Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers at 20!
Adapting the works of J.R.R. Tolkien was a task fraught with danger, but The Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring gave the first indications that Peter Jackson was up to the challenge. When The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers was released on December 18, 2002, it was better than the first installment (which was really good) and proved audiences were witnessing one of the great trilogies of all-time unfold.
Sure, every reader of Tolkien’s works has a favorite story, battle, or character that didn’t make it into the trilogy. Tom Bombadil, anyone? But including everything in the books would yield a story lasting for 100 hours. That will probably happen one day in the future as a streaming series. Landing in the middle of the tale, Towers has some of the biggest changes from the source material. The book ends with Gollum betraying the hobbits to the giant spider, Shelob. Jackson opted to leave the monster as an exciting moment for Return of the King, but that left Towers without a clear ending point. Jackson’s decision was turning an ally into an enemy, at least temporarily. On the page, Faramir has seen the horrors of war and isn’t eager to revisit them. However, he knows that some people are evil, and their plans must be thwarted. The young leader is an avatar for J.R.R. Tolkien, inspired to create these works when he witnessed the ravages of World War 1. Faramir also mentions he wouldn’t pick up the One Ring if he saw it along the side of the road.
But Towers required a conflict to replace the one with Shelob, so its Faramir was far less competent. He sought his father’s approval, mostly in vain. This whole saga of rings and Hobbits is a chance to prove his worth. He was also tempted by the ring, only realizing its corruption when Frodo threatens Sam with a knife. A DVD documentary about the filming explains that if a man such as Faramir could easily leave it along the road, the Ring is stripped of its power. He had his men savagely beat Gollum, which fractures the trust between the creature and Frodo.
The Hobbits even being at the Battle of Osgiliath is a change, one Sam lampshades in his speech at the end with the line “By all rights, we shouldn’t even be here, but we are.” Since Frodo’s almost death at Shelob’s hands got pushed to the third and final act, this adventure ends on an upbeat note. That’s good because there’s a lot of darkness to get through before our group wins the day.
Merry and Pippin get a lot more to do in the film version. Treebeard quickly realizes that Saruman is bad news in the book and agrees to join the battle. But to give Merry and Pippin a problem to resolve, onscreen, the Ents decide this isn’t their battle. The Hobbits have to trick Treebeard into a detour that shows him what Saruman’s evil has done to the forest, bringing powerful allies off the sidelines into the fight. An army of angry tree monsters is just what CGI exists for.
While changes from the page to the screen made it hard to determine a beginning and ending, for Two Towers, there was no doubt about what needed to happen in the middle. The Battle of Helm’s Deep is now the standard bearer for battle depictions, influencing sequences in everything from Avengers: Endgame to Microsoft’s shooter Gears of War. Since CGI can represent thousands of people in a climactic battle, it’s just expected that’s how it will be done. Many people who viewed The Two Towers assumed it was mostly CGI. Instead, it’s a triumph using hundreds of real actors and practical effects. Jackson tried his best to only use computers for things that couldn’t be done without them. The fearsome chants of the Uruk-Hai came from the largest, rowdiest bunch Jackson could find: sports fans. He got 25,000 patrons of a cricket stadium to bellow the Orcish war chant “Derbgoo, nashgshoo, derbgoo, dashshoo” displayed on the stadium jumbotron.
The battle took four months to shoot, which was then whittled down to two hours of battle footage, then reduced to 40 minutes of screen time. Rain, one of the worst things to happen during a battle (or a film shoot), pours down for the entire conflict. Most of it was real, as it rained for 90 nights during filming.
Lord of the Rings is about the smallest creatures having a titan-sized impact, and none looms larger than Andy Serkis’ performance as the conflicted Gollum. The two separate personas of Smeagol and Gollum are completely distinctive and the perfect marriage of actor and effects. The debate between his two halves before betraying the Hobbits is a thing of creepy, fractured beauty. In these moments, it’s easy to see how Frodo could pity him. Also, his transformation is a stern warning of what the One Ring’s power could do to the hero.
There was talk of an Oscar for Serkis, and New Line campaigned hard for it, but it didn’t materialize. It is one of the great “this actor got robbed” incidents, however. What Jackson and Serkis managed with Gollum is unlike anything done before, which may have hurt their chances. There was no similar performance to compare it to, and the Academy Awards are notoriously slow to change how they do things.
Whether it’s Helm’s Deep, Gollum, or 15 other masterstrokes, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers does so many things so well that an entire movie could have been built around any one of them. With all these pieces combined in the same project and setting up an epic third adventure, it is a textbook for translating high fantasy to the big screen.