The incredible shrinking Tolkien

Like many other fans of the Lord of the Rings novels, Guy Keleny was impressed by last year's film. But the new instalment is another story

Friday 27 December 2002 01:00

Film critics, including my colleague Anthony Quinn, who presumably know and love the horror movies for which Peter Jackson is famed, have hailed his film of The Two Towers as a masterpiece, far surpassing his version of The Fellowship of the Ring. Those who know and love JRR Tolkien's original novels may be less keen.Yes, this is it, I'm afraid. Grumpy Tolkien fan denounces film version. It's been a long time coming, because The Fellowship of the Ring did live up to the expectations that The Two Towers disappoints.

Much as I love The Lord of the Rings, I have to admit that it is a pretty silly story – a piece of higher English whimsy from the same stable as The Wind in the Willows, with added battles. It is rendered believable by two things: the linguistic inventions – Elvish runes and so on – and the magical descriptions of landscape, journeys, weather, distance and the passage of days and seasons.

You cannot expect a film to do much with the language, though the bits of Elvish are convincing enough, and Ian McKellen's rendition of the inscription on the ring in the original Black Speech of Mordor is one of the high points of The Fellowship (pity it's only available in the extended video version intended for Tolkien saddoes like me).

But the landscape and weather and so on will be at the heart of any film version, and in The Fellowship it works. From the homely Shire through the bleak northern wildernesses to the enchanted woods of Rivendell and Lothlorien, we move through Tolkien's world. The landscape of New Zealand was the star of the movie. But much more of The Two Towers takes place in computer-generated landscapes in Fangorn and Helm's Deep. They may generate drama, but little of Tolkien's yearning English Romantic mystery. Real locations are used for Rohan, land of the horse-lords, but it is all wrong. Rohan is a rich southern country, a good 500 miles south of the Shire; a country of rolling grasslands and farmlands, watered by a big, slow-flowing river. Why then has Jackson set it in a part of New Zealand that looks like the Scottish Highlands? And how does he imagine such a poor country supports an army of richly armoured cavalry? Many viewers will not think of such things, but if you do they play merry hell with your suspension of disbelief.

Jackson and his team have taken the hint from the Anglo-Saxon alliterative poetry Tolkien gives the Riders of Rohan to declaim and kitted them out with armour based on the Sutton Hoo hoard. Full marks. But I had looked forward to seeing Eomer and his horsemen approaching the three hunters from the far distance through that sea of waving grass. Hard luck; they don't.

As the narrative moves from north to south, nearer to Gondor and Mordor, another curious failure to realise Tolkien's world also becomes more obvious. The maps at the back of the novels show that from Minas Tirith to the Mountains of Shadow is about 50 miles. From those mountains to Mount Doom is another 50.

So what would a guard on the ramparts of Gondor's citadel see, looking east? Most days, nothing but an ordinary landscape of fields and hills. On a clear day he might see the mountains of Mordor as a dark line on the horizon. And if Mount Doom was in particularly intense eruption I suppose he might see a spark of fire and a smudge of smoke in the farthest distance.

A hint of how Jackson has shrunk that distance emerged in the first film when Gandalf rode to Minas Tirith to consult the old books. There, across a valley only apparently a few miles wide, were the mountains, with the fire of Mount Doom filling the sky beyond. Oh dear, that's wrong, I thought, but let it pass. But with Frodo and Sam now in Ithilien, even closer to those mountains, it becomes a real problem, annihilating the feeling of endless distances that is central to the story's appeal. From the Shire to Mount Doom is a thousand miles. In the first film it felt like it. In the second it feels like just a stiff hike.

What we are left with is a fantasy horror movie with lots of exciting action and excellent special effects, including a terrifically nasty Gollum. It is not a bad way to spend three hours, but it is not The Two Towers. And, heavens, the cinematic cliches! The ghastly Hollywood buddy-buddy relationship between Legolas (Orlando Bloom, pictured) and Gimli; the torments of an Aragorn apparently torn between Arwen and Eowyn (in the book his love for Arwen never falters and for Eowyn he feels pity); the grim little uplifting sermon from Sam about there being" some good somewhere" with which the film ends.

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And as for the depiction of the flaming Eye of Sauron as a kind of electrical effect crackling between two stone horns, like something out of Dr Frankenstein's lab in a Hammer horror; well, pass the athelas, I think I'm going to be ill.

'The Two Towers' is on general release. 'The Fellowship of the Ring' is out on DVD and video

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