For all the talk in the current cultural climate about how the wall between the highbrows and the lowbrows fell, or rather, was deconstructed decades ago, it's still a rare film that's as enthusiastically lauded, embraced or even just plain loved by critics and audiences alike as The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Sure, there are critics who cloud their praise with anti-populist grudges but even most of those cave in by their last sentences to the sheer movieness of it all. And there are Tolkien purists frustrated with the filmmakers' tinkering with the sacred text; they'll have even more to grumble about in the case of The Two Towers.
But a book is a book and a movie is a movie and, after years of tackling a supposedly unfilmmable epic, few know the difference as well as Peter Jackson. In a way, he's been lucky. We can doubly appreciate what he's managed to pull off because, two years in a row now, his first two installments of the Lord of the Rings trilogy have been immediately preceded by exemplary lessons in how not to film a book. Where Chris Columbus has taken a straightforward narrative and, applying a stubborn sort of storyboard-by-numbers approach, bled two beloved Harry Potter tales of their magic, Peter Jackson has taken a gnarly, blustering and at times haughtily didactic doorstopper chock full of stilted dialogue and winding diversion and brought it to vibrant, thrilling life.
Last year, you told us that you wouldn't open this film with a summary of the first, and sure enough, you didn't. How hard was it push that through?
Peter Jackson: The studio wanted to do a prologuey thing. But I just find it a very TV kind of device. I think, you know, "The story of Lord of the Rings so far..." It's just like what you see on TV shows. I approached it from a common sense point of view, which may be right or wrong. I just figured that very, very few people, a tiny minority of the audience for The Two Towers will go in and see it without having seen The Fellowship of the Ring. It doesn't really matter whether or not you've seen Fellowship in the theaters. You've probably caught up with it on DVD now. And if you don't want to buy it, you've probably got a friend who's got it. So I didn't want the first five minutes of The Two Towers to be determined by a minority.
So my approach was: You've just seen The Fellowship and you've popped out to the lobby for a popcorn break -- it might have lasted a bit long, twelve months; that's quite a lot of popcorn -- but then we've gone back in and the projectionist has just put on the next reel. I wanted that kind of unity to the story.
The end of the book is much more of a cliffhanger. Structurally, it means that your second act has a sort of upbeat ending. How will that fit with the ending of the third film?
Philippa Boyens: I think that what we tried to do with Gollum is push it to a cliffhanger, but one of the things you had to do: This film has to deliver a satisfying experience. You can't go through three hours of something like that and not have felt like you were getting something, which is where we were going with Sam's speech. Each stage of this journey, particularly for Frodo and Sam, you feel that they've gone through something, that they've moved onto another point. So we needed to do that. I think it's very important for the audience to feel that. Otherwise, it really is episodic.
Peter Jackson: And Frodo and Sam and Gollum's story, we felt, was the psychological story of this film. Aragon and the whole Helm's Deep story and the saving of the people of Rohan story was like the action story. We didn't really want to have the action story, the Helm's Deep climax, at the same as having Frodo and Sam start their own action story by fighting a giant spider. We just felt that would be too much. So we wanted to keep them strictly as the psychological characters. That was the reasoning, really. And we've got a great spider scene for the third film.
Philippa Boyens: I think it's interesting that you ask, though, because we've had other people say, "How can you do that? How can you leave such a cliffhanger ending?" So I think different people receive things in different ways.
Could you talk a bit about the changes you made to the book's original story this time? In the first one, you were very true to the book...
Peter Jackson: Not really. It's an illusion! [laughs] No, no, you're right. I know what you mean.
In the book, for example, Faramir is very pure and very noble, but here in the film, he's got this evil touch. He's even tempted by the ring.
Peter Jackson: For a short time, yeah. We made that change, just to use that example -- and this is really where being a filmmaker differs from being a writer. You make decisions as a filmmaker and, rightly or wrongly, you change things if you think they need to be changed. We wanted the episode with Faramir in this particular film to have a certain degree of tension. Frodo and Sam were captured. Their journey had become more complicated by the fact that they are prisoners. Which they are in the book for a brief period of time. But then, very quickly in the book, Tolkien sort of backs away from there and, as you say, he reveals Faramir to be very pure. At one point, Faramir says, "Look, I wouldn't even touch the ring if I saw it lying on the side of the road."
For us, as filmmakers, that sort of thing creates a bit of a problem because we've spent a lot of time in the last film and in this one to establish this ring as incredibly powerful. Then to suddenly come to a character that says, "Oh, I'm not interested in that," to suddenly go against everything that we've established ourselves is sort of going against our own rules. We certainly acknowledge that Faramir should not do what Boromir did and that he ultimately has the strength to say, "No, you go on your way and I understand." We wanted to make it slightly harder, to have a little more tension than there was in the book. But that's where that sort of decision comes from.
The reality is that The Two Towers is the slightest of the books, I think. We kind of have all the memorable moments of the book in the film and what we've done is to actually enhance and add bits of story that weren't in the book. For instance, we have Frodo and Sam arguing with each other at one point in the movie so that you can see that the tension of what they're doing is getting to them. And that wasn't in the book, but we wanted to develop these characters a bit.
Philippa Boyens: It's the book most people stumble on. A number of people have hit The Two Towers and actually abandoned the trilogy. I think Tolkien went off a little bit on a tangent. There's a lot of his great love of epic storytelling and the warrior code and there are huge passages dealing with that whole thing. Which is his utter privilege, as the owner of the story, to do, but it'd just die on film. Especially in the Aragon story, I think.