A towering work
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers confirms what was clear last year with the release of The Fellowship of the Ring. In filming J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy about the battle between good and evil during the third age of Middle Earth, Peter Jackson is working on one of the supreme achievements in the history of motion pictures. Can Tolkien’s novels be considered great literature? Despite their virtues, I don’t think so. But I’m sure that both of Jackson’s films are great movies. I can’t imagine that the third film—The Return of the King, coming next year—won’t be just as spectacular; Jackson isn’t likely to blow it in the home stretch.
The story: The fellowship of the ring has been broken, with one dead and the rest scattered and unaware of what’s happened to the others. Hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are on their way to Mordor to destroy the ring of power, followed by the foul creature Gollum (a dazzling digital character modeled on actor Andy Serkis). Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) have been taken prisoner by the monstrous Uruk-Hai army, and the man Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) have gone to alert King Théoden of Rohan to the growing menace.
Last year, Jackson and his co-writers, Frances Walsh and Philippa Boyens, licked the first and perhaps biggest problem of Tolkien’s trilogy: the fact that the story doesn’t actually get rolling until the second volume (it’s really an 850-page story with a 450-page prologue). Here (joined by a new writer, Stephen Sinclair), they hit the ground running, with a flashback of the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) plunging through the Mines of Moria as he battles the fiery Balrog. It would be the climactic money scene in any other movie, but Jackson starts out with it and builds from there. The Two Towers moves like lightning, culminating three short hours later in the battle of Helm’s Deep, the first great clash of the war of the rings and one of the most spectacular scenes ever filmed.
The bedrock of Tolkien’s original story was the legend of the Ring of the Niebelungen, but he dressed it with references to myths, legends and folklore from all over the world—Norse, Celtic, Greek and Roman tales—that gave his story the feeling of having universal roots. The genius of Jackson’s approach is that he uses a complementary network of references to films and draws on a more recent (i.e. more familiar to today’s audience) mythology to underscore the universality of Tolkien’s story.
It’s more subtle than the sort of spot-the- reference game we get from someone like Brian De Palma; Jackson doesn’t wave it like a flag. Anyone might notice the references to The Wizard of Oz, maybe even those to Wolfgang Petersen’s The NeverEnding Story. But who will spot the references to Robert Mulligan’s The Other and Henry Hathaway’s How the West Was Won? All the same, they’re there, and others are there as well.
Jackson adds a visual layer of mythology to the emotional and narrative layers already inherent in Tolkien’s story even as he brings Tolkien’s characters and places to perfect life. (Again, Jackson makes skillful use of the unfamiliar landscapes of his native New Zealand, enhanced by computer-generated imagery.)
The Two Towers departs more from the text than the first film did. In Fellowship, the changes to Tolkien’s work were mostly in what was left out. Here, though, Jackson and company make more substantial changes in the story by rearranging scenes, adding subtle crypto-religious elements and ending his film before the point at which the book ends (by contrast, the first film ran past the end of its book). Most important, Jackson expands the climactic battle of Helm’s Deep far beyond what it was in the book. But, through it all, Jackson and his cast and crew still capture the spirit of Tolkien—impeccable, sure-footed and unerring.
The Two Towers is another masterwork, and it’s going to be a long year until The Return of the King.