The majority of the mainstream movie critics liked the Two Towers. Several quite unaccountably thought it better than Fellowship of the Ring. However, the Guardian's movie critic Peter Bradshaw gave his review column over to a sustained sneer against the movie and against Tolkien in general.
Bradshaw's main premise is that Tolkien is mainly liked by obsessive weirdoes whom he christens 'Tolkies.' Responding to this kind of thing is, of course, self-defeating. The fact that I can be bothered to write a response by definition makes me a Tolkie, which both invalidates my opinions and proves Bradshaw's point.
I don't, by the way, regard the term 'Tolkie' as an offensive slur; but I am slightly puzzled as to why he thinks that making up funny names is a useful form of literary criticism. I could give you salient reasons why I don't think that Charles Dickens quite deserves his literary status, but calling his readers 'Dickies' wouldn't be part of it.
Almost the whole of Bradshaw's article takes the form of ad hominem attacks—or if you want to be charitable fun-poking—at the expense of Tolkien readers leaving me none-the-wiser about why he didn't like the film. He doesn't say 'it’s a bad and silly film' so much as 'it’s the kind of film that bad and silly people like.' I can only spot two specific criticisms of the movie in the review. He finds the juxtapositioning of the fall of Isengard with the victory at Helms Deep 'clotted and muddled'; and in some unspecified way, he finds the movie (up until the battle) 'boring'. Oh and he finds the acting 'bland'.
As to the rest, he comes up with a lot of cod-psychological explanations about why people like Tolkien. He claims that the first film was treated
with baffling reverence by adults showing a misplaced sentimental loyalty to their earlier 12-year-old selves.
He wonders whether the 'need' of Tolkien fans
to establish an emotional relationship to this intricate but sterile world (is) a symptom of regressive disorder.
Do grown-ups need to worry their heads about Frodo and Bilbo?
He dismisses the whole film as 'interminable nerdish nonsense.'
This is an easy kind of argument to write. If you can come up with a reason why a certain person might have a certain opinion you can dismiss that opinion without bothering to say why, or even if, it is wrong. Alistair Campbell is a past master of it: if Ken Livingstone thinks that the firemen should be paid more, he responds that this is exactly the sort of thing that you would have expected Ken Livingstone to say and moves on.
Bradshaw thinks I like Tolkien because of 'loyalty to my twelve year old self' and due to 'regressive disorder'. It's possible I suppose. It's equally possible that Bradshaw dislikes it because he associates fairy tales with children and wants everyone to think that he is terribly, terribly grown-up. Perhaps this is the result of some deep-seated insecurity—maybe some repressed childhood trauma. (I'd speculate that there was a strict and terrifying English Nanny who used to read him scary fairy tales when he'd been naughty.) Anything is possible. But discussing my regressive disorder and Bradshaw's childhood traumas won't tell us a single thing about the merits or demerits of a particular book or film.
The idea that Lord of the Rings is a book for children is one that I have always found rather hard to understand. The Just William books pretty obviously address the specific concerns and interests of pre-teen boys; although some grown-ups and gurls nevertheless find them funny. Jane Eyre equally obviously addresses the specific concerns of teenaged girls, although it has been read and enjoyed by adults and even some men. The Hobbit is a coming-of-age story specifically directed at children, although grown-ups occasionally read it. Lord of the Rings is just as obviously about the disillusionment of late middle-age: a 'rather bitter book' as Tolkien himself admitted. I often wonder if the sorts of people who say that they find Tolkien 'childish' ever got beyond the first chapter.
Some people don't see the point of Lord of the Rings. Fine. There is, as the fellow said, no accounting for taste. I don't see the point of association football. Lots of people seem to quite like it. Many of these 'soccies' first played football as children—there used to be a law that required all boys to spend some time playing football or cricket each week. Maybe the national obsession with ball games is a regressive disorder. Who cares? I don't have any problem with people playing a game that I don't happen to like—except when they start rioting which, to give them their due, Tolkien readers hardly ever do.
In a country which regards the loss of cricket match as a national disgrace and reports events in radio soap-operas on the front-pages of serious papers, I slightly take exception to being told that I am mentally unwell because I've read a particular novel several times.
Why does Bradshaw hate Tolkien—hate the existence of Tolkien hate the fact that anyone else likes it—so much? One explanation might be a kind of middle-class liberal English self-loathing; that state of mind in which we encourage Africans to be African and Frenchmen to be French but suspect that an Englishman trying to be English is probably some kind of eccentric or maybe even a racist. It may even be rabid English anti-intellectualism: never trust anything written by a professor. Certainly, Bradshaw sneers at the names Merry and Pippin:
two pert names which show Tolkien's donnish desire to create an intensely English mythology; I can just hear him and the other pipe-puffing Inklings approvingly rolling 'Merry' and 'Pippin' around their tongues.
The fact that the mythology is very English that Tolkien was a don and that the inklings approved of it seem to be regarded as obviously Bad Things. It is made worse by the fact that they smoked pipes. Why? Er…I don't know. He doesn't say. Refutation forms no part of argument, apparently.
Another explanation might be a knee-jerk reaction against anything with the slightest whiff of religion about it. At one point, he speculates about whether 'Tolkies' might one day become an actual religion in the same way that L Ron Hubbard's sci-fi works did. It is probably true that for many of us Tolkies the Lord of the Rings serves a quasi-religious function; we read it and re-read it rather like a sacred tome; the characters become part of our mental toolkit; we associate deep spiritual and emotional feelings with our favourite passages. Bradshaw says that it doesn't say anything very profound about good and evil. Possibly not—but people who have been deeply moved by (say) Frodo's mercy to Gollum or Boromir's madness and repentance feel that their moral world has been expanded by the experience. To resort to a cliché: the book speaks to our heart not our head. 'Emotional experience, feeling and intuition' seem to be part of what people mean when they talk about 'spirituality'. Lord of the Rings is a 'spiritual' book in that limited sense. As a mythological story it is certainly closer to the world of religion than to that of naturalistic narratives. If you already know that religion of any kind is a bad thing and that anyone who believes in religion is a bad person and if your newspaper regularly prints smug op-ed columns to that effect, then a widespread enthusiasm for this kind of book must be very hard to deal with.
But actually I think that there is a much simpler explanation. Bradshaw simply can't believe that anyone's taste differs from his own. This is a common enough mental disorder among both 'high brows' and 'low brows'. We have all met militantly ignorant people who affect to believe that no-one sincerely enjoys the arts: people who go to concerts and art galleries are merely pretending to enjoy themselves for complex ulterior motives. (That is why lowbrows call them 'pretentious'.) In 1964 a young left-wing journalist named Paul Johnson wrote an article claiming that young people did not really like the Beatles. He felt sure that young people still had the same idols that he had had when he was their age—'Milton, Wagner, Debussey, Matisse, El Greco, Proust.' In the same essay he asserted that Jazz had no musical value but that some intellectuals affected to like it in order to appear and I quote 'with it'. Interesting guy. I wonder what happened to him?
This, it is clear enough, is where Bradshaw is coming from. This is, after all, the man who accused Phantom Menace of being 'extraordinarily offensive' (rather than just, say, rather disappointing) and said that he quite enjoyed the animation in Yellow Submarine but that 'what lets it down are the bloody awful songs.' He does not like Tolkien so naturally no-one else can possibly like Tolkien; and since people obstinately continue to behave as if they did there must be some bizarre psychological explanation as to why they are reading a book that they can't possibly enjoy. It is the job of the critic to tell people what they ought to like and it must be pretty galling when they don't do as they're told.
Every work of art is in some sense a work in progress: a painting is never finished; only abandoned. It used to be assumed that once an artist had put his work in front of an audience he was finished with it and would go away and 'fail better' on something else.
So in the olden days what made it to the screen was what made it to the screen. We may regret the loss of the ending of the Magnificent Ambersons or the spiders in King Kong but there is no realistic prospect of ever seeing them—nor should there be. I think Spielberg started the rot with his fatuous re-make of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which added pointless sequences (surely the whole point of the original movie is that we don't follow Dreyfuss into the flying saucer?) and cut important ones (so that Dreyfuss has a huge mountain in his living room without us seeing how it got there.) And before you could say Blade Runner everyone was producing director's cuts, special editions and other travesties. I particularly enjoyed the TV version of Da Godfather in which Mr Coppola (who one would have thought would have known better) decided to stick the De Niro sequences in their chronological position at the beginning of the movie, depriving Godfather II of any point that it might have had.
Matters aren't helped by the fact that modern films are created in the editorial process rather than the script. We film a lot of material and then assemble a movie out of the material we have generated. The three hours that the audience spends in the cinema represents quite a small tip of quite a large iceberg. (I wonder if the filmmakers keep this sufficiently in their heads? Having created a beautiful set of Hobbiton and then spent weeks and weeks filming material there do they remember that the 5 minutes which makes it into the movie are all that we actually see?) Knowing that some of this un-used material will probably surface n a DVD or in a 'director's cut', it is hard to shake the felling that what we are watching in the cinema is edited highlights or a sneak preview or at the very best a first draft of the movie.
Rumour has it that Jackson's first 'dream' cut of Fellowship of the Ring ran to four hours; even the extended version only ran to three and half. So we should, perhaps, put off passing final judgments on Lord of the Rings until we see a full twelve-hour version some time in 2005. Until then, the only fair response to the truncated Faramir sequence in Two Towers is 'Well maybe that will make sense when I have seen the rest of it.'
In the meantime, we have to wonder whether the cinema version of Two Towers is a sequel to the cinema Fellowship or whether it is supposed to be watched in the context of the extended DVD version.
Evidence could be cited on both sides.
1: Merry (or as it might be Pippin) throws his brooch down while he is being abducted by the orcs. Aragorn finds it and says 'Not idly do the leaves of Lorien fall.' If you only saw the movie you don't know that the elves gave the hobbits brooches marked 'A souvenir from Lothlorien'; if you saw the DVD you do.
2: Sam gives Frodo Lembas to eat. Lembas has not been mentioned before, so he refers to it as 'Lembas bread' and makes a weak joke about foreign food. This seems to assume that you haven't seen the bit in the DVD where Galadriel gives the Fellowship a packed lunch. (Incidentally: Tolkien says that Lembas was an unconscious image of the Eucharistic bread. In the Fellowship DVD Jackson brilliantly represents this aspect by showing Merry and Pippin eating too much and belching.)
3: Frodo tells Gollum that Gandalf told him that his real name was Smeagal. Not unless you saw the DVD he didn't.
Hollywood movies often make use of apparently moral frameworks: characters express sentiments that are intended to be uplifting or spiritual or inspirational. Popular morals are 'follow your heart'; 'be true to yourself'; 'you can do anything if you try' and 'even a small person can change the future.' This makes it very hard for movies to deal with books that are routed in specific and concrete philosophies. Most good books say something; movies, almost by definition, cannot.
It is tempting to say that these 'morals' are meaningless. Certainly it is hard to see what you could do about them even if you wanted to. ('Follow your heart'—How? Why? Where to? What do you mean by my heart exactly?) They appear to be expressing points of view, but are actually just meaningless noise. They appear to be saying something but are in fact simply part of dramatic illusion that the movie is creating. A character needs to appear to be motivated; but if he is motivated by a belief in a particular religion, ideology or ideal then he will certainly alienate that section of the audience which disagrees with it. It is far easier therefore for his motivation to be so broad as to mean nothing at all—to have a hero who really strongly and vehemently believes in something ill-defined. The approach reached its consummation in original Star Wars trilogy in which the prime motivating factor was the Force that stood for…er…anything you like.
One of the great redeeming features of the Harry Potter books is that Rowling eschews big and meaningless moral themes and instead draws what might be called 'micro morals' when they arise naturally from her story. When Harry is trying to work out how to solve a problem in the Tri-Wizardry tournament, Moody advises him to ask himself what he is really good at and then apply that to the challenge. So while the other contestants use difficult spells, Harry simply applies his skill at Quidditch. This is a meaningful moral worth a hundred times more than every 'you can do anything if you try' double speak ever published.
In reality the Hollywood non-ethic is highly and offensively political. The basic message is one of self-reliance: 'If you believe in yourself you can achieve anything—happiness, love, wealth, the overthrow of the British Raj. You may believe yourself to be a coward, heartless, a fool, a character in someone else's soap; you may have every disadvantage in life—you may have hairy feet or be played by Tom Hanks or be very stupid or have lung cancer but you already have within yourself all that you need to overcome these limitations—which are in any case only self-inflicted. You can do anything if you try.' This is a deeply re-assuring message for the high-achievers who make movies. It says in affect 'We are rich and famous because we deserve it'. It is a very depressing message for the people who make their coffee. 'The fact that I am stuck in a dead end job cannot in any sense be blamed on global capitalism or the economic system; I am stuck in a dead end job because I don't believe in myself sufficiently to get out of it.' It bears comparison with those nineteenth century children's novels in which little crippled girls suddenly discovered secret gardens and threw their crutches away giving, disabled children the unmistakable message 'If you are confined to a wheel chair it is your own bloody fault.'
It is very sad to watch Jackson shoe-horning Tolkien into this un-morality. I await the threatened Narnia movie with considerable trepidation.
I think that the campaign to change the title of the movie as a mark of respect for those who died on 11-9-2001 started out as a joke; but the people who put together http://www.twotowersprotest.org/ show every sign of taking it seriously. Personally, I don't think that the petition goes nearly far enough: surely they ought to be calling for the banning of London on the grounds that it contains the Post Office Tower and the Tower of London, making Two Towers in all; and indeed the continent of Europe for including both the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Another basis for a petition might have been to try to persuade Jackson to get the identification of the Two Towers correct. He gives Christopher Lee a line to the effect that Isengard and Barad Dur are the two towers in question—the headquarters of Saruman and Sauron respectively. However Tolkien states that the title refers to 'Orthanc, the citadel of Saruman, and the fortress of Minas Morgul that guards the secret entrance to Mordor'. Some fans have suggested that it might in fact be Minas Tirith and Minas Morgul, the white tower and the black, a theory spoiled only by the fact that no-one in the book gets anywhere near Minas Tirith. Another possibility is that it refers to the Teeth of Mordor—the twin towers that guard the Black Gate.
It seems to me therefore that Jackson could have made everybody equally unhappy by abandoning 'The Two Towers' altogether and going with the much more cinematic title that Tolkien originally wanted: 'The Treason of Isengard.'
Based on Fellowship of the Ring I made the following predictions about Two Towers.
1: Arwen would fight at Helms Deep; she would bring the sword that was broken and is reforged to Aragorn.
2: Arwen would stop off at Lothlorien to have a chat with Galadriel and possibly bumping into Gandalf while he was being re-clothed in white.
3: Saruman would be unequivocally dead by the end of the movie to forestall any need for shire-scouring in Return of the King.
Since this was so successful let me tell you what I think will happen in part 3.
1: Arwen will not appear at Pelanor Fields. She is already on her way to the Grey Havens. Someone else—quite likely Elrond—will bring the sword to Strider. (I can't believe that they would have shown the shards of Narsil in Fellowship if it weren't going to be reforged sooner or later.)
2: The Paths of the Dead will be turned into a big battle with zombies.
3: Sauron will resume his physical form ride out from the Dark Tower and personally take part in the final battle. Either he will replace the Witch King at Pelanor fields, to be challenged by Gandalf and deaded by Merry (which I would deplore); or he will replace the Mouth of Sauron at the gates of Mordor (which wouldn't be that bad an idea.).
4: Denethor will be suffering from the same demonic possession as Theoden and Gandalf will try (and fail) to exorcise him. When he says 'let us all burn, burn, burn' he will overact terribly.
5: When Gollum lops off Frodo's finger there will be flashbacks to Isildur castrating Sauron at the Last Alliance.
5: Frodo will not return to the shire. After the last battle everyone will ride to the Grey Havens to wave bye-bye to the last ship. Arwen will be lingering on the shore. Elrond will be telling her that if she doesn't go she will regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but some day. Just before the boat departs Aragorn will come over the horizon, wearing his crown and therefore in silhouette. Arwen will leap out of the boat and run to him. Elrond will see that there is nothing he can do and give Arwen's seat on the boat to Frodo. The boats will sail. Sam will go back to the Shire alone. It will be closing time at the Green Dragon. Rosie will be waiting for him. He will go in and order a drink. 'Well I'm back' he will say uncertainly.