The Two Towers - An Opinionated Rant
I think the most significant difference from FOTR, in theatrical terms, is the fact that the movie switches (by necessity) between 3 different tales, while the first one (also by necessity) was trapped following the one party. My main (only?) complaint of FOTR was that I did not feel the sense of scope I felt while reading the book. The books describe a world that feels vast, stories of heroes and ancient places are often left unfinished, or barely mentioned, creating a grand, ancient and mythical world. The first movie felt linear, too focused. Having to tell three stories at once surely seemed like a problem for PJ, but I see it as a blessing. The world opens up a little more.
I had heard reports that TTT had been "sexed up for the masses". But much of the Aragorn / Arwen tangent follows an important and parallel thread, highlighting the fact that the Elves are leaving Middle Earth, and the significance of the fact. Some of this was included in the extended FOTR, but cut out for the big screen version. It's an aspect of the novel that needs to come across somewhere, I was not so troubled with it being here. I was, however, disappointed with the amount of time spent directly on the Aragorn / Arwen / Eowyn tension, the description of Arwen as a mortal being patently contradictory, and Aragorn going over the cliff was cheap, even insulting. Even so, not as bad as I had feared.
I'm about to get into some specifics of this movie, but before I continue, I must convey a point that PJ himself makes in his DVD commentary...
(if you don't want to read any movie spoilers, or have any preconceptions going into this one, stop reading NOW!!)
... he does not like magic in movies. This is why Gandalf and Saruman fight somewhat physically in FOTR. That scene worked very well, I thought. But if you don't like magic, don't do a story in which central features (Gandalf, Saruman, Sauron, Elves in general, places, certain named swords) are magical, because you will screw it up for everybody who does. I'm not asking for fireballs, I just want what's in the book.
The fight between Gandalf and the Balrog is visually entertaining, and makes for an impressive opening, but it is somewhat ridiculous: Gandalf bests the Demon with a sword. Yes, ok, its glowing a bit, and the wounds shine with a white light. This is not, however, the thunder and lightning created by the battle atop the Misty Mountains that we hear of in the novel. Looking back, this was a herald for the rest of the film.
Our introduction to Gollum is abrupt, but that caused me no concern. Gollum is truly marvellous, both as a computer effect and as a character. Some of his schizophrenic scenes are genuinely disturbing, and his is at once both likeable and wretched. Satisfaction.
The Emyn Muil and the Dead Marshes were also recreated to my liking, the crags being almost wilfully mystifying, and the dead marshes appropriately horrific. The Ents, too, were ok by me, although I have heard criticism. I don't think the ancient and mythical nature of the Ents altogether comes across, and I have a feeling that to people who are not familiar with the book they may actually appear to be a bunch of simpletons, which is unfortunate. Fangorn (the forest) itself is obviously ancient, dark and twisted, and almost separated from the rest of Middle Earth. With knowledge of the book to fill in the blanks, the Ents worked for me.
Edoras is much smaller than I had visualized, but the location was otherwise well picked, and did not lend itself to a much larger city. I was disappointed at the haste with which weapons were laid at the door of the hall. The book makes an important point here, and again later at Helm's Deep: Aragorn carries Anduril, to the wonder of the men who encounter him. In fact, I am going to quote a passage from the novel that was notably missing from the movie:
"Slowly Aragorn unbuckled his belt and himself set his sword upright against the wall. 'Here I set it,' he said; 'but I command you not to tough it, nor to permit any other to lay hand on it. In this Elvish sheath dwells the Blade that was Broken and has been made again. Telchar first wrought it in the deeps of time. Death shall come to any man that draws Elendil's sword save Elendil's heir'.
The guard stepped back and looked with amazement on Aragorn. 'It seems that you are come on the wings of song out of the forgotten days', he said. 'It shall be, lord, as you command'"
To my mind this passage should have been reproduced word for word in the movie. Harking back to my first point, it adds depth and mystery to the world of Middle Earth, and the words themselves are artfully constructed. It also shows the power that Aragorn could wield, and the loyalty and respect he may command. This whole aspect is swept aside yet again at Helm's Deep. Lost because PJ didn't want Aragorn pulling out a broken sword in FOTR. Geez, give the guy two swords, problem solved. Annoyance.
The Ents' march upon Isengard. Obviously an opportunity for some special effects, and skilfully executed, I thought. Despair at the destruction of the Forest. Wonder at the power of these ancient creatures. Laugh at the teeny Orcs being squished underfoot Cheer as the industry of Saruman is torn apart and drowned.
Frodo and Sam go to Osgiliath, and the manner of Faramir. This was a time waster, and besides that, just plain wrong. At some point during the commentary on the FOTR DVD one of the speakers mentions something about doing a scene "better" than the book. Well it looks to me like they decided they could write the story better than Tolkien, and therefore changed things on no more than a whim This entire episode was utterly pointless, and I barely remember Sam's grand speech at the end, so redundant it seemed. PJ has said he needed to tempt Faramir in order to show the power of the ring. I totally disagree, and am of the opinion that Faramir could, instead, have been kept in the dark as to what, exactly, Frodo carried, as initially happens in the novel. Had it been done this way, the power of the ring would come across in the unease and secrecy of Frodo and Sam; it would have saved us 20 minutes of movie time better spent elsewhere; and it would not have left ROTK the task of reconstructing Faramir to the audience's final satisfaction.
The centrepiece of the movie: The battle at Helm's Deep. Yes, it is an excellent movie battle. But some elements were sorely lacking...
Tension had been built throughout the movie in the march of the Uruk-hai, yet in the few minutes before the fighting started it was not amplified. In the novel, as the storm rolls in, the army is made visible only by flashes of lighting, as a tide coming to crash against the wall of the fortress. I can see a movie version of this in my own mind, it would work beautifully, but it was not there. Instead, the tension is actually broken, with Gimli falling further and further out of the "real" movie. He is starting to feel much like the sidekick thief-clown in the awful "Dungeons and Dragons" movie, which is a horrifying thought. Were I JRD, I would be seething.
During the battle Aragorn and Gimli make a sneak attack against the flank of the Orcs lined up on the bridge to the Citadel. In the novel it is Aragorn and Eomer, with Gimli jumping in a minute later. OK, no big deal, but for this (from the novel):
"'Anduril!' cried Aragorn. 'Anduril for the Dunedain!'
Charging from the side they hurled themselves upon the wild men. Anduril rose and fell, gleaming with white fire. A shout went up from wall and tower: 'Anduril! Anduril goes to war. The Blade that was Broken shines again!'."
As before this significant moment, the unifying, empowering presence of Aragorn with Anduril is completely overlooked by the movie. With so much of this left out, the inspiration provided by Aragorn during ROTK will needlessly become as abrupt as many other aspects of the film adaptation.
Finally the dawn comes, and the riders make their charge from the Gates of the keep. This scene is entirely ruined by PJ and his anti-magic stance.
Here's what is supposed to happen. I am going to quote much from the book, as it is the disparate grandeur of novel and movie that fuels my commentary here:
Aragorn comes out alone onto the fortress wall during the night, and in a short and memorable exchange with the van of the orc army, sows the seed of fear
"You do not know your peril".
The horn blows at dawn, breaking the morale of the orcs and feeding courage into the men.
"All that heard the sound trembled. Many of the Orcs cast themselves on their faces and covered their ears with their claws".
The king rides from the gates, his ENTIRE ARMY (of about 2000, not 300) following him out.
The orcs and wild men, having lost their will at the sounding of the horn and the rising of the sun, turn and flee from the inspired men.
"They cried and wailed, for fear and great wonder had come upon them with the rising of the day."
The company halts as they push back to the Dike upon seeing, to their amazement, that a forest now looms in the ravine.
"Darkness was under them. Between the Dike and the eaves of that nameless wood only two open furlongs lay. There now cowered the proud hosts of Saruman, in terror of the king and in terror of the trees."
Gandalf appears from the west, followed by an army of men on foot. His arrival is the final terror that breaks the army of Saruman, and sends them to their destruction
"The host of Isengard roared, swaying this way and that, turning from fear to fear. (...) The White Rider was upon them, and the terror of his coming filled the enemy with madness. The wild men fell on their faces before him. The orcs reeled and screamed and cast aside both sword and spear. Like a black smoke driven by a mounting wind they fled. Wailing they passed under the waiting shadow of the trees; and from that shadow none ever came again".
Synopsis: The army of Isengard is defeated by terror on 4 fronts (the horn, the forest, the dawn, and Gandalf) in a truly grand and satisfying manner. The Orc army is, notably, NOT defeated by a vastly inferior army physically battling them into bloody heaps, because that would make no sense at all.
Here's what happens in the movie:
The horn sounds, but the Orcs don't really seem to care.
A handful or riders (30 or so), inspired by the King and the sounding of the horn, break the vanguard of this ten thousand strong army.
Gandalf appears from the east, and charges his (mounted) army down into the flank of the Orcs, who stand there waiting, steady and with spears set.
The sun coming over the eastern hill momentarily blinds the Orcs allowing Gandalf's force to successfully breach the flank. (groan)
There is no forest at all
Synopsis: The remainder of a ten thousand strong army that was about to overcome Helm's Deep is destroyed by the brute force of an army of about one thousand.
I'm not entirely sure on this, because we don't even see this battle. We see Gandalf's army hit the orcs, and then we see our heroes ride to the crest of a hill, and Gandalf basically says "hey look, we won".
I didn't want fireballs, I didn't want lightning from the fingertips, but this outcome is entirely unbelievable without pure terror on the part of Saruman's host, which is inspired by the magic and mystery of the dawn, horn, forest, and Gandalf. Did the scene in FOTR where all the Orcs and Goblins fled from the Balrog not help to portray that demon as truly great and terrible? Could Gandalf, who bested that demon, not have been treated with equal respect? No, instead we get an old geezer charging an army of murderous monsters.
The lesson from this movie is: do not rewrite Tolkien's story without a darn good reason, for he is vastly your superior.
Unfortunately, it's too late.
Fortunately, thanks to some skilful use of special effects, a lot of talented actors, and superlative source material, it's still a pretty good movie.