Two Towers; Three Plotlines: Why the Second LOTR Film is the Perfect Middle Child
Revisiting The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
After the incredible success of The Fellowship of the Ring, setting numerous international box office records in its opening weekend, the were high expectations for the sequel. Originally conceived as two films under Miramax, but expanded into three when the project transferred to New Line, there was an initial difficulty in tackling the central film.
The project would have to contend with the same fate of the middle child: needing to live up to the legacy of the first (even while sharing its hand-me-down clothes), positively influence the next, and still work as a distinct individual. Quite a task.
The Fellowship of the Ring, while still an ambitious and thrilling undertaking, consisted of an almost exclusively one-track plot line. After the expositionary introduction, we follow the hobbits and the gradual building of the fellowship, ending with its eventual dissolution. The film ends with Merry and Pippin captured, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli hot on their trail, and Frodo and Sam beginning the long walk to Mordor.
The writers, headed by Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, and Philippa Boyens, had to contend with an expanding plot structure. The moving pieces begin to move outwards, and The War of the Ring starts to take shape. The Two Towers had to make this expansion palatable to audiences. It did so through its deft interweaving of three main plotlines, each serving clear dramatic and narrative purposes.
Two Towers; Three Plotlines
J. R. R. Tolkien’s second volume of The Lord of the Rings, containing books three and four, was an especially difficult source text to adapt. Rich in details of world and story, as well as expanding further across Middle-earth, it would take a lot of cutting to fit into a feature-length film. Book three focused on Isengard, and Book four on Frodo and Sam. Dramatic films are more effective when plots are interwoven cohesively, and so these books would have to be Frankensteined together.
While Tolkien kept the identities of the ‘two towers’ somewhat ambiguous, the screenplay writers, in a particularly genius move, focused on the towers of Orthnac (Isengard) and Barad-dûr (Mordor) when plotting the middle film. The Two Towers gains triumph and catharsis in its depiction of the defeat of Isengard, yet sets up the threat of the third film with the ever-present eye atop Barad-dûr.
The moving pieces cannot merely be restricted to two plotlines, and so the film follows three main narrative strands: two centring around the defeat of Isengard’s forces, and one on the growing forces of Mordor. These three threads interweave together into a satisfying whole.
Thread One: The Hunters and Helm’s Deep
Key Players: Aragon, Gimli, Legolas, Gandolf the White, King Théoden, Wormtongue, Isengard’s forces, Rohan’s forces.
Key Locations: Edoras, Helm’s Deep.
Starting with what is undoubtedly the main plotline of The Two Towers, we follow the journey of Aragon, Gimli, and Legolas (labelled collectively as the hunters) in their initial hunt to rescue the kidnapped Hobbits (Merry and Pippin). Characteristic of the expanding narrative of the larger epic, this plotline shifts motivations and picks up pace, eventually culminating in the battle of Helm’s Deep.
The first narrative shift occurs when the hunters find the burned remains of a conflict between orcs and men, also finding the seeming remains of Merry and Pippin. Yet, as Aragon tracks the scene we intercut with the battle (Thread Two), revealing the hobbits’ escape into Fanghorn Forest. Instead of finding hobbits, they find Gandalf the White returned from the dead: a new shiny form (Gandalf 2.0).
As the wizard calmly states, they have been brought together at the turning of the tide – their purpose has changed as they are led by Gandalf to leave the hobbits. They must begin preparations for the coming war. The narrative begins to expand.
The triumphant return of Gandalf is the first of many in this thread – the next is the liberation of King Théoden from Saruman’s possession. The obsequious and snivelling Wormtongue has been whispering in the ear of the king for too long – Gandalf’s booming exorcism casts Saruman out of Théoden’s body in a particularly climactic sequence evocative of spiritual horror.
The final narrative shift, and the most important one, is the defense of Helm’s Deep from Isengard’s (Saruman’s) forces. Instead of choosing to engage the forces of evil directly, King Théoden decides to retreat to Helm’s Deep, a move initially treated with disdain by Gandalf. As the fortress is surrounded, as the survivors attempt to marshal their forces, a sense of melancholy overhangs the scenes. We see children dressed in armour, are constantly reminded of the limited forces and have been abandoned by Gandalf until the first light of the fifth day.
A whole article could be written (and has been many times) on the momentum of the Helm’s Deep battle sequence. While our heroes achieve minor triumphs (Legolas’ shield surfing, Gimli and Aragon’s jump to the bridge of the outer gate), the trajectory threatens defeat constantly. It seems as if there is no hope.
Gandalf’s return with the exiled forces of Rohan is the emotional crux of the film. Hope is brought with a literal ray of light as dawn breaks, and the forces of men have been saved from destruction. This narrative thread brings the necessary moments of triumph and catharsis that are needed for the film to work as an independent unit. Yet, it could not work alone.
Thread Two: The Falling of Small Stones
Key Players: Merry, Pippin, Treebeard, The Ents, Saruman
Key Locations: Fanghorn Forest, Isengard
After escaping the orcs by taking refuge in Fanghorn forest, Merry and Pippin are seemingly left to their own devices by Gandalf and the hunters. They remain with the slow-speaking and meandering Treebeard, a physically threatening, yet fatherly, Ent.
Despite this, Gandalf predicts the larger importance of these two hobbits. In his words, their presence will become like the falling of small stones that starts an avalanche.
From Shakespeare to The Sopranos, the value of a comic sub-plot has been proven to enhance moments of drama. A lighter scene to diffuse tension can help to prepare audiences for the next dramatic shock, while also serving as an entertaining scene in its own right. Their attempts to sway the Ents to fight in the War of the Ring serves this comic purpose. While Helm’s Deep is under siege, the council of Ents speaks in the comically-slow Old Entish. The breach of the Deeping Wall, a particularly low point in the battle, is sandwiched between two scenes of the Entish council, balancing the dramatic with the comic.
Even while serving a comic function, this second thread has a parallel triumph to the first. While Isengard’s forces are at Helm’s Deep, Orthnac is almost undefended. Merry and Pippin show Treebeard the destruction of part of the forest by Saruman. He is quickly persuaded to join the War. The march of the Ents begins. These small stones become an avalanche as the Ents destroy a dam, flooding the tower and its underground smithy. As Gandalf rescues Helm’s Deep, the Ents march onwards, cutting between these two connected plotlines in a moving sequence. The first tower is overcome; the second remains.
Thread Three: Approaching Mordor
Key Players: Frodo, Sam, Gollum, Faramir
Key Locations: Dead Marshes, Black Gate, Osgiliath.
While the first two threads drive the narrative momentum of the second film, the third thread is essential in setting up the final film. Consisting of Frodo and Sam’s journey to destroy the One Ring, this is arguably the most important mission of the War of the Ring. It is the initial reason for the Fellowship’s creation. Yet, The Two Towers uses this plotline to instill tension and melancholy. Their quest seems doomed to fail, and even small victories are dampened by the protagonists’ mental states.
The introduction of Gollum as a key character adds a certain unpredictability, partially because of his interior war of selves – the subservient Smeagol versus the scheming Gollum. With an unstable guide and the growing forces of Barad-dûr ahead, they are travelling into the belly of the beast.
On each step of their journey, they are faced with symbols of death and human frailty. The Dead Marshes are full of fallen warriors in the previous battle of the ring. The impenetrable Black Gates seem a passage to hell, out of which spews demon legions. Their own fates are increasingly uncertain.
Their final stop in The Two Towers is Osgiliath, the sieged city of men after they are captured by Faramir. His temptation to take the ring parallels that of his brother, Boromir. While he eventually manages to resist, the fragility of humankind is on full display – a perfect counterpoint to the triumph of the other threads.
Frodo and Gollum also warp further under the influence of the ring, Frodo quickly breaking down while facing a Nazgûl rider, and Gollum vowing to murder the hobbits after being tortured under capture. The film ends with this looming dread, and a pan upward to show the journey the hobbits still have to undertake.
The only sign of hope for the Hobbits is Sam, his heartfelt speech bringing Frodo out of his darkness. Many have considered Samwise Gamgee to be the true hero of the saga, his loyalty and friendship persevering through the darkest of times. As the two Hobbits grow closer to Mordor, and the threat of Shelob’s lair, we know that we must yet again place our trust in both Samwise and the fragile world of humankind.
One tower remains; the War for the Ring is about to truly begin.