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Brian Tiemann
Silicon Valley-based purveyor of a confusing mixture of Apple punditry and political bile.

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Thursday, November 27, 2003
01:19 - The battle for Helm's Deep is over; the battle for Middle-Earth is about to begin

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Reviewers on the radio who have seen advance screenings of Return of the King are saying things like, "It's better than the second movie, which was better than the first-- and that's never happened before in movie history."

And on the subject of things that if you'd shown them to me when I was twelve, I would have laughed in your face, is this:

Complete with full-color 3D maps of Rohan, Gondor, and Mordor, made by the same art department that six months ago was cranking out graphics of troop movements up the Euphrates. Unreal.

Anyway, George e-mails with the following:

In Lileks’ Bleat, he referenced LOTR and wrote that it might be the most impressive thing he has ever seen on the screen.  I, to a large extent, agree wholeheartedly. However, my heart hurts when I think what the director and cast did to “The Two Towers” to achieve a bizarre undertone of anti-war smarminess. . .

The Two Towers was a fantastic screenplay. But they tried, in for me what was a horrifying way, to blur the lines between Good and Evil; to compromise with Evil; to preach the bizarre doctrine that maybe it was best to leave Evil alone and go one’s own way, trying to ignore it.  Oy.

As I follow the news and some blogs, I ask: am I that far gone that I am the only one to notice this?

In the Two Towers, everyone wants to surrender and nobody is Good.

Points:  Elrond and the elves are leaving Middle Earth, over and over and over again, because this is not their battle and they can’t win.  NO – Toilken didn’t write that.  The elves were always leaving Middle Earth, but they knew they fighting Sauron was a Good thing to do.

Treebeard says he is not going to fight and has to be tricked by the hobbits into doing so.  NO – The ents don’t want to fight, but do so anyway because they realize that Evil must be stopped.

King Theoden tells Gandalf that he will not fight and leads his people to safety to Helm’s Deep.  NO – He leads his people into battle; sends the non-warriors to safety in the mountains; and goes to rescue those fighting at Helm’s Deep.

Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli all despair at Helm’s Deep, convinced that it is hopeless.   NO – They never believe that it is hopless, even though they despair.

Faramir captures Frodo and Sam to take the Ring back to Gondor.  NO – Faramir nobly rises high above that temptation and lets Frodo and Sam go.

There is a subtle undertone throughout that surrender – either to running away or to the sensual joys of romance (the love scenes between Aragorn and Arwen), are viable alternatives to fighting Evil, even if you can’t; or don’t want to; or it’s hopeless.  The sucked the nobility of Doing the Right Thing, in spite of the odds against you, out of Toilken’s masterpiece.   Oy.

Toilken wrote of nobility in fighting the good fight, “no matter how hopeless…. I fight for the Right, without question or pause; to be willing to march into Hell for a Heavenly cause.”

Jackson has implied that it is okay to “Run Away!  Run Away!”

The changes he perpetrated do nothing for the story, the screentime or the overall “feeling” of the movie….

I do not like these people.  But I will see The Return of the King in the hope that redemption is at hand.

Now, it's true that there are things about The Two Towers that bug me. I don't like Faramir-- let's get that straight, right out in the open. In the book, you're supposed to sympathize with Faramir-- the Good Son who nonetheless can do nothing right in the eyes of his father Denethor, who is blinded with pride for his dumber but better-looking elder son Boromir. In the book, you're led to feel pained rejection when thinking about Boromir, and to cheer from deep within for Faramir to eventually prove his worth. But in the movie-- possibly because Boromir actually looks so good, especially in full armor, and Faramir has that weaselly, big-nosed, sullen look about him (plus one of those inevitable "I have a beard" beards, as a friend of mine in college put it)-- we find ourselves rooting for Boromir as a totally sympathetic character, after his spectacular redeeming death-scene, whereas Faramir we detest as a cold-eyed, bureaucratic pedant who puts the Quest in more danger than Boromir ever did. That's a big departure from the book, and I'm not sure I like it, because Faramir was always one of my favorites.

But he's only one of the characters who underwent changes in Jackson's adaptation; just about everybody who was unarguably noble and "good" in the book was given a more self-interested and petty motivation in the movie, one which they all had to overcome-- each in his own way-- before they could be said truly to be on the side of Good. In the book, you knew who you could trust, implicitly; but in the movie, nobody in the entire landscape seemed trustworthy-- not Théoden, not Faramir, not Treebeard, not even Éomer. They all come off, at least at first, as people to be just as wary of as any Orc.

I'm not, however, convinced that these changes were part of a general push by Jackson and co. to preach Market Street platitudes about peace-in-our-time and appeasement. In fact, I think that's quite the opposite of the final message of the film.

Of all the points that George lists, where various characters are recalcitrant in the face of their duty or the coming war, each and every one is a case where the characters in question are shown as making the wrong decisions, from which they must later redeem themselves.

Even after Gandalf healed him from Saruman's spell, Théoden defied Gandalf's advice in taking his people to Helm's Deep; and Gandalf is the only character in the film who is shown as being 100% right-- he's actually constantly counseling that Théoden and others should ride out and meet the enemy head-on. Théoden ignores him, and Gandalf is (rightly) worried that this will be a disaster for Rohan-- and that's when Gandalf decides that he himself must act, running to fetch Éomer, or else see Rohan die because it refused to fight when the time was ripe. Finally Théoden redeems himself by following Gandalf's ride-out-and-meet-them advice, though by that time it's right in the Hornburg itself-- better late than never, I say.

(I was amused from the outset by the fact that Wormtongue was accusing Éomer of "warmongering" even when faced with the most blatant of evidence that Saruman was making war on them. I took this as a very hopeful sign, given the parallels with today's world.)

Aragorn, he of the "No Blood for Oil" t-shirt off the set, was the one who said "Open war is upon you, whether you would risk it or not." And Éowyn, in what I thought was a charmingly appealing 2nd-Amendment homage, said, "The women of this land long ago learned that even those without swords can still die upon them." The protagonists, the guys whose opinions we trust throughout the movies, are the ones who stump for war-- and if only they'd been listened to, great evil could have been averted. Nowhere in the film are we given the impression that running and hiding can have anything but disastrous consequences. That gets you nothing but a massacre in Aglarond.

Similarly with Treebeard. The fact that he and the Ents aren't going to fight is presented as a bad thing, not a virtue. (As is their interminable Entmoot, where they sway and rustle and hoom-hom their way over the course of hours and days to approving meaningless "resolutions" of their intent to do nothing at all. Heh.) Merry and Pippin have to convince them to rouse themselves to action, by showing them the trees' equivalent of the pit at the WTC. When called upon to act, they do the right thing, even though they were prepared to just sit it out. And I think the audience is revulsed, by the end, at the fact that they'd been willing to just stand aside until convinced otherwise. Merry and Pippin, after all, come to the realization that if they do nothing, there won't be a Shire to go home to.

The Elves leaving Middle-Earth is seen as a cowardly move, with Arwen the virtuous exception. Haldir redeems his earlier mistrust of the Fellowship by marching to their aid, joining the coalition of the willing. And dying as part of it.

Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas, though initially they despair, eventually come to their mutual understanding (Aragorn with his talk with the kid Haleth) that even though it may seem hopeless, it's better to stand and fight and die with dignity (and humor) than to run and hide.

Faramir eventually comes to understand that destroying the Ring is a higher calling than his own duty to legitimize himself in his father's eyes, or even to grab the Ring for Gondor. He knows (and the audience knows, even more clearly than in the book, now that we've seen the Osgiliath scene on the DVD. in which Denethor appears and makes clear just how he feels about his two sons) exactly what kind of fury he's letting himself in for from his father, once it comes out that he let the Ring go. And yet he did the right thing, and will be redeemed in the end.

And as for Aragorn's love for Arwen, I read his little mental wanderings as more of a "kissing the handkerchief before the battle" sort of thing, a spiritual goodbye. He broke off his engagement with her specifically because he knew of the duty he had, a duty that he's slowly coming to terms with ever since his shrinking from it in the first movie. The audience knows that Aragorn is destined for victory and kingship, but it also knows that he won't get there without huge sacrifice.

I don't think the undertone is that it's "okay" to run away, run away. Quite the opposite-- I think the undercurrent of running away is there, but it's very thoroughly thrust away as a viable course of action, in almost every plotline, across the board. And I think Jackson's purpose in framing these plotlines in such a way-- making everybody into a reluctant and self-interested individual, but then hitting each with some event that turns him around and makes him sacrifice for the greater good-- is intended to establish character depth and growth in everybody under a unifying theme of duty even in the darkest of circumstances. I think that's stronger, even, than the book's portrayal, where these characters are much more self-sacrificing and bound to duty from the outset than how they're portrayed in the movie-- and so they grow less.

It's certainly true that the movie has a very pastoral, anti-industrial slant to it ("The forests will burn in the fires of industry!") that is, incidentally, totally in keeping with Tolkien's own grim outlook on the urbanizing and industrializing England of the early 20th century. But that's not the same thing as promoting a reflexively anti-war stance that can be applied to today's issues. And I'll certainly grant that the allegories aren't exactly parallel either-- in LotR, the West is very clearly fighting a nigh-hopeless, defensive war against an overwhelming and aggresive attacking power, whereas in the real world whether our war is "preemptive" or "defensive" is very much dependent upon the political leanings of whom you ask. Some point to 9/11 as the Pearl Harbor of the War on Terror, while others see it as a statistical outlier that can be ignored, rendering our subsequent actions "illegitimate". Whichever way one tends, it's certainly nowhere near as obvious a set of decisions to be made in the WoT as it is in LotR.

But be that as it may, I think the upshot of all these character and plot tweaks in The Two Towers is very strongly pro-war, pro-doing-the-right-thing, pro-taking-necessary action. The movie is very clear in its insistence that the Enemy cannot be negotiated with, hidden from, or appeased, and any attempts to do so will only end in disaster. In fact, I'd wager that an avowed pacifist watching The Two Towers would be made vaguely uncomfortable by the consequences that it says await those who oppose war under any circumstances.

Or the rewards that it says await those willing to wage it.

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© Brian Tiemann