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The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Frances Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair and Peter Jackson, based on the epic by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Two Towers

Principal Cast
Elijah Wood -- Frodo Baggins
Ian McKellen -- Gandalf the Grey
Viggo Mortensen -- Strider/Aragorn
Sean Astin -- Samwise 'Sam' Gamgee
Liv Tyler -- Arwen Undómiel
Cate Blanchett -- Galadriel
John Rhys-Davies -- Gimli
Billy Boyd -- Peregrin 'Pippin' Took
Dominic Monaghan -- Meriadoc 'Merry' Brandybuck
Orlando Bloom -- Legolas Greenleaf
Hugo Weaving -- Elrond
Christopher Lee -- Saruman the White
Miranda Otto -- Éowyn
Brad Dourif -- Gríma Wormtongue
Karl Urban -- Éomer
Bernard Hill -- Théoden, King of Rohan
Andy Serkis -- Sméagol/Gollum
Past Feature Reviews
A review by Sean Russell

Fantasy is just not a genre that film-makers seem to "get": think of Willow and Dragonheart. There is a simple truth that film-makers miss: fantasy works best when it's played straight. It was one of Tolkien's great contributions to the genre: he applied the methods of realism to a novel of the fantastic. Film-makers don't seem to be able to do it without feeling they must make it comic, or mock the genre. Or by playing up the use of magic (there is actually very little overt magic in The Lord of the Rings books) with glowing objects and grand, swelling music.

To his credit, Peter Jackson, the director of the The Lord of the Rings films "gets" fantasy better than most members of his guild. But his understanding is less than complete, and it really shows in The Two Towers.

Compared to most fantasy films, The Two Towers is actually very good, but one cannot help make some comparisons to the books. It is inevitable, if not completely fair. Film is a visual medium, and for the most part, the visuals in The Two Towers are pretty impressive. Where Jackson falls down is in his understanding of Tolkien, and in the screenwriters' awkwardness with the genre and the language. Jackson comes to rely too much on visual effects, battles, and the aforementioned glowing objects (or people) and the inevitable swelling music.

There are a number of places where Jackson and his screenwriters decided to deviate from Tolkien's text and one has to wonder why. He completely changed the essence of Frodo's meeting with Faramir, and lost the entire polarity in the relationship of the two brothers, Faramir and Boromir, and their complex connection with their father. Instead of Faramir giving up the ring, when he has it in his grasp, because he is noble and thoughtful and a "wizard's pupil" (the opposite of his brother), he gives it up... well, it appears he gives it up because he sees Frodo stand on a wall of Ogiliath and offer the ring to the Nazgul. By all means, let's send the ring of power off with the short guy who's trying to give it to the enemy!

I fear this was all done so that Jackson could have a dramatic scene with Frodo standing on the wall and the flying Nazgul bearing down on him. But so much of the subtlety of the story was lost here. It is almost a tragedy.

There are other mistaken choices the director/writer team foist upon us. Tolkien would never have had Frodo say, "Why do you do that? Why do you run him down like that?" Tolkien's dialogue was always very carefully crafted -- he had a delicate ear for nuance -- hitting the tone just right with impressive consistency. The screenwriters are clumsy by comparison, and even when they use Tolkien's words, tend to edit them badly. Do they really think, "Let's hunt some orc," will pass as Tolkien?

There is, I'm sorry to say, yet another dwarf-tossing joke, and Gimli (John Rhys-Davis) is still only there for comic effect. Gimli was, in the books, somewhat comical, but never the parody he has become in the films.

There are, however, some wonderful things in this film. Gollum/Sméagol is so well-realized, it is almost a miracle. I held out no hope that they would manage such a creation. He is more complex than many of the human characters, and the melding of CGI with the actor's performance is uncanny.

I assumed the Ents would be laughable, but Jackson and his team have pulled them off, as well as anyone could.

Bernard Hill (King Théoden of Rohan) and Miranda Otto (Éowyn) both deserve credit, she especially for conveying much without language (I don't think Jackson has much faith in words). Edoras, the home of the Rohirrim, is a stunning setting, and the Rohirrim, in general, I think are true to Tolkien's vision.

The best things in the film are the battle scenes. The battle at Helm's Deep, which apparently took months to film, is gripping and the scale of it is tremendous. The sound of the enemy army outside, from the point of view of the women and children sheltered in the cave, is really disturbing.

As any fantasy writer will tell you, the middle book of a trilogy is the difficult one, and The Two Towers suffers from "middle movie" syndrome. When you don't have a natural beginning or end, giving the plot an arc that will carry the viewer is harder than it looks.

If the human moments in the film were as good as the visuals and the action, this film would really be a masterpiece. You don't need wizards wielding their staffs to have magic. You need actors creating moments, and directors who keep faith with the genre. You need someone to bring it all to life, make it real, and give it heart.

Having said all that, I still think it is one of the best fantasy films ever made -- not as good as The Fellowship of the Ring, but certainly strong enough to cause a craving for the third instalment.

Copyright © 2003 Sean Russell

Sean Russell is a fantasy writer living on Vancouver Island. He is the author of the recently released The Isle of Battle. It is Book Two of The Swans' War trilogy, published by HarperCollins EOS in North America and by Orbit in the United Kingdom. The first book is titled The One Kingdom. His web site features personal observations on writing his books including The Thief-Taker, co-written with Ian Dennis, the first in a new mystery series called Memoirs of a Bow Street Runner published under their pen name, T.F. Banks. His other books include the duology, The River into Darkness (comprised of Beneath the Vaulted Hills and The Compass of the Soul), the two-book series Moontide and Magic Rise (made up of World Without End and Sea Without a Shore) and his earliest books, The Initiate Brother and Gatherer of Clouds.

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