Books to Film: The Two Towers

Time has a way of changing your perspective on things, and favourite movies and books are no exception. The article below was originally published in 2004; and since then I’ve reread The Two Towers and rewatched the movie version. So rather than just tinker with this I decided to let it stand, with some second thoughts added in.

I still like both book and movie — but they are very, very different creatures.

Director Peter Jackson had a thankless task in adapting the second part of The Lord of the Rings for the big screen.

The difficulty lies in the fact that Tolkien originally intended The Lord of the Rings to be a single volume. His publisher balked at this; it was too much of a risk for a book whose only known audience consisted of readers of The Hobbit — in many ways a vastly different book. Thus the story was published in three volumes.

Actually, a large part of this was due to the cost of paper in postwar England; and the publication of the final volume, The Return of the King, was held up because Tolkien was still working on the Appendices to be included in it.

However, what is integral to reading it is understanding that it is actually separated into six books (two per volume), each with its own narrative thrust. The first half of The Two Towers, then, is Book III, and the second half is Book IV.

With the main characters setting off in different groups, Tolkien took a daring approach to telling the story: he left readers in the dark about what was happening to most of them for long stretches. Thus, at the beginning of The Two Towers, we don’t know what has happened to Frodo and Sam, nor the other two hobbits, Merry and Pippin, after the orcs carried them away. The story follows Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli until they find Merry and Pippin, and even then they don’t know what has become of Frodo and Sam.

Book Four takes us back to the point when Frodo and Sam disappear, and we learn what happened to them–but without any change in scene to the other characters.

While this may seem annoying, it actually creates great dramatic tension. The reader learns only as much Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, and though their adventures among the horse-lords of Rohan are exciting, the question of what will happen to Frodo and the Ring looms large. Tolkien knows how much his characters can know about what is going on, and he plays it for all it’s worth.

You can see an extended discussion of this here. I seem to be totally obsessed with the way Tolkien structured The Two Towers.

Jackson, in adapting the book with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, abandoned this narrative structure completely, even excising large parts of the story to include them in his third movie. Surprisingly, he continued to add sub-plots, most notably in connection with the siege at Helm’s Deep, which rates one chapter in the book, but becomes the movie’s main conflict.

The more I think about Tolkien’s story, the more I think changing the structure is what resulted in the changes Jackson et. al. made. I think he was right, for example, to move the death of Boromir to the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, where it has far greater impact. Not only does it provide some kind of redemption for Boromir as part of the movie’s story, it also violates the Hollywood norm of only one character dying disappearing just to show you they’re all at risk.

However, by making Helm’s Deep the climactic conflict of the movie, everything else has to orbit around it, even the Frodo-Sam-Gollum story. And unlike in the book, where Gollum’s decision to lead the hobbits into Shelob’s lair is seen earlier, in the movie it is hinted at only at the end, and the encounter with Shelob is removed entirely.

As well, the telling encounter when Frodo and Sam meet Faramir — in which Faramir has a surpisingly noble reaction to the Ring — is also completely changed. Faramir captures the hobbits to bring them back to Minas Tirith. Fans of the book-Faramir’s selflessness cried foul over Jackson’s handling of the character.

David Wenham as Faramir in Peter Jackson's Lor...
David Wenham as Faramir in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Considering both versions, I still don’t know why the Faramir subplot was changed so drastically, or the whole journey to Osgiliath was introduced. Perhaps to give Faramir more screen time, to show how his decision to give up the Ring comes about — and, to be fair, in the movie he doesn’t lust for it the way his brother Boromir did — but this still falls flat. I enjoyed David Wenham’s performance, though I disliked the way they wrote the character.

Also surprising is the brothers’ dynamic with their father, Denethor, which is barely hinted at in the books (and even then only in The Return of the King — Boromir as the favoured, if impulsive and less wise, son of Gondor). That was only shown in a flashback scene in the extended edition of The Two Towers movie.

The movie has many memorable moments, particularly between Frodo and Sam and their reluctant guide, Gollum. As a computer-generated character in a movie full of special effects, Gollum still steals the show.

I still think this is true. Andy Serkis’s performance as Gollum via voice and motion capture utterly destroyed the previous iteration of CG characters epitomized by the ludicrously bad Jar Jar Binks of only a few years earlier. He showed a CG character could be dramatically successful.

This comes at the expense, however, of other characters such as Treebeard, whose subplot with Merry and Pippin is pared down to nearly nothing. Even in Jackson’s extended version of the movie, the focus is heavily on the Aragorn-Legolas-Gimli and the Frodo-Sam-Gollum threads of the plot. As a strict adaptation of the book, then, the movie falls short.

Treebeard is given more development in the extended edition, but I still feel there was too much earnest speechifying by Merry to convince the Ents to go to war — it just seemed forced.

There is also the issue of Elves from Lothlorien showing up suddenly to help at Helm’s Deep. This may be to show the solidarity of the Elves against the dark powers that was only hinted at in the books, but it still defies logic. How did they know to come? How did they get there before the Uruk-hai?

However, expecting moviegoers to keep three separate timelines running without cutting back and forth between them would have been disastrous. And Jackson still leaves his audience eager for the final part. With the movie’s running time of three hours, that’s no mean feat.

I still like the movie — there are many great moments and by and large the performances are great — Bernard hill as Theoden, Brad Dourif as Wormtongue, Miranda Otto as Eowyn, in addition to the main cast, though Gimli is unfortunately played for laughs instead of letting his natural humour (the grim body-count contest with Legolas, for example) shine through. And the design and cinematography are stunning. As much as Helm’s Deep takes on too much importance in the movie version, it’s one of the most exciting depictions of  a siege in any movie, fantasy or not.

The Two Towers
  • by J. R. R. Tolkien, 1954


The Two Towers
  • dir. by Peter Jackson, 2002

Originally published in WordWrap, 2004

For a blow-by-blow, er, critique of the movie version, see what other Puttin’ the Blog in Balrog bloggers, and Twitter at large, had to say during the latest live-tweeted drinkalong organized by SJ at BookSnobbery. Even a Billy Boyd facsimile popped in this time.



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