I can’t even remember how many times I’ve read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings — seven or eight, probably. The first time was when I was around 12, and then it wasn’t until my 20s that I picked it up again, and it was odd how in the intervening years, all those tedious long stretches of battle descriptions and endless nonsense folk songs that the preteen me had skipped over had disappeared, and in their place were cutting stories of friendships cemented on the front lines and beautiful poems about loss and love. I simply could not find the bits that had bored me so the first time around.
And it’s been like that every time I’ve reread Tolkien over the last decade — every other year I get the irresistible urge to dip into them again, and I find something new, and it speaks to me in a different and surprising way. With Peter Jackson’s heart-stoppingly stirring The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, it occurs to me that his filmed adaptation is like a rereading on behalf of us all, that he has found the new and different meanings in a story that we all know by heart, and that he has brought them to us in as transparent a way possible, so that it’s easy to imagine that movie audiences 50 and 100 years from now will still be able to find their own new and different meanings.
The newness Jackson finds here is something that had never consciously occurred to me before the moment I sat down to write this review: The middles of stories, from the most frivolous romantic comedy to the most action-packed thriller to the most eloquent drama, are always about the battle between hope and hopelessness. Things must look good enough for our heroes that the possibility of them winning exists but also bad enough that the possibility of them losing isn’t unlikely. Pulling off a well-told story, one that achieves the proper balance between hope and hopelessness, is all about maintaining the suspense and making us believe that winning isn’t a foregone conclusion. But it’s one thing to create suspense in a previously untold story about characters we’ve never met before, and quite another to do that with a story and characters we’ve known and loved all our lives.
And still The Two Towers is nerve-wrackingly suspenseful. I’m intimately familiar with this tale. I did not expect to cower in my seat, my hand over my mouth in horror, genuinely fearful for our heroes and their world. But I did, and it made for one of the most powerful movie experiences I’ve had this year.
The Two Towers is all middle-of-the-story, of course — Frodo and Sam are wandering Mordor, the burden of the One Ring increasing; Merry and Pippin are communing with Ents, their resolve to fight what needn’t be their battle increasing; and Aragorn is warming up for the coming war, his aversion to taking his place as a leader of Men falling away — it’s almost entirely hopelessness with only a smattering of hope to keep us (and the characters) going. But the sense of doom that Jackson creates is so palpable that we can’t help but share it with our heroes, and it’s so overwhelming at times that I just wanted to curl up into a ball and give up. The Ring gets heavier for us, too — Jackson has imbued his film with the weight of evil, pressing down, smothering, intractable. I had no choice to but sob my way through most of the film out of sheer despair.
And I mean “sheer despair” in the best possible way. It’s far too infrequent that a film can make you sympathize this closely with its characters. In one of the most fantastical settings and one of the most fantastical stories this year, Jackson has given us one of the most emotionally genuine films of this year.
There are single moments in The Two Towers of unadulterated power that suck us in, as when Saruman’s (Christopher Lee: Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, Sleepy Hollow) toady Gríma Wormtongue (Brad Dourif: Nightwatch) is stunned by the impossibly grand designs of his master. Saruman’s army of 10,000 battle-hungry orcs is simply beyond Gríma’s conception of badness, and the horrible import of its existence is all the more potent for seeing it through his eyes. The utter size and scale of Middle-Earth and its battles are numbingly, astonishingly real onscreen in a way that they never were on page.
But it’s the slower building of desperation that sneaks on you until you have no place to run or hide from it. Much of it has to do with liberties Jackson and his coscreenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Stephen Sinclair took with Tolkien, good liberties, all — such as bringing Arwen (Liv Tyler: One Night at McCool’s, Armageddon) in for her own personal battle between hope and hopelessness, as her father, Elrond (Hugo Weaving: The Matrix, Babe: Pig in the City), urges her to leave Middle-Earth while she is drawn to await Aragorn’s (Viggo Mortensen: Psycho, A Perfect Murder) possible return. They interweave, too, as Tolkien did not, the three major stories of The Two Towers, drawing more explicit parallels between them and letting their senses of hope and hopelessness wax and wane together. Frodo and Sam (Elijah Wood: The Faculty, Deep Impact, and Sean Astin: Bulworth, Courage Under Fire) journey through Mordor, guided by truly pitiable Gollum (voice and movements by Andy Serkis: 24 Hour Party People, Topsy-Turvy, assisting in creating the most startling and fully realized CGI character yet) — the dynamic between the three of them, and between Gollum and his alter-ego Sméagol, is a tug-of-war between giving up and soldiering on, and is echoed in how Merry and Pippin (Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd) come to terms with the harsh reality of what a win for Sauron will mean by making the disinterested tree-creatures, the Ents, understand that they cannot sit this war out. Another of those brief, staggering moments is when the younger hobbits, in the company of the Ents, come upon the ecological devastation wreaked by Saruman around his tower, all the trees ripped from the ground (the orcs’ deforestation was one of the most visceral images from the first film) — the Ents’ revenge is downright elemental.
And then there’s that army, 10,000 orcs strong, descending on the last stronghold of Men, Helm’s Deep. Aragorn and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) will prevail, we know they will, whether you’ve memorized the novels or not, but for a long while, through one of the most extraordinary battle sequences ever committed to film, it’s hard to see how. When hope comes to the rescue, led by Gandalf (Ian McKellen: X-Men, Apt Pupil), whose early reappearance is a minor triumph of hope itself, your heart cheers… and then you remember that it isn’t over. It’s only beginning.
Our lives are all middle-of-the-story, too — we don’t remember the beginning, and we don’t know when the end will come, and we ourselves face that constant struggle between hope and hopelessness. Leaving us here in the middle, without resolution, Jackson leaves us with a striking sense of reality amid the fantasy, and a desire to know how it will all end that diving in for another rereading of Tolkien just won’t satisfy. What other new things will Jackson find for us in the final chapter? I can’t wait to find out.