Many reviews have been posted here since the release of Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers, and even many more feedback written in response. I believe most of us have seen the movie by now and are able to appreciate what our friends are saying about it in the reviews. Some we agree with, some we do not. This time I intend neither to repeat what has been said nor to comment on them, but to offer a (largely) objective view of the reason why the movie is what it currently is.
A lot has been said about the liberties Peter Jackson (PJ) has taken in translating Tolkien’s Two Towers into the big screen. Many are apalled at how the storyline has changed, how some characters bear little resemblance to the ones we read about in the books. I believe PJ has a reason for all of this, and it’s not because he wants to usurp Tolkien’s place and prove to everyone that he can write a better tale. No, it is all about Focus, the focus of the movie, and the focus of the audiences with their varied levels of familiarity with Tolkien’s world.
PJ knew that when he began to work on the trilogy, he must not only get Tolkien fans to watch it, but also those others who are unfortunate enough not to have been previously acquainted with the professor’s wonderful works. Having read the books (and for some of us, all the books that comprise the histories of Middle Earth!), it is easy for fans like us to identify or sympathise with each and every character, to be able to understand their purposes and motivations from all angles, and to appreciate the positions and perspectives of whole races, like the Ents and the Elves, for example. We must not forget, however, that the rest of the audience do not have this privilege, that it is almost impossible to cram all that information into the few hours that PJ has to work with without getting everyone confused, a confusion that may well alienate the greater part of the audience totally from the overall beauty of Tolkien’s work.
Alas, in movie-making history, this is a well-known problem with a standard solution, and it is to stubbornly maintain the focus of the story on a select few themes and to focus character development solely on the main characters; in this case, almost exclusively upon the members of the fellowship of the ring, the group that the audience started with, the group that the audience trust would take them through hell or high water and become the main focal point of their cinematic experience. If we look closely beyond all of the plot and character changes in the movie, we will, I believe, come to realise that most of them were done with the purpose of underlining specific themes or highlighting certain aspects of the main characters’ personalities in their quest to save Middle Earth. Everything that the main characters do are dramatised, showing the conflicts within themselves and their heroic ability to get a grip and beat the odds. If you don’t have time to elaborate too much on all of the other supporting characters, you might as well use them to make the main characters look good.
Why do the Ents need to be tricked into attacking Isengard? It is to make Pippin look more resourceful, to make him grow into a character we would love more than just because of his comical personality. Theoden despairs so that Aragorn’s firm resolve and unyielding fighting spirit stands out all the more. Faramir is less noble because he must not (in PJ’s opinion) be shown as stronger than Frodo, because then a lot of the audience would start to question why, and because they don’t have the background that we avid fans of the book do, they would find it very hard to understand any reasoning the movie might have had to offer within the short time that PJ has at his disposal. And of course, through it all runs the theme of the lure and corruption of the Ring (Faramir again), and to a lesser extent the willingness of the races to unite despite their differences in the face of great evil (the Elves at Helm’s Deep). Haldir, of course, takes over the role of Boromir and stands for the movie’s third theme of self-sacrifice, the noble friend sacrificing himself for the greater cause. Well, somebody had to die at Helm’s Deep, somebody had to pay the price and put more burden of conscience on Aragorn’s shoulders. And Haldir is somebody we’ve seen before (albeit a great deal less than Boromir), somebody Aragorn called friend.
Having said all of the above, I must confess that knowing the reasons why PJ did what he did does not necessarily mean I’d have to agree with his approach. There are definitely ways to make Pippin seem more resourceful without ending up making the Ents look stupid. Showing Rohan and Theoden for the proud and brave people that they are would not necessarily result in us looking at Aragorn and Gandalf with lessened respect. The exorcism of Saruman is acceptable I think, if it is done to emphasise how evil he has become and how long his arms are beginning to reach, and even then this would only be necessary if it has not been shown adequately enough. Maybe if the fallen wizard had been shown to be evil in a more sly and insiduous nature as in the book instead of an outright rebel, this might not have been necessary.
In general, I would not object to making changes that emphasise certain aspects of the story or the characters, but doing so at the expense of the richness of Tolkien’s characters, world and background (such as the Ents’ unique nature, Rohan’s proud tradition, Faramir’s noble heart, and Saruman’s not so straightforward conversion to the dark cause), this does not only disappoint fans of the book, but also gives a misleading and not very fair impression of Tolkien’s work to non-readers. Still, one can always hope that the interest stirred up by the movie would encourage some of the latter to go on and read the real story. Indeed, it is now our responsibility – those of us who have read the book and who have friends that have not – to gently point out the richness of Tolkien’s world and encourage them to go behind the scenes and find out what they are missing from the movies.
Of course, I am still holding back with regards to Arwen; are the scenes there to reinforce our perception of Aragorn’s resolve despite losing his loved one (and Arwen’s self-sacrifice), or are they – pray not – simply a means of getting rid of her so that the (unenlightened) audience would find it easier to accept Aragorn and Eowyn’s budding relationship later on?
And the scene with Frodo and the nazgul; I have very very big reservations regarding this one. I can try my best to see how the scene might make Faramir ‘understand’ Frodo and his quest more, but I’m afraid this would be lost on many people. Most of all, of course, I fear that this scene would only contrive to make Sauron look stupid. Unless we are shown clearly in the third movie that the little episode has alerted the Dark Lord, many of us would probably lose our respect for the Great Enemy, and consequently, for the dangers facing the fellowship’s quest.