Saturday, August 30, 2008

Review - The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
2003 Hugo Winner for Best Long Form Dramatic Presentation
2003 Nebula Winner for Best Script

I said last week that I enjoyed Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings quite a bit and that hasn't changed in seven days. Since the three movies really run together it's impossible to judge one alone. So nearly all of my opinions regarding The Fellowship of the Ring apply to the The Two Towers.

A quick plot recap for those who need it; people spend a lot of time walking around and complaining and then some armies attack people. The ring still isn't in the volcano at the end of the movie.

So this time I wanted to talk about the adaptation process since The Two Towers contains what I think is the only misstep that Jackson made in adjusting the material for the screen (and I'll bet you won't be able to come up with which change I'm talking about).

Even more than most books a literal adaptation to the screen would have been a disaster with The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien takes a leisurely stroll through his world and many sections deflate the intensity of the core plot in a way that a movie would not be able to survive. It has a monstrously large cast even before you look at characters who just turn up for a chapter or two before vanishing never to be mentioned again. To work for a mass audience on the screen the book had to be tightened up considerably. While certain die hards may reject any modification made to the original text almost every single change was necessary for the plot to work on the screen.

The most immediate and obvious changes in The Two Towers are with Frodo's plot. It ends several chapters ahead of where it does in the book. The reason for this is obvious: how much action does Frodo's story have in The Return of the King? In the third part while the other characters are all rushing around and having exciting battles Frodo is trudging along not doing much besides being depressed. In fact since so much of the last part of the book is dedicated to even more endings than the movie portrayed the central conflict of Frodo's story arc is resolved very early in his part of The Return of the King. So they off loaded some action from Frodo's half of The Two Towers to The Return of the King in a necessary step to balance the third film.

In addition Faramir in the book is a very different character from Faramir in the movie but again this was necessary to deal with the lack of tension in Frodo's half of the novel. Tolkien's structure for the Frodo portion of The Two Towers allowed him to end on a cliffhanger that wouldn't have worked on the screen so he could have Faramir turn up to be the polar opposite of Boromir and then move on. Jackson gave Faramir an emotional arc in The Two Towers that might not have been completely effective but it was needed for theatrical audiences.

There's also good reasons behind the wargs attacking the refugees on the way to Helm's Deep and Aragorn's separation from the group. The attack is there to pick up a slow portion in the middle of the film with some light fluff that doesn't really detract from Tolkien's story. As an addition it helps smooth out the pacing of the movie and it doesn't undermine anything. Aragorn's separation is necessary to continuing his emotional arc; it's an excuse to squeeze in an Arwen flashback. In the book Arwen is hardly there and she's effectively completely missing in the The Two Towers so it was necessary to remind movie goers that she existed and she was the love of Aragorn's life even if a valkyrie was hitting on him.

And so it goes. The confrontation in the throne room needed a more direct hand by Saruman since he was going to be an off screen villain for the bulk of the film. The Ents needed to be trimmed back because most of those scenes in the book are just the hobbits hanging out in the forest waiting for them which wouldn't really play that well on screen. And Merry and Pippen needed to provide a reason for the Ents to attack because otherwise they would just be baggage for the entire movie.

So what is the change I don't like? It's one that is completely unnecessary, exists mainly in dialog, and changes what was a logical plot element in the book to Hollywood nonsense. In the book everyone recognizes that they do not have nearly enough men to fight the army of orcs on open ground so the plan is to retreat to Helm's Deep and hold out there until help can arrive. This makes a great deal of sense. In the movie Gandalf calls Theoden a coward for not wanting to take five hundred people against one hundred thousand in an open field. Yes the good guys always win but it's Hollywood reasoning that charging into a vastly superior force is somethign that will let them win instead of fighting a defensive battle. That was a completely unnecessary change and the only reason I can think of for it have been made is that some people didn't like the idea of the heroes retreating.

Any adaptation of The Lord of the Rings would have to deal with the problems that Jackson did. While another director might have done things differently I have a difficult time believing that another director would have been able to do the job significantly better. We would just wind up with a different set of complaints about the changes made. There's no reason to avoid the movie because of the changes to the book; most of them exist mainly to make the book work as a movie.