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Aftermath, Part Deux

Once again, a movie by Peter Jackson has exploded like a bomb in our midst, causing widespread chaos in the form of more opinions than there are stars in the skies.

I stand by my prediction (http://greenbooks.theonering.net/anwyn/files/080102.html). I did indeed like The Two Towers better than Fellowship of the Ring. And once again, as last year, I seem to find myself in a minority of sorts. Last year, most folks except a few of the diehardiest purists were praising Fellowship to the limits while I was a bit dubious. This year, many purists are outraged and foaming at the mouth while I am cautiously positive about Towers, though naturally not without reservations. Please mark that I am using words like "many" and "most," not "all" and "everybody." I am fully aware of the infinity of opinions, many of them embodied right at TORn itself in the Ringer Reviews section, and I do not mean to imply that even all purists are homogenous in their views.

My friend and party co-organizer Deane Geiken remarked in the theater after the film that it was quite possible that we were "inoculated" to Jackson’s particular style of changing things, and I think he’s quite right. The "dumbing down" of dialogue, the deletion of much back story and detail, and, of course, the mighty emphasis on action and slaughter–I expected that going in, so it was easier to focus on other things. Moreover, I found more things to praise in Towers than in Fellowship, and thus some of the painful lapses of purism were easier to swallow.

In Towers, Jackson seems to display a particular talent for pushing things just one or two levels of intensity higher than Tolkien took them, in order to create drama. Examples: 1) Théoden was under the control of Saruman via Wormtongue; Jackson took it to the next level and had Saruman actually psychically possessing Théoden’s soul. 2) Elrond was sorrowful about Arwen’s choice; Jackson took it to the next level and had him actively condemning it. 3) Treebeard was doubtful about involving the Ents in the strife; Jackson took it to the next level and had Treebeard actually say "No." 4) Last but not least, the Number One Lapse of the Year, Faramir was stern with Frodo and Sam and a bit doubtful as to what to do; Jackson took it to the next level and had him actually hold Frodo with the intent of sending the Ring to Minas Tirith.

The shocking thing, for me personally, is not that he did these things, but that, with the exception of Faramir, I can accept them. I have, possibly through "inoculation," softened my outlook a bit since last year and realized that the average moviegoer "off the street" needs tension and drama, and all of the above listed things injected that. Add to them things like Aragorn actually telling Arwen that she should desert him for the Havens and Legolas questioning Aragorn’s wisdom in remaining at Helm’s Deep, and you’ve got some drama in what otherwise would be a straight-up "We’re good, they’re bad, let’s fight them" situation. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always loved this about Tolkien–that the good guys trusted each other and worked with one another and didn’t bicker or doubt. When I started reading Robert Jordan, that was one of the things I Really Hated–the so-called good guys were constantly snapping and fighting and backstabbing and insulting and oh, it got on my nerves. But I think Jackson managed to inject some intrigue without ruining any of the above mentioned plot lines–with the exception, again, of Faramir.

My overall feel for the film, and a nutshell comparison to Fellowship, could be summed up thusly: In Fellowship, with the exception of Tom Bombadil, etc., they went everywhere they were supposed to go and did everything they were supposed to do, but so much of it felt hollow and lacking to me. Bree was a dark, nasty, beer-smelling, lice-scratching nightmare with no logic (Gandalf’s letter about Aragorn) or light-heartedness (the Inn song) to make up for it. Lothlórien was a shell of itself that not even the extended edition could entirely make up for–Sam’s line "Are you out of those nice shiny daggers?" in the EE made my stomach heave in protest. True, there were a few great scenes–Frodo and Gandalf in Moria, Gandalf and the Balrog in Moria, Boromir’s death, Weathertop–to try to offset them, but still, I felt rather let down initially last year. Whereas in Towers, they actually showed things that Tolkien didn’t describe to us but which he does say happened–notably Théodred’s death, the attacks on Rohan, and the evacuation of the people–and showed them with sensitivity and real feeling. Not to speak of the one name on everybody’s lips since the opening–Gollum!

Gollum has always made me cry in the books, and I cried at the CGI version as well. The split-personality debates, the despair when he thinks "Master" has betrayed him, the growing hopelessness regarding his redemption, all wind their way straight from the books to the film reels. Much has been said about Gollum and everybody knows how good he is, so I shall limit my remarks to this: He evoked a wonderful emotional response, just as he should. That, and the Taters scene with Sam. Priceless.

All of this acceptance and new sensitivity to the needs of the films as opposed to books has not blinded me, however, to the faults that I find most difficult to stomach. Namely:

For the record, I would like to state that I have absolutely no problem with Éomer saving the day rather than Erkenbrand at Helm’s Deep. Amalgamating characters, when done with believability and sensitivity, is a great way to save time and make sure we know our main characters better. What I do have a problem with is the continued total lack of character development for Gimli and his restriction to comic relief only. Even Legolas was a bit more complex this time, but not good ol’ Gimli, falling off his horse and just being a general blunderbuss. Sad, that.

For the record, I would like to state that I have absolutely no problem with Haldir bringing Elves to Helm’s Deep rather than Halbarad bringing Rangers. A bit ouchy on first blush, perhaps, but again, introducing myriads of extraneous unknown characters when you already have one on hand that would do the trick nicely is danger zone for filmmakers. What I do have a problem with is Jackson’s continued fetish for attempting to make us believe people are dead. He did it about three times with Frodo in Fellowship, and it was damned annoying every time. Here Aragorn is his target. That whole bit with him floating down the river is just … dumb. We who know the story are not in any danger of thinking Jackson is going to kill him off, and those who don’t know the story ought to be savvy enough about movie-making that they wouldn’t think it either. Yes, I get it that he wanted to show Arwen and the conflict there, but why not have him think about her while sitting around at Helm’s Deep? Thinking about the Elf while the human woman is actually in his sight would have been just as dramatic. Although it would have meant cutting Legolas’s brilliant bit of dialogue "You’re late. You look terrible." In Elvish, no less. Come on.

For the record, I would like to state that I have absolutely no problem with Treebeard at first refusing to take the Ents to war. As I said, it added drama. What I do have a problem with is the way he got turned around. Pippin: "Uh, wait, take us to Isengard." Treebeard (turning around): "Sure, okay, whatever." ?!?? Please. Even if he wanted to do it pretty much that same way, the dialogue could have been worlds better. Pippin could have outright told Treebeard what he would find and showed him where to find it and encouraged his rage. Just dumb. And if they’d done it earlier instead of showing so many shots of Pippin and Merry on his shoulders, he could have sent the Huorns to Helm’s Deep with Gandalf and Éomer. My colleague Corvar is pretty upset by that omission. It would even have been another chance for those geniuses who work for Richard Taylor to show their powers.

And now the mother of all story lapses: Faramir. My darling Faramir. He’s been a favorite character of mine for time out of mind, and you may say that colors my view on this, but I can safely say that’s not true. For support of that, I point to the thousands of others who are just as appalled at the drastic change in Faramir’s character. Yes, it was another example of what I said about Jackson taking things "to the next level," but in this case he went one level too far. Faramir was supposed to be the light side of Boromir’s temptation, not the same or even worse. While it’s true that in the book he wavers ("And here in the wild I have you: two halfings, and a host of men at my call, and the Ring of Rings. A pretty stroke of fortune! A chance for Faramir, Captain of Gondor, to show his quality! Ha!"), the crucial difference between him and Boromir is that he does not fall. Not even for a moment does he give way to the madness and lust of the Ring ("Alas for Boromir! It was too sore a trial!"). Boromir wavered, gave way to temptation, and fell, for however short a time. Faramir did not. Perhaps the screenwriters are unwilling to believe that anybody could resist so strong a temptation; perhaps they think we would not believe it. We would. Especially if we saw the struggle and the resistance. We would. What a shame that one of the most important psychological elements of the story (and Tolkien is all too often criticized for his handling of human psyches!) is thus maligned in an otherwise better film than the first.

So there you have it. As for the other stuff that needs to be in any normal "review," the acting and all, there’s not much to say. Brilliant cast, luminous acting, gorgeous sets. Miranda Otto and Bernard Hill are positive triumphs, and I enjoyed every second of them as well as looking eagerly forward to Éowyn’s exploits in the next film. A TORn reader wrote in to say that if Jackson monkeys with the Witch-king fight scene, she will be very disappointed, and I could not agree more. Let Otto do her thing, and don’t attempt anything other than what Tolkien wrote, because you will fail! Someone got hold of Jackson and Lesnie and leashed them a bit with regard to their sweeping shots; they’re toned down enough that they’re not overused as they were in Fellowship, and the result is far more satisfying. Same with the music–it was less obtrusive and more molded to the story this time, I felt.

For better or worse, there are my initial reactions. Undoubtedly, as with Fellowship, they will change some over time, and undoubtedly I will revisit the subject once or twice in the next year. Bottom line is I felt more in this one, and that should satisfy Jackson, since I’m sure that’s his primary aim all along. Bravo for a mighty effort, sir.


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