The opening has the advantage of introduction. More time is allotted to get to know the people, setting, rules. Caring about the characters is more critical than advancing the plot.
The ending has the advantage of drama: Everything hinges on individual moments.
The penultimate installment has its own advantages, though. New threads can be introduced that don’t require immediate resolution. The characters are established. The center of a trilogy is the only place you can get away with episodic cliffhangers (the kind television takes for granted).
That’s why The Empire Strikes Back is the strongest STAR WARS. There’s no time wasted on Luke’s background, Han’s motives or Leia’s personality. Obi-Wan’s stoicism sets up Yoda’s hilarity (which wouldn’t be funny if we’d met Yoda first). Throw-away lines from the first movie (“You think a princess and a guy like me…?”) become whole plots, because there’s time for development.
Events aren’t concluded. Heroes stumble from bad to worse ’til credits roll. It’s fantastic.
Despite the gooey fun at the trilogy’s center (like a tootsie pop), The Two Towers managed to repeatedly disappoint, though sandwiched between two of the greatest fantasy adaptations of all time.
1. The trailer gave away Gandalf’s return.
Towers has the best opening of the three films: Gandalf’s battle with the Balrog. It gives me chills. When Frodo wakes with a start, we wonder whether he’s only dreaming. Thoughts of battle fade as Frodo and Sam face harsh realities of starvation, being stalked and being lost. There’s no hint to Gandalf’s fate until the Reveal. Even then, he’s hinted to be Saruman, just as he was in the book.
Why did the trailer spoil Gandalf’s return…one of the few scenes Towers got right?
2. Aragorn fake dies.
Tolkien wrote a number of fake deaths into LORD OF THE RINGS — making added “deaths” a strange choice for Peter Jackson. Frodo was presumed dead at Moria, and again after Shelob’s sting. We’ve already discussed Gandalf.
Why would Jackson pretend Aragorn died? It wouldn’t fool fans of the books (who know how critical he is) or new fans already thinking, “Yeah, right!”
Tolkien was smart. He waited for the final cliffhanger for his last “gotcha!”, and even let Sam see Frodo’s inert body. He played the audience right. Some readers wept after finishing TOWERS.
When Frodo survives in ROTK, the audience isn’t surprised. Didn’t Gandalf? Didn’t Aragorn?
3. Sam and Frodo give speeches Seattle en route to Vegas.
On the map of Middle Earth, Osgiliath is nowhere near Cirith Ungol. I suppose if you’re from the Shire, they’re “near. Seattle and Vegas are “near” each other from Beijing.
This isn’t just geeky nitpicking; the movie handled it awkwardly because it was an awkward decision. To put it in perspective, Osgiliath borders the same river Sam and Frodo crossed at the end of Fellowship. Teleporting them at the end of Towers reversed all their efforts to travel and survive.
The only reason for it is so Sam can be near a battle when he delivers his speech — which wasn’t in the books and added little to the film. When Aragorn, Legolas and Theodin rouse their troops and each other, it’s meaningful because we’ve followed their plight. We don’t even know why Osgiliath is important when Sam waxes philosophical. Faramir is an interesting character, but his temptation should have been highlighted without extra battle. The action distracts from Faramir’s dilemma rather than emphasizing it.
Our heroes are teleported back to Cirith Ungol for the denouement. Jackson defends this because:
4. Shelob was moved to Return of the King.
Once Gandalf’s and Aragorn’s survival is revealed, Frodo’s cliffhanger seems cheesy. Of course, if the only “gotcha” was Gandalf (and he was more “transformed” than merely “survived”), then death still has impact. There’s probably room for one more fake character death.
Not two. After adding Aragorn’s epic tumble (and salvation via horse nuzzling), Jackson had to move Shelob to the next installment. The move makes sense, but only in the context of Jackson’s other changes.
Frodo’s death as a cliffhanger was a powerful moment. Like Gandalf’s, its resolution occurs across volumes, adding gravity to the event. It doesn’t feel “cheap” because Sam believes Frodo dead, quite believably. The viewer’s journey becomes Sam’s journey.
Return of the King was long. Justifiably so, but no less exhausting. Why then, must we save scenes that should have been in Towers for the last book?
Ah, right. Because between extra armies, extra romances, extra “deaths” and extra speeches, Jackson didn’t have the screen time to use Tolkien’s cliffhangers. Audiences didn’t have the energy.
5. Goofy treants had to be hoodwinked into helping the hobbits.
Treants are ancient beings of fathomless depth, more otherworldly and wondrous than even Gandalf.
In the book, that is.
In the movie, Treants are marginally stupider than talking dogs. They understand speech, but they don’t make meaningful decisions. They’re the Sheeple of Middle of Earth. You can’t reason with them, but you can trick them into helping you if you prey on their stupidity and emotions.
The battle of Isengard wasn’t determined heroes defending their homeland. It was the gut reaction of dumb animals tricked by a Hobbit.
What’s your favorite LOTR book or movie? Least favorite?
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