas’ stupid stair-surfing trick – what idiocy – and tolerated the dwarf tossing jokes. The best part of the Helm’s Deep sequence was Jackson’s sly depiction of the non-combatants in the caves. They cower under the sounds of an aerial bombardment, a clever reference to the contemporary experience of urban civilians in time of war.
This is possibly an excavated reference to the Blitz from Tolkien’s original work; while he doesn’t emphasize this, he did put the civilians underground at a time when he’d just seen such a thing in his own life. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Jackson’s referring to more contemporary experiences of urban aerial bombardment, however.
There were other shots, generally of like duration, that stood out: the monumental opening sequence, in which we chase Gandalf’s fall to the battle with the Balrog; the elven longbowmen firing up and over the battlements of Helm’s Deep as the camera sweepingly traces the arrows’ arc; the company’s ride to Rohan as the Westfold burns in the distance, across a river; Aragorn tenderly nosed awake by his horse.
An image that did not impress me quite as much as these moments yet which I enjoyed was the great gates of Mordor. Where were the flying monkeys? Was it just me, or was the urge to chant “yo-lee-oh, yo-la” overwhelming? In that scene, Jackson seemed to be deliberately noting the impressive number of overlaps between the filmic Wizard of Oz and Tolkien’s original books, something which is really worth investigating further.
There were other images which were satisfying but somehow didn’t reach the heights of the stand-out moments cited above: the destruction of Orthanc. Sam’s oliphaunt. The Entmoot.
So, on the whole, why do I feel that the film disappointed me? First, the inherent challenge of the narrative material limited the emotional payload of the film, something Jackson attempted to remedy with his crosscutting and additional moments of dramatic tension and danger, unsuccessfully in my mind. Secondly, the filmmakers have overreached in their use of CGI in constructing the film. In the first film, only one large set-piece was reliant on the technology; here, not only a main character, but two entire acts are wholly dependent on it. Granted that this is the case, it would be more surprising if I lacked nits to pick.
All of this would have been essentially minor if the one great narrative problem I cite above had not been introduced. It’s a cardinal rule of fantasy and science fiction that the internal logic of the world depicted not encourage the reader to make critical examinations of the internal logic of the world. By presenting a character’s actions which beg for critical analysis, Jackson jeopardizes the structure of the whole.
In summation, then, I think the film suffers from mostly minor flaws, and those flaws, unfortunately, appear to be the result of overconfidence on the part of the filmmakers. On the whole, this bodes ill for the final film. The narrative structure of the remaining tale does not require quite the degree of dependence on CG imagery as employed in this film, however. There are many more peaks and valleys in the narrative yet to come. It is hoped that Jackson will refrain from further wholesale additions and inventions as he completes the trilogy.