Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Return to Middle Earth

"Alas, that these evil days should be mine. The young perish and the old linger. That I should live to see the last days of my house."

King Theoden (Bernard Hill)

I remember reading J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy when I was in high school. And I remember seeing an animated version of the prequel to that story, "The Hobbit," around the same time.

And I remember hearing virtually everyone say that it would never be possible to bring the trilogy to the screen with live actors. It might be possible, some conceded, to do an animated version — but even that would be a tremendous undertaking, and success would hardly be assured.

Director Peter Jackson proved them wrong.

He began doing so in 2001 with the release of the film that was based on the first volume in the trilogy, "The Fellowship of the Ring."

If it wasn't clear to most by that time, Jackson had achieved what had been thought for so long to be beyond mortal man's grasp. He solidified that status to such a degree with the release of the second film in the trilogy 10 years ago today, in fact, that I remember everyone talking about how the expected release of the final movie in the trilogy the following year was certain to earn Jackson more than mere nominations for Oscars — and so it did.

"The Two Towers" didn't do so badly as it was. After "Fellowship of the Ring" blazed the trail, "The Two Towers" was nominated for six Oscars — and won two.

Jackson wasn't nominated for Best Director, but he made up for it the next year.

I think perhaps the best thing about a great work of fiction is that each person who reads it forms in his/her own mind an image of what he/she thinks a particular character should look like or sound like.

Sometimes those images tend to resemble each other. Other times, they are wildly at odds.

I guess my image of Gandalf the wizard was probably like most people's. Jackson clearly picked up on that, casting Ian McKellen. He was precisely what I had always imagined Gandalf to be. (Of course, I suppose that was helped along by his designation in the trilogy as "Gandalf the Grey.")

Well, except for one thing, I guess. In the trilogy's prequel, Gandalf was described as a "little old man" — not exactly a dwarf but not tall, either.

In the trilogy itself, he was described as being more man–sized but still not taller than the other wizards.

But in the film he appeared to be a towering presence. Of course, that may have been in comparison to the hobbits with whom he was surrounded. After all, Tolkien did describe hobbits as being humanlike creatures but distinguished from men by their shorter stature. They were called Little People (average height about 3½ feet).

There was really no question, though, that the middle volume of the trilogy had darker, more ominous overtones than the first and third volumes — not unlike the middle film in the original "Star Wars" trilogy, "The Empire Strikes Back."

And that makes sense, I suppose. The dual purpose of the middle volume of any good trilogy is to resolve as many issues from the first volume as possible while presenting the reader/viewer with a new set of conflicts that must be resolved in the third volume.

The first volume is almost always an upper for the reader/viewer — until near the end, when some sort of cliffhanger is presented to lure the reader/viewer back. The original "Star Wars" movie didn't exactly do that — I always felt that it could have stood alone in the annals of filmmaking and probably would have if unexpectedly strong public support for it had not encouraged the making of a second film ... and a third ... and, eventually, a fourth, fifth and sixth.

My point is that there was a certain amount of ambiguity in the late '70s about whether a "Star Wars" sequel would be made. The original had no real cliffhanger — other than whether Princess Leia would choose Han Solo or Luke Skywalker.

There was no such ambiguity when Jackson made his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. He shot all three films simultaneously, then released each individually on an annual basis over a three–year span.

He knew, when he was making the movies, that "The Two Towers" would be a dark and forbidding kind of film and, just as it was in the original books, a bridge to the brighter and more positive finale.

I've often heard it said that "The Two Towers" was the most challenging of the three movies to make, and it's not hard to understand why. It began in the middle of the story and offered no resolution at the end beyond the promise of a third installment a year later. Yet, "The Two Towers" grossed more than $900 million worldwide — more than the first movie and more than all but 19 other films ever made.

I remember reading "The Two Towers" as a teenager and being confused by the many stories that were being told. The fellowship of the ring had been split up at the end of the first book. In "The Two Towers," Frodo and Sam were continuing their journey to Mordor while the other members of the fellowship had scattered in other directions. It was easier to follow the various threads of the story when the visual element was added.

It was in "The Two Towers" that movie viewers also got their first extended look at Gollum. He was mostly a shadowy presence in the first movie, spotted and/or heard momentarily by several characters, but in the second he emerged to lead Frodo and Sam safely to the gates of Mordor, where the battle over the One Ring would be waged in the trilogy's conclusion.

Gollum's portrayal by British actor Andy Serkis perfectly captured the character in my mind. He was precisely as I had imagined when I read those books all those years ago.

Well, I suppose there were variations on the theme. But Gollum's trademark phrase — "My precious" — certainly rang true.

And "The Two Towers" performed its dual tasks well, for Gollum made the transition from being a somewhat neutral character in it to becoming a principal antagonist in the final installment the next year.

It was the successful implementation of the middle film's critical role in a trilogy, and it was best summed up, I believe, by a remark I heard a woman make as we all left the theater at the movie's conclusion:

"What a wonderful movie that was!" she said. "I can't wait to see how it ends."