This time I waited patiently for the Extended DVD to come out, ignoring the cinema release and the cinema-version DVD, so I've just seen the film for the first time in December 2003.
Overall this is an impressive and successful film, more so than the first in the series. The pace is better; and, although there are several different stories being told at once, they seem to run together better than in the first film — perhaps because the whole story of The Two Towers is set in the human part of Middle Earth.
The elves, who were the least successful part of the first film, appear only peripherally in this one, and the credibility of the film benefits from a number of genuine human characters, well played by actors who aren't trying to represent a different species.
Miranda Otto makes a good initial impression as Eowyn (we'll see more of her in the final film); in addition, Bernard Hill is good as Theoden, Brad Dourif as Grima Wormtongue, and David Wenham as Faramir. The original members of the Fellowship continue to give good performances on the whole.
The scenery, sets, props, and special effects remain excellent.
Violent, but not too violent
The scale of violence increases gradually through Tolkien's story. In The Fellowship of the Ring, there are some isolated fights between small groups. In The Two Towers, war begins and an opening battle is fought. In The Return of the King, war breaks out with full force.
It's an achievement of the film to document the war and its human impact graphically: the orc hordes on the march, the women and children fleeing from their burning homes to take refuge in the caves of Helm's Deep, the bewildered boys and old men being given armour and weapons.
And yet although this is a story of war, and there's a long battle scene with plenty of fighting and dying, in the circumstances it's not excessively gory. There's nothing in it as unpleasant as the death of Boromir in the first film, who dies slowly with several arrows in him; and that fate was ordained for him in the book, so it could hardly have been avoided.
In the book, one of the few relatively cheerful interludes in a generally grim tale is Merry and Pippin's time in the forest of Fangorn with Treebeard. In the film, Fangorn remains a threatening place throughout and Merry and Pippin have an uncomfortable time there, which seems a pity.
Representing the Ents on film was bound to be difficult and the result is not too bad — not as bad as the elves, for instance. However, the Ents on the move look thin and puny compared with the trees around them; and in the flooding of Isengard (more sudden and dramatic in the film than in the book) it's hard to see how they're able to resist the waters and stay upright. I'm not sure exactly what Tolkien had in mind when he created the Ents, but I don't think this film has quite caught it.
The film repeatedly shows cavalry charging infantry, but I don't notice any horses going down, possibly because this was too difficult to simulate without injuring the horses. When the cavalry come down the mountain to attack the orcs' rearguard outside Helm's Deep, they're charging into a dense mass of fresh infantry who haven't fought yet, armed with long pikes. The result should be horse kebab, but the pikes are somehow brushed aside and the horsemen are victorious.
Merry and Pippin, shown larking around in the first film, have to contend with more serious situations in the second. Billy Boyd as Pippin adapts fairly well, but Dominic Monaghan as Merry seems less convincing when he's trying to be serious. I'll wait and see how he copes with the third film.
The two extra DVDs of documentary features are quite interesting, but somewhat less interesting than the ones that came with the first film.
Finally, it may be worth noting that the film omits at least five of the twenty-one chapters of the book, including the exchange of words with Saruman, the recovery and use of the palantír, and Frodo and Sam's encounter with Shelob. The third film will have to cover these chapters as well as the nineteen chapters of the third book.
The Faramir issue
In the book, Faramir treats Frodo with initial suspicion but comes to believe his story. When he discovers that Frodo has the One Ring, he makes no attempt to take it, but lets him go on his way.
In the film, Faramir takes Frodo and Sam as captives to present to Denethor; but then changes his mind in the city for no very clear reason and releases them.
In the documentaries there's a lengthy attempt to justify this change to the story, giving the following arguments:
For Faramir to resist the temptation of the Ring as easily as he does in the book weakens the apparent power of the Ring, and hence weakens the story.
But the temptation to seize the Ring has already been resisted easily enough by every member of the Fellowship, except Boromir — and even he took a long time to give in to it. Why shouldn't Faramir resist it too? I rather like the idea of Faramir resisting the Ring as a contrast to his brother.
Faramir in the book is always the same. The film gives him character development.
But most people don't change significantly over a short period of time. Why does Faramir need to do so?
The encounter with Faramir as written in the book lacks drama because he neither threatens nor helps Frodo's mission significantly.
This is true. In fact the only contribution made to the plot is that Gollum resents being tricked and captured, and becomes more willing to lead the hobbits to Shelob. However, Gollum is volatile and hardly needs this excuse to turn nasty.
I would have preferred to leave the Faramir episode out of the film entirely than to rewrite his character and create a superfluous detour.
Something is needed to finish off the film after the Battle of Helm's Deep.
Well, sure, and the encounter with Saruman and the use of the palantír might have done well enough, but they chose to keep it for the third film.
I'm inclined to agree with Jackson that Shelob's Lair fits better into the third film, because that's when Frodo and Sam pass into Mordor and the final phase of their journey.
Written in December 2003