Ralph C. Wood
As a longtime reader and teacher of Tolkien, I had expected to like this movie even less than the first of Peter Jackson's grand-scale adaptations of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. I had assigned a grade-inflated B to Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring, since I thought it succeeded as a film while failing severely in attempting to render the moral and religious character of Tolkien's epic novel. I had also been warned that, in this second installment, Jackson takes radical liberties with Tolkien's text, and this proved to be true. To my surprise, however, I liked the film version of The Two Towers, even though Jackson seems to have dropped nearly all desire to remain faithful to the spirit of Tolkien's book. The result is an action film that works, yet its very accomplishment raises serious questions about the relation of the visual image to the aural word.
Jackson's many deviations from Tolkien's narrative serve to move the film along at a rapid clip. And once again the natural scenery is so magnificent that the New Zealand tourist industry must surely be ecstatic. The film also succeeds, in one of its rare moments of religious insight, in showing the odd resemblance between the two enemy wizards. Saruman the White is the once-chief wizard who has become utterly corrupted by seeking to use the demonic Ring of coercive power for the accomplishment of alleged good. Gandalf the Grey, by contrast, is the suffering and dying wizard who has been resuscitated and utterly transfigured by his faithfulness. Yet in his hard-won splendor and authentic spiritual power, Gandalf has taken on the features that were meant for Saruman. So close yet so infinitely far apart, Jackson shows in accord with Tolkien, are the states of glory and misery.
The film's computer-generated images are also extremely well done—above all in the character of Sméagol, the morally and physically withered hobbit who once possessed the Ring of power and who remains obsessed with getting it back. Renamed Gollum because of his greedy desire for fresh fish and his constant throat-muttering, he is here depicted as a terribly emaciated creature with huge, haunted eyes and apelike movements. Such, Jackson reveals, are the dehumanizing effects of evil on body and soul alike. Yet there is a tiny window of freedom letting a sliver of light into Gollum's closed soul, and it has been opened by Frodo's gracious treatment of him. The movie's best moments come when Gollum undergoes a fierce crisis of conscience about his mad desire for the Ring. These finely depicted inner debates reveal the hobbit's true and false selves—the suppressed moral voice of Sméagol, who could still repent and be redeemed, and the corrupted Gollum, who remains entrapped in his lust for the Ring.
How shall we deal with this strange anomaly—that the movie's most convincing character is a computer creation? Though Gollum's movements were acted by Andy Serkis, the shrunken hobbit's actual features were digitized. Will there be a separate Academy Awards category for the Best CGI Character?
The clash between technics and art becomes most acute in the culminating battle of Helm's Deep. Jackson offers a gripping depiction of the horrors and confusions of war, whether ancient or modern. The thousands of combatants—as Saruman's monstrous warriors are marshaled into huge phalanxes making their assault on the final outpost of Rohan—require no deadly suspension of disbelief. It's a magnificent spectacle.
Aristotle regarded spectacle as the last and least of drama's essential elements—a crowd-pleasing device that mustn't overwhelm the play's central moral and spiritual conflict. Jackson not only allows spectacle to overwhelm the agon of Tolkien's book, but seems deliberately to have done so. Tolkien describes the actual combat at Helm's Deep ever so sparingly—with minimal attention to violence and gore—while Jackson turns the book's ten-page account into a 30-minute climax. Yet even if at too great a length, Jackson catches the unbowed heroism of Tolkien's courageous Company. With undaunted valor they fight against enemies who are far more numerous and unthinkably more vicious. Jackson's cinematic mastery captures both the virile strength and the exceptional virtue of Tolkien's small band of warriors. They display the gallantry that Tolkien admired in ancient heroic cultures and that he used as a model for much of The Lord of the Rings.
But Jackson deliberately downplays the deeply grounded Catholic faith that imbues Tolkien's pre-Christian epic with profound Christian concerns. In making the hellish mêlée the movie's grand climacteric, Jackson fails to demonstrate the real moral impetus behind the willingness of the Company to enter this terrible combat against an overwhelmingly powerful enemy. Unlike the movie, the book convinces us that the hobbits and their friends are bound by unbreakable ties of friendship and sacrifice. Not only do they trust each other implicitly; they also have a shared faith in an unfailing guide (the wizard Gandalf) as well as undying devotion to a transcendent good (the destruction of the Ring). Rather like the early disciples of Jesus, they are a communion of the unlike—including such historic enemies as a dwarf and an elf. Even though they have been splintered into three sub-groups, they still function as mini-communities maintaining a profound solidarity with each other. Always they know that their companions, wherever they are, look eastward to Mount Doom, since Sam and Frodo are struggling toward this pernicious place where alone their mission can finally be accomplished.
Jackson fails to comprehend not only the mystery of goodness that Tolkien so convincingly embodies but the mystery of iniquity as well. Already in the first installment, Jackson chose to make the wizard Saruman into a figure of instant and uncomplicated evil, when in fact Tolkien depicts him as a wise and eloquent figure who gradually became deluded by his desire to employ the evil Ring to accomplish his own idea of the good. In The Two Towers, Jackson turns Saruman's lieutenant Grima Wormtongue into an equally obvious avatar of malice. Because there is nothing subtle about Grima's machinations, why would a wise king such as Théoden have been seduced by him? Instead of answering the enigma he poses, Jackson elects to make Théoden spookily inhabited by the spirit of Saruman, and to have Gandalf perform an even spookier exorcism on him. King and wizard alike are thereby demeaned.
The movie also fails to reveal why Frodo is so terribly burdened by his bearing of the Ring. It rightly shows him to be weary and exhausted and discouraged for possessing Sauron's vile instrument, but only once in the movie is Frodo actually tempted to put it on. For Tolkien, the constant temptation to wear the Ring is what makes its power so corrupting and debilitating. Repeatedly in the novel, Frodo longs to use the Ring in order to escape from a crisis or to solve a problem. Here we are given little more than poignant sighs and grimaces from Frodo, though Sam is convincingly shown to be his sturdy and loyal companion.
Surely Jackson's most egregious concession to spectacle over agon lies in his decision to omit the return of the Company to Isengard, Saruman's fortress, after their victory over Saruman's forces at Helm's Deep. Gandalf is determined to proffer mercy to the chief malefactor—to open the prison doors of Saruman's sin by urging him to repentance and reconciliation. Saruman refuses the path of freedom, alas, and remains enslaved to his own desire for power. Yet this refusal serves but to reinforce the Christian leitmotif of Tolkien's entire epic: pity. In pagan cultures, whether ancient or recent, mercy is granted only to the weak and helpless, never to the strong and undeserving, lest they be denied justice. For Tolkien the Christian and Augustinian, the injustice of the powerful cannot be broken by force but only by mercy and grace. And because evil is a perversion and distortion of the good—never having any positive existence of its own—no creature in The Lord of the Rings lies beyond redemption. Not even Sauron was evil in the beginning.
What, then, are we to make of a successful film that fails to render the moral burden of a great book, while missing its Christian core altogether? The question becomes all the more acute when we recall that most American college students have seen nearly a hundred films for every book they have read. Ours is an increasingly visual culture where the aural word, whether written or spoken, is steadily devalued. What makes this phenomenon doubly disturbing is that movies are a fundamentally passive medium. They form images for us, whereas even the tawdriest novel requires the mind to make its own mental pictures. Tolkien also disliked stage-enacted plays, fearing that they coerced the imagination by providing a fixed vision of both characters and events.
The answer to our dilemma lies perhaps in Tolkien's distinction between adventure and quest. An adventure, as Frodo explains, is a "there-and-back-again" affair. One undertakes it largely as a matter of one's own desire—often from boredom and a lust for excitement. Once the treasure is found and the adventure is over, one circles back home essentially unchanged by the experience. An escapist culture lives for adventures, he might have added, and today's violent action films are among the chief means of our flight from the wrenching conflicts of life.
A quest, by contrast, is a fulfillment not of one's desire but of one's calling. Over and again, Frodo asks why he has been chosen for his dreadful task. His summons, moreover, is not to find a treasure but to lose one—to cast the Ring back into the Cracks of Mount Doom. A quest is thus a vocation—an errand in the medieval sense, and its outcome entails something immensely larger and more important than one's own happiness.
The Company's calling to destroy the Ring, though seemingly an impossible mission, is an extreme version of the ordinary journey of life itself. Like Frodo, we are called not so much to find a treasure as to lose one: to lay down the bounty granted at our birth. All of us must give up our lives—whether sooner or later, whether bitterly or graciously, whether by accident or intention. This means that we are all embarked, as Bilbo Baggins often declared, on the same Road. The path does not often lead back home again, for its perils are so likely that one's destiny can never be certain. Legolas the elf declares the truth which serves almost as the motto of Tolkien's epic: "Few can foresee whither their road will lead them, till they come to its end." The question—and thus the quest—concerns how we shall travel the one Road, how we shall complete our quest.
Peter Jackson's film version of The Two Towers depicts an adventure more than a quest. It's a splendid story about a noble battle against a mighty enemy. Perhaps this is the most that a good film can accomplish. Yet there may also be a link between the triumph of visual adventures and the loss of the aural quest in our culture and our churches alike. A famine of words may signal a famine of the Word. There is little doubt that the biblical tradition elevates word over picture, hearing over sight. While the Jews are forbidden to make representations of Yahweh, they are constantly admonished to "Hear, O Israel, the LORD your God is one God." Over and again Scripture declares that no one has seen God, while prophets and apostles call all and sundry to hear the Word.
Tolkien may be acknowledging this fundamental point in having Sauron embody himself as a gigantic lidless Eye. It is an organ of surfaces that cannot penetrate depths, as Sauron remains notably opaque to the self-surrendering motives of the Company. The ear, by contrast, is an organ for receiving announcements, and thus for either obeying or refusing commands. The Company's life is primarily aural. They spend much of their time in conversation—listening to stories of the past, receiving instruction, learning the lore that tells them who they are. Not least among Tolkien's many achievements in The Lord of the Rings is also to have converted us into readers and hearers of the word. His book requires us not only to form our own mental images of the quest; it also enables us to receive its summons and thus to embark faithfully on the one Road. Peter Jackson's hugely successful movies, by contrast, take us on an exciting visual adventure.
Ralph C. Wood is University Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University.
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.