I’ve just enjoyed the second of the three movie nights at a friend’s house watching the full extended editions of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings. As I stated in my essay describing my experience of watching The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time in many years, it’s intriguing to see how my judgment of Mr. Jackson’s films has changed or mellowed with time. This is especially true of The Two Towers, which is the film I enjoyed least of the three and the one which deviates most drastically from Tolkien’s book. I still suspect that this will be the one I consider the least good of the three, though I’m avoiding calling it the worst because such a word-choice would imply that it was bad, which it most definitely is not. In fact, it struck me as very good and much better than I’d remembered it being.
I was particularly struck that the things in the film that I considered bad when I originally watched it are not as bad as I’d thought. Take, for instance, the Ents who are largely employed by Mr. Jackson as comic relief. This violated my literary sensibility because Tolkien treated them with the utmost seriousness, bestowing a great deal of gravitas on them as the oldest rational creatures in Middle-earth; oldest, that is, except for the enigmatic Tom Bombadil, whom Mr. Jackson had omitted completely from The Fellowship of the Ring. Treebeard is possibly my favourite character in the whole book, and Quickbeam, who is used by Tolkien as light relief, is positively Chestertonian or Hopkinsonian in the sheer joy that he displays in the presence of the goodness, truth and beauty of Creation.
In Tolkien’s work, the Ents embody Tolkien’s understanding of Tradition, linguistically and ecclesiologically, which is to say that they evoke his philologist’s understanding of the rootedness of language and his Catholic understanding of the rootedness of the Church in those doctrines, tried and tested by time and enshrined dogmatically, which form the living body of the Church’s teaching tradition. It takes a long time to say anything in Old Entish because each word is not merely a label, signifying some up-to-date fashionable sense, but is a genealogical etymological tree of living meaning, stretching back to the roots of meaning itself. The ecclesiological dimension is connected to the longevity of the Ents, who live for countless generations of men, transcending and outliving the transient ages of history, much as the Church has done and is doing. An Entmoot, like a Council of the Church, is a rare occurrence in history because Ents, like the Church, have no need to be “hasty” in coming to decisions, even in times of crisis, because most crises resolve themselves through the mutually destructive collapse of the secular forces that cause them. And yet when the Ents, or the Church, do come to a definite decision or resolution the consequences are binding and have seismic ramifications.
All of the foregoing is lost in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation, a fact that irritated me immensely when I first saw the film. How could something with such gravitas be treated with such levitas? How could Mr. Jackson be flippant about such things? How could he make a joke of the Ents and all that they signify? It was almost sacrilegious! But that was then, and this is now.
Now I see things differently.
I see them differently because I am no longer trying to see them through Tolkien’s eyes. The film is not Tolkien’s work. It is Peter Jackson’s. It is not a re-presentation of Tolkien’s work but an adaptation of it in a different storytelling medium. The thing that is essential to a bona fide adaptation, i.e. an adaptation done in good faith, is that it stays true to the spirit of the work it is adapting. Mr. Jackson does this, for the most part, even if he feels constrained to exercise artistic license in excising some characters and adapting others to the demands of storytelling in a different medium. When I see Peter Jackson’s Ents through Peter Jackson’s eyes I see them as playing their part in the film with the degree of levitas that the story, as a film, demands. In ceasing to compare chalk and cheese, i.e. literature with film, I can enjoy the cheese as cheese and not be disappointed that it’s not the chalk I was expecting or demanding.
This criterion of judgment is equally applicable to other manifestations of Mr. Jackson’s artistic license which had irritated me when I had first seen The Two Towers. I found myself enjoying the interpolation of Arwen into the story, reminding us of Aragorn’s betrothal to her and of their self-sacrificial love and loyalty towards each other, and serving to heighten the romantic tension between Aragorn and the wonderfully portrayed Éowyn.
Gandalf’s exorcising of the demonic spirit of Saruman from the possessed Théoden works very well, even though I had disliked this scene intensely upon my initial viewing, because it adds a much-needed supernatural dimension to the story, as do the occasional scenes when characters, such as Aragorn, appear to be praying.
All these things are well and much better than I remembered but all’s not well in the absolute sense. I still feel that Mr. Jackson is too enamoured of computer-generated special effects, using them well in the case of the characterization of Gollum but using them excessively in the excessively long battle scenes. The scene in which Legolas uses his shield as a surfboard in the midst of battle is as ridiculous as ever, and the characterization of Faramir as Boromir’s clone and not as his more virtuous brother impoverishes his crucial role in the drama as a much-needed counterpoint. These are, however, mere quibbles. The Two Towers is nonetheless a masterpiece.
This essay is the first in a series on Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptations of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. The first can be read here.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a still from The Two Towers (2002).