I went to see Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R Tolkien's Two Towers.
I smiled warmly at Gandalf's Miltonic plummet and the first appearance of Gollum.
'This is going to be okay,' I thought to myself.
Three hours later, the credits rolled and the theme song played. Was it me, or did it sound like something out of Les Miserables?
The house lights came up, and I promptly went into shock.
'I don't remember there being elves at Helm's Deep,' said a total stranger in the row in front of me.
'I don't remember any of that,' I gibbered.
I had a long list of quibbles with Fellowship of the Ring, but I was never in any doubt that it was a pretty successful attempt to translate books 1 and 2 of Lord of the Rings into a movie idiom. 'As good as could be expected under the circumstances' was about the rudest thing anyone sensible could say about it. My feelings towards the Two Towers ,on the other hand, can best be summed up as 'Hey….what?'
I didn't hate it. I am prepared to overlook the Elves at Helms Deep; the conflation of Eomer with Erkenbrand; dwarf-tossing; Frodo at Osgiliath; the fact that they eliminated Faramir and replaced him with a different character of the same name, and the fact that they eliminated Theoden and replaced him with a different character of the same name. The Ents were marvellous. Gollum was marvellous. The battle was very big. The Frodo-Sam strand worked very well and the Merry-Pippin strand worked pretty well.
But my question remains. 'What the heck does Peter Jackson think he is doing?'
I have no doubt that he thinks that he is doing something. He's a competent director and he knows the material. He's comfortable with terms like 'Undying Lands', 'Valar', and 'Melkor', indicating that his reading has penetrated into the appendices and the Silmarillion. He can make his melodramatic, character-driven, set pieces carry a real emotional punch. The arrival of the Elves to relieve the beleaguered Helms Deep, and Treebeard's announcement that he and the Ents may be going to their last battle both brought the requisite lumps to my throats. He offers plenty of eye-candy to Tolkien aficionados. The Ent-moot, Edoras and the gates of Mordor all felt like Alan Lee's paintings brought to life, probably because they were. One could quibble over the specifics—the trolls pulling the winches of the gates were there more as a joke than because they were a believable idea—but my gob was sufficiently smacked that I don't feel inclined to do so. But I'm actually more impressed with the tiny details: Sam's Lembas bread is wrapped in mallorn leaves; Aragorn's ring is like twin serpents whose eyes were emeralds that one upholds and the other devours. Jackson didn't have to get this kind of thing right, but he does. This over-achieving competence makes the amateurishness of the writing and cinematography even harder to account for.
Jackson has an appalling weakness for visual clichés. The list which I have made is, I am sure, not exhaustive:
1: Our heroes arrive at Helms Deep to protect the peasantry in a hopeless battle. As the castle gates open, there are two urchins playing at sword fights with sticks.
2: Every time the orcs' battering ram hits the castle walls, we cut to a close up of a child hugging its mummy. I mean, every single time. The character is listed in the cast as 'Cute Rohirrim Child'. I suspect it is the same individual who played 'Cute Hobbit Child' in part 1. He needs to talk to his agent about whether he is, at this early stage in his career, becoming typecast.
3: Aragorn, having recovered from his death, returns to Helms Deep to warn Theoden that the orcs are coming. Barely able to walk, he staggers through the double doors of Theoden's throne room, pushes them open with both hands, and falls through them. It is not made clear why one of the King's men didn't hold the door open for him.
4: Light streams through the double doors into the throne room as Theoden puts on his armour for the final battle, casting him in silhouette. There is some movie-rule which says that if you are a king you have to spend some time in silhouette. It's probably the result of a game of Chinese whispers with someone who once read a book explaining that all kings are really solar myths.
5: Aragorn sees Gandalf from afar commanding an army and riding his big white horse. The big white horse rears up on its back legs. The William Tell overture plays in the background. (I made that last bit up.) (© Simon Hoggart.)
6: After the battle with the Balrog, Gandalf temporarily dies and his spirit strays out of thought and time. This is represented by a square tunnel of light, superimposed over a starscape. I assume that this in an affectionate tribute to 2001: A Space Odyssey or the title sequence from Top of the Pops. Or possibly both.
7: No-one can so much as take a bath without it bringing on a water-based metaphor. The first thing which happened when Frodo and Sam left the Shire in part 1 was that they crossed a waterfall. At the end of the Fellowship we saw Sam floating in the water breathing bubbles pure and fine and Frodo's hand coming through the water to clasp his. In Two Towers, the same image is used when Frodo slips into the Dead Marshes; but here it is Gollum who pulls Frodo out, signifying that from now on, Frodo will trust Gollum, even though Sam doesn't. It’s a sort of Freudian, birth, baptism metaphor, get it?
8: The penultimate scene in the movie is Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, and Theoden riding side by side towards the camera with the theme from The Magnificent Seven playing in the background (I made that up, too.) 'The battle for Helms Deep is over,' says Gandalf. 'The battle for Middle-earth is about to begin. And all our hopes depend on two little hobbits lost in the wilderness…' McKellen can hardly disguise his contempt for the line as he delivers it.
What is going on here? Jackson is quite capable of thinking up an original visual image when he tries—think of the way the fire-letters on the Ring lit up Frodo's face in part 1. Why then does he so often fall back on the obvious? Does he think that clichéd Hollywood imagery is a way of generating a sort of classical gravitas, or is he intentionally trying to create a knowing, 'camp' effect? (I can't believe that the horse bearing down on Merry was intended seriously.) Why, when you've spent millions of dollars creating Helms Deep in anorakish detail, can't you spend half an hour thinking of an original direction from which to point a camera at a horse?
The idea that Jackson may be deliberately using visual clichés to parody the action is leant credence by the way in which the script keeps undercutting itself. Scene after scene is ruined by the intrusion of weak and unfunny jokes. The entire role of Gimli the dwarf is to provide comic relief, and nearly every joke is about the fact that, get this, he is very short. (There are also obligatory scenes about him getting beer in his beard and belching.) In the final battle when he can't see over the battlements Legolas asks him if he wants a box. 'Ho-ho'. Jackson knows his Tolkien mythos well enough to put an entire section of the appendix (about dwarf women) into Gimili's mouth—but only as part of a build up to him taking a pratfall from a horse.
While this mis-use of humour may be irritating, the mixture of archaic language and modern American argot represents a much deeper and more philosophical flaw. Tolkien's universe grew out of its language. He was 'actually very angry indeed' at attempts to naturalise the nomenclature for the Dutch translation of Lord of the Rings. He argued that Theoden has to talk in archaic language because he thinks differently from a modern man; the sentiments he expresses won't go into Modern English.
Theoden would certainly think, and probably say 'thus shall I sleep better'. But people who think like that just do not talk in a modern idiom. You can have 'I shall lie easier in my grave' or 'I should sleep sounder in my grave like that rather than if I had stayed at home'—if you like. But there would be an insincerity of thought, a disunion of word and meaning. For a king who spoke in a modern style would not really think in such terms at all, and any reference to sleeping quietly in the grave would be a deliberate archaism of expression on his part…far more bogus than the actual 'archaic' English that I have used. (Letter, September 1955)
Jackson fouls this up consistently. After the death of his son, Theodred, Theoden says: 'Alas that these evil days shall be mine. The young perish and the old linger. That I should live to see the last days of my house.' This isn't from the book, but it’s the kind of thing that a chap like Theoden might be expected to say. But then he starts to blub and announces to the world that: 'No parent should have to bury their child.' (Note 'parent' and 'child' rather than 'father' and 'son'.) It is hard to imagine any sentiment less likely to come from the lips of a king in an honour-based warrior culture. The bathos comes, not just from the fact that we've shifted from 'high' language to a vernacular, but because we've shifted from heroic sentiments to soap-operatic ones. You can't be expressing Tolkienesque ideas in Tolkienesque language in one sentence and Hollywood banalities the next and expect it to make sense.
Perhaps the worst example of this is the misappropriation of Sam's speech about 'being inside a story'.
In the book the speech is part of a bittersweet conversation between Sam and Frodo during the ascent of Cirith Ungul; it’s a moment of quiet—the calm before the storm. The hobbits recognize that characters in 'the great stories'—even the ones with happy endings—also go through periods of terrible darkness. The predominant tone is laughter, particularly when Frodo imagines a hobbit child asking for more of the adventures of 'Samwise the Stout-hearted.' The moral—if there is one—is that we don't know what kind of a story we are in or what the ending will be: as mortals, we just have to keep on keeping on.
That's how it is with the tales that really mattered, or ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually—their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn't. And if they had, we shouldn't know, because they'd have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on—and not all to a good end, mind you…
This is highly consistent with Tolkien's pessimistic, Catholic, view of morality. Human beings can't advance very far on the road to 'goodness', but if they start out with good intentions, stagger on in humility, and accept whatever grace God gives them, that's enough. Gandalf speaks of an heroic age which it would be well to remember; 'for there was sorrow then too, and gathering dark, but great valour, and great deed that were not wholly vain.' Not wholly vain' is about as much as humans can hope for in this fallen world, Arda marred.
Jackson puts the whole speech into Sam's mouth and changes the context. Now, Frodo has just come within a hairsbreadth of putting on the Ring and giving himself away to the lord of the Nazgul. He is at the point of giving up all hope. Sam is trying to show him that the Quest is worth proceeding with. So he reminds him of the 'great tales that really mattered'.
Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. Because they were holding on to something.
The thing which they were holding on to turns out to be—and stop me if you've heard this before—'that there's some good in this world, Mr Frodo, and it's worth fighting for.' The moral and literary inferiority of Jackson's lines compared with Tolkien's is obvious. A six hour trek through Mordor is a long detour to find out that we should be in favour of goodness and against wickedness.
It is interesting to speculate whether the crass Hollywood morals are a product of the linguistic poverty of the script, or whether the linguistic poverty arises from the fact that the sentiments being expressed are superficial and platitudinous.
Jackson's simplifications are not limited to recasting complex speeches as Hollywood banalities. He simplifies the whole moral structure of the book, continuously re-casting it in terms of a two sided battle between 'good' and 'evil'. Characters who Tolkien paints in darker or lighters shades of grey become, for Jackson, pure black or pure white. (Remind me to write an article one of these days on the Significance of the Colour Grey in Middle-earth: Grey Elves, Grey Havens, Grey Pilgrim, etc.)
Tolkien is often accused of having a simplistic view of good and evil. It is perfectly true that Saruman, and Theoden are not fully rounded characters in an Aspects of the Novel sense. Neither is it true that they are 'just' goodies and baddies; Saruman is a goodie-turned-baddie who misses his chance to become good again; Theoden is a good man doing nothing and allowing evil to prosper, but who rises out of the shadows into a last fair morning. Tolkien's moral vision emerges from the structuring of his characters, the pattern he builds up of how they relate to each other. Saruman is an image of what Gandalf would have become had he taken the Ring; Gollum is an evil reflection of Sam and Frodo (who are to some extent mirror images of each other); but Gollum also combines a good side and an evil, mirror image, in a single personality. Jackson can't deal with this kind of thing; character cannot be bad through ignorance, through weakness, or through their own deliberate fault. They must be wholly orientated towards the dark power through conscious allegiance or actual demonic possession.
Thus, in the book, Saruman is the hubristic traitor who probably, in his own mind, believes that he is acting for the good of Middle-earth. Jackson represents him as 'Sauron's puppet'; (pretty much his avatar or vice-regent) actively being given orders by, and reporting back to, Mordor via a Palantir, which Gandalf knows of from the beginning.
In the book, Theoden is an old, weak king who has been reduced to inaction by a weak councillor and who is inspired by Gandalf to come forth as a warrior once more. Jackson has him directly possessed by Saruman and exorcised by Gandalf. (He is suffering from that particular kind of demonic possession which means that once the demon goes away your beard gets shorter.)
In the book, Grima is a clever, manipulative councillor who gives the king self-serving advice and is revealed by Gandalf to be a traitor. Here, he is a camp, B-movie villain, who can't keep his paws off Eowyn and who everybody knows is in Saruman's pay. Tolkien writes him as Peter Mandelson; Jackson turns him into Richard III.
Even the Frodo-Gollum-Sam triad is simplified, although it must be said with more reason and more dramatic success. In the book, Gollum talks with two voices. Sam imagines that there are two sides to him, 'Slinker' and 'Stinker.' Smeagal-Gollum talks to himself in extended soliloquies, the dominance of the 'good' side often represented by a light in his eyes. Jackson extends this dual personality to the point where Smeagal (the good side) can consciously think of Gollum (the bad side) as 'he', and tell it to 'leave us and never come back'. In the book, Sam's cruelty to Gollum is treated consistently as a blemish on his character to be contrasted un-favourably with Frodo's kindness to him. Here, Smeagal is explicitly aware that Sam hates him because he sees—and Frodo does not—that Gollum intends to betray them. Sam, in fact, is in the right; Frodo's kindness really is a weakness. Frodo sees that Sam is cruel to Gollum and upbraids him for it; and in a magnificent example of Hollywoodisation, says that he pities Gollum 'because I have to believe that there is a way back.'
This, I am afraid, will annihilate a psychological crux of the text. In Tolkien's story, Frodo's mercy to Gollum brings the good, Smeagal side to the fore. At one moment, Smeagal is on the point of repenting and becoming a wholly regenerate character, but Sam accuses him of 'sneaking' and destroys the moment. According to Tolkien this is the most poignant moment in the whole epic. But it is only because Gollum remains evil and seizes the Ring that the world is saved; the evil Gollum does what the good Frodo cannot do. In the long run Sam's cruelty rules the fate of many just as surely as Bilbo's mercy. (This is, presumably, the kind of thing which Phillip Pullman has in mind when he calls the book morally simplistic.) It will be interesting to see if any of this survives Jackson's Manichean reworking of the text.
Jackson's adaptation is at its best when it is furthest from the text. His Ent material jettisons almost all the narrative and dialogue from the book and creates a large amount of new material which nevertheless expresses a meaning which is congruent with Tolkien's. Or, in fewer words: he gets the 'gist' right. The fight with the orc, the escape up the tree, the conversation with Treebeard, the meeting with Gandalf, and Merry's clever stunt of provoking Treebeard into attacking Isengard by showing what Saruman did to the forests—none of this has any specific parallel in the book. But it gets the point across that Ents are neutral figures ('I am not altogether on anyone's side') who are motivated to attack Saruman when they learn what he has been doing to the trees; and it keeps the key point that Merry and Pippin are 'like the falling of small stones that starts an avalanche in the mountains'. Even Pippin's speech about how 'this is all to big for us' is a sort of half echo of his remark that 'We can't live long on the heights' in book 6. This seems to be the correct approach to take when adapting an enormous and expository book.
However, at other points in the movie Jackson is unwilling to adopt this approach: he would rather retain large swathes of Tolkien's narrative and dialogue but change their context so radically that they end up having an entirely different meaning. Tolkien's description of Frodo's meeting with Faramir has precisely the dramatic tension which Merry and Pippin's meeting with Treebeard lacks. Faramir thinks that he and Sam are traitors or spies; Frodo recognizes that Faramir is noble but has to convince him that they are goodies without revealing their quest. Sam blurts out the existence of the Ring; and Faramir's reaction is highly dramatic and theatrical.
But Jackson's universe cannot accommodate the kind of drama which emerges from characters talking and interacting: it has to involve people fighting and falling off precipices. So the noble Faramir—the character who is to Boromir what Gandalf is to Saruman and what Frodo is to Gollum; the one who would not take the Ring if he found it lying by the road—is simply expunged from the story and replaced with a character who is Boromir's clone. He arrests and imprisons Frodo and Sam; we don't see him interrogate them. When he learns of the Ring he takes them as prisoners to Osgilliath. ('We shouldn't even be here!' says Sam. 'Hear! Hear!' shouts everyone who has read the book.) Only when a low flying Nazgul is hovering by Frodo does Sam explain that the Ring sent Boromir mad, causing Faramir to relent and set them loose. But, having made these changes, Jackson still feels compelled to keep a large number of book-Faramir's lines and action intact. So we retain, almost verbatim, the scene at the Forbidden Pool. It makes no sense in Jackson's storyline. (Why should Faramir, who doesn't trust Frodo, ask for advice about sparing Gollum's life?) But it acquires a new significance in terms of Jackson's plot: Faramir hears Gollum muttering about the Precious and starts to suspect that Frodo has something of value; and Gollum thinks that Frodo has handed him over to the cruel men and starts to turn evil again. (At the end of the movie it is specifically said to be because of the Forbidden Pool that Gollum decides to hand Frodo and Sam over to Shelob.)
When he discovers the Ring, Faramir says: 'So this is the answer to all the riddles', even though there haven't actually been any riddles, and 'a chance for Faramir of Gondor to show his quality', even though the line only makes sense if he is quoting Sam, which he isn't. It's almost as if Jackson regards the text as some kind of holy writ but the events as infinitely flexible.
About halfway through the film Jackson seems to go completely mad.
The ride of the Rohirrim to the relief of Helms deep, which takes up a page or two in the book, is extended to twenty minutes. For no readily apparent reason—given that the movie is not exactly short of fight scenes—the characters are attacked by a mob of hairy velociraptors, there's a big fight and Aragorn dies. Fortunately, he's only mostly dead. He is licked back to life by a horse (no, seriously) and arrives in Helms Deep in time for the battle. I have absolutely no idea what narrative purpose this serves. Maybe Jackson has some weak Joseph Campbell notion that Aragorn has to finally overcome his self-doubt and be reborn as a military leader. (Come to think of it, he does fall into a river.)
During the journey to Helms Deep Aragorn suffers a major flashback sequence. It turns out that, before he even left Rivendell, Aragon had told Arwen that the wedding was off; that she wouldn't really be happy with a mortal, blah blah blah. Now, drama requires action so it makes sense to transform Arwen from an elf who: long ago decided to forgo her immortality and marry a mortal into one who is currently in the process of deciding whether or not to forgo her immortality and marry a mortal. Book-Arwen, whose main function in the story is to stay at home and do embroidery, would not have been very interesting in a movie, but why embed the sequence in a flashback? Why has crucial information been withheld from us for the past four or five hours of screen-time? Are you telling me that all the way through Fellowship, and even during the stop-over in Lothlorien, Aragorn's heart was broken and he never mentioned it? As before it is rather hard to work out which of the Arwen scenes are supposed to be happening in the present and which are flashbacks. It may be that Aragorn dreams of Arwen, but it may be that he remembers meeting her in Rivendell and thinking that he was dreaming. This is further confused by a flash-forward in which Elrond shows Arwen what will happen if she marries Aragorn. Apparently, Aragorn, being a mortal, will eventually die (clue's in the question) and Arwen will be left alone in Middle-earth. I thought the point was that she was going to give up her elvishness and become mortal? Jackson has left Elrond's parentage and the Choice of the Half-Elven out of the picture, for which I think we can all be quite grateful.
At any rate, Arwen concedes Elrond's point and we see her leaving Rivendell with a bunch of Elves en route for the Grey Havens. Galadriel pops up in a voice-over, warning Elrond that if Faramir takes the Ring everything will go completely tits up. Oh, and that the Quest will kill Frodo. It is his destiny. Elrond has foreseen this and knows it to be true. She resists the temptation to suggest that they rule the galaxy as father and son.
Within a few minutes a troop of Elves has turned up at Helms Deep to renew the old alliance. Given that they appear to be led by Haldir, the fat elf from Fellowship, I assumed that they had come from Lothlorien to indicate the difference between Elrond and Galadriel. (His people are buggering off to the Undying Lands but hers are still prepared to help out in Middle-earth.) But Haldir distinctly says 'We are elves from the house of Elrond'. Are we to infer that the elves who went to the Grey Havens changed their mind on the way? In which case where is Arwen? (And, incidentally, why do Elrond and Arwen start out talking to each other in Elvish but after a few lines lapse into English?)
Finally there is a big battle. It rains a lot and everyone talks in sub-titles.
I am genuinely at a loss as to what Jackson is trying to do. The process by which the ten page skirmish at Helms Deep has expanded to fill about a third of the movie fills me with trepidation for Return of the King. The humour, banal language, visual clichés, and moral simplifications, repeatedly gave a sense of unreality to the movie—as if we were watching a cartoon or a pantomime. Though the Gollum sequences partly redeemed it, I don't really know how to respond. It wasn't Lord of the Rings and I don't honestly know how good it was as a stand-alone fantasy movie. The secular movie critics liked it but I wonder whether they were so wowed by the battle that they overlooked the narrative which led up to it.
Second parts of trilogies are notoriously awkward, and a lot of the film's problems are responses to difficulties which are intrinsic to the Tolkien's text. I am prepared to reserve judgment, up to a point, until I see the DVD, and, indeed, the DVD of Return of the King. But it seems to me that after a good start, Jackson has blinked, lost his way.
Skateboarding elves, indeed.
Thanks to http://www.dreamwater.net/seatofkings/ for their slightly naughty but very helpful screenplay transcript.