"Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers"
(New Line), 179 minutes, PG-13
Directed by Peter Jackson; Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair, and Peter Jackson, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
Elijah Wood: Frodo Baggins
Ian McKellen: Gandalf
Viggo Mortensen: Aragorn
Sean Astin: Sam Gamgee
Even with three films of nearly three hours each, it is impossible to adapt Lord of the Rings fully. It was inevitable that much of the charm of the slow-moving book would be lost in the fast-moving medium of film. Every devoted Tolkien reader can find things wrong with the first two installments (I have my own list), yet "Fellowship of the Ring" and "The Two Towers" succeed at the most important point — conveying Tolkien's explicit moral understanding. In a few respects, they have even improved upon its presentation, showing that on occasion actors and filmmakers can give added dimension to a writer's vision.
I remarked the Ashbrook Center's No Left Turns blog that my measure of success for "The Two Towers" would be whether the filmmakers preserved an important speech by Aragorn that occurs near the beginning of the book. Eomer, captain of the riders of Rohan, in despair of the ruin of his kingdom, asks: "How shall a man judge what to do in such times?" Aragorn replies: "As he has ever judged. Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear, not are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man's part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house." This can be taken as Tolkien's statement against moral relativism.
The line is not in the early scene with Eomer and the Rohirrim, and it made me grumpy when the scene passed without it.
Instead, the filmmakers expanded the speech, moved it to the end of the film, and put it in the mouth of Sam Gamgee, who bolsters Frodo at a low moment with an impassioned argument about why it is necessary and right to fight with courage against evil and on behalf of what's good in the world. At first this may seem one of many casual liberties with the story line, but it serves the worthy purpose of making more explicit an overlooked aspect of the book: the democratic virtues of the Hobbits.
The Shire is the only democratic regime in Middle Earth (indeed, Sam is elected mayor of the Shire upon his return from the quest); all of the other regimes of Elves and Men are monarchies or formal aristocracies of some kind. The Shire is in many respects like Tocqueville's America of 1835: stolid and pure, but without great philosophy, magnificent architecture, or martial virtues of, say, Rivendell or Minas Tirith.
In a scene cut from the theatrical release of "Fellowship of the Ring" that is restored in the extended version available on DVD, Sam Gamgee's father, "the Gaffer," says at the pub: "It's none of our concern what goes on beyond our borders. Keep your nose out of trouble and no trouble will come to you." This is a typical view of democratic citizens, which makes it all the more significant that it is Sam who offers the rebuttal to his own father amidst the despair of the failing defenses of Osgiliath at the end of "The Two Towers."
An important subtext of both the book and the film is the waning strength of Men, and the question of whether the race of Men have the courage and strength to fight, and the moral clarity to resist the corrupt temptations of the ring of power. When Frodo learns of the evil of the ring and the peril that the ring poses in other hands, he exhibits the quality of democratic virtue in asking directly: "What must I do?" (In the book, when Gandalf tells Frodo that he must summon strength and courage, Frodo gives a typical democratic reply: "But I have so little of any of these things!" Like democratic citizens at their best, he would soon find them within him.) Nor is Frodo, the most aristocratic of the Hobbits we meet in the story (Bag End is surely the Hobbit equivalent of a Beverly Hills estate), alone in summoning democratic virtue in the hour of trial; his three simpler Hobbit companions come quickly to understand the path of duty, even if that path takes them to their likely death.
While the filmmakers took too many liberties with the story line in "The Two Towers," one aspect they improved upon was the creature Gollum, who "steals the show" in the ordinary sense. A combination of justice and pity leads Frodo to spare Gollum's life, linking back to the most important speech in Fellowship of the Ring. Frodo tells Gandalf that it was a pity Bilbo didn't kill Gollum when he had the chance.
"Pity!" Gandalf replies. "It was pity that stayed Bilbo's hand. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death and judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. . . Before this is over, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many." In the book this speech comes early in the tale, in the quiet of Frodo's Bag End. The filmmakers moved the speech to the darkest place of the story, deep in the mines of Moria. The placement of Gandalf's speech works more effectively as drama and instruction in the difficulty of perfect justice.
Tolkien was not a political philosopher, and as his frequent protestations against interpreting Lord of the Rings as any kind of allegory remind us, it was no part of his purpose to reflect directly on the character of men in different kinds of regimes, or to suggest that it is the virtue peculiar to democracies that is central to saving Middle Earth. Yet as the differences in human excellence and sources of corruption are sewn into the nature of different types of regimes, it is impossible to tell a large tale of war and virtue, corruption and ruin, without opening a window onto these matters.