The Two Towers

With the Hobbit films having run their weary course, and 10 years having passed since The Lord of the Rings wrapped up its home video run, the time seems right to revisit my reviews of the Rings films.

The Nature of “Story”

In Tolkien’s novel The Two Towers, Sam and Frodo take a little time to rest and philosophize as they approach Cirith Ungol. They talk about the story in which they find themselves, and about the nature of Story in general. Not surprisingly, Tolkien’s Hobbits observe that we don’t hear about all stories: the unlucky or the unfaithful are not memorialized. No; it’s those who stick it out to the end that we hear about, those who persevere to the conclusion of their quest.

Of course, that’s not entirely true, nor has it ever been. But it’s certainly true of the kind of tale in which Frodo and Sam find themselves. And it’s as true of Peter Jackson’s movies as it is of Tolkien’s books.

David Wenham as Faramir in The Two TowersJackson’s is a Different Story

Jackson’s filmed version of The Two Towers is not the same story as Tolkien’s. The titular towers are not even the same as those emphasized by Tolkien: Orthanc and Barad-dûr have been substituted for Minas Morgul and Minas Tirith. The framework of Jackson’s story is provided by the Axis of Evil which hems in and ravages Rohan and Gondor; Tolkien’s framework places more emphasis on the battle for right, waged in the shadowlands which form between darkness and light.

With a different framework come different details. The story line of Jackson’s movie departs from Tolkien’s text in more marked and radical ways than did the previous installment. This comes as no surprise to Tolkien fans, however, as the many teasers and trailers for The Two Towers give up many of Jackson’s secrets fairly easily.

It’s Not Just the Plot

So when seeing Jackson’s movie, we find that Éowyn plays a very different role for Jackson than she did for Tolkien. After all, her voice is featured more, perhaps, in the previews than in the entirety of Tolkien’s novel. We know that she goes not to Dunharrow, but to Helm’s Deep; she gets far closer to Aragorn than Tolkien ever let her. And this is only one of many such details that change in Jackson’s story.

It’s sufficient to say that the well-read Tolkien buff will find plenty to squirm about in The Two Towers, if there’s plenty of squirm in the buff. But such details are really not the way to measure any story, much less Jackson’s. Plot variations are just the window-dressing for what the story is really about. Why is Jackson’s story particularly worth telling? Why is it particularly worth watching?

It’s About Responsibility

In The Fellowship of the Ring, we saw a very different Aragorn and Arwen than Tolkien envisioned. In The Two Towers, we see more of them, and it’s not just more of the same. We also see a very different Theoden, and a different Faramir. Why are they different? Why has Jackson given us consistently conflicted characters where Tolkien served up stock archetypes?

Jackson’s treatment of Arwen in The Two Towers is a good case study. We see more of her influence on Aragorn, physically and metaphysically. We see more of her in flashbacks, and in flash-forwards. We see more of the tension between her and Elrond than Tolkien even included in his Appendices. Arwen, like other Jackson characters, exhibits precisely what drives Jackson’s movies: the tension between being and becoming, and the responsibility that comes with free will and the exercise of choice. You may want to reject what your family has stood for, Jackson tells his audience, but there will be a price to pay if you do. Count the cost, as Jesus told His disciples, and pay the piper when he calls.

It’s About Redemption

It’s also no spoiler, even for those who have never read the books, that Gandalf makes a return engagement in The Two Towers. Having fallen into the abyss with the Balrog in Moria, he emerges victorious and is sent back to aid in the defense against the onslaught from Mordor and Isengard. For Tolkien, this was a major event. For Jackson, it’s merely a presage of what’s to come. Time after time, Jackson’s characters appear to fall, only to rise again. It’s as if Jackson were enthralled by the show-stopping musical number in the middle of Big Idea’s Jonah, and determined that the God of Second Chances reigns over Middle-earth as well.

Of course, the repeated motif of victory over death points precisely to the evangelium which Tolkien designed into his story: the good news of the victory of Christ over sin, the victory of mercy over judgment, the victory of life over death. Tolkien called the effect eucatastrophe. Even Jackson’s Boromir, we will remember, redeemed himself with his valor in defense of Merry and Pippin, and with his dying fealty to Aragorn. The Two Towers is all about such redemption, and sets the stage for The Return of the King.

It’s About Faithfulness

Finally, and ultimately, Jackson’s movie is about the faithfulness to be found even in seemingly broken fellowship. The image of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli gamely pursuing the marauding Uruk-hai indelibly defines the guiding heart of The Two Towers. Because of the chosen framework for his story, Jackson’s movie is darker than Tolkien’s. Because of the details that hang from his framework, his movie is more grisly, and may be hard for many to watch, particularly children.

But in the end, Jackson’s movie makes a strong case for perseverance; for faithful service to those you’ve sworn to uphold; and for standing by the right thing, after all has been considered and doubts have been weighed. Do the right thing, Jackson says, and do it whatever the cost.