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Why I don't like Jackson's "The Two Towers"

by Collie Collier
March 2004 Firestarter column

I noticed in the paper today how many Oscars were won by Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies, which were based on J. R. R. Tolkien's fantasy trilogy. I've also seen Return of the King, the last of the movies. While watching, I found myself idly speculating on whether life is imitating art, or art life. By the end of the movie, I'd have to say I very much do not want life to imitate Jackson's vision.

Life, Art, Life...

Tolkien wrote an epic fantasy of the ending of an age and the triumph of good over evil due to the unexpected courage of the small and unimportant as well as the bravery of the noble and impressive, which was quite possibly based on worried extrapolations of the times he was in. He'd already lost most of his contemporaries to the horrors of World War I, and he was writing to his son, off in the battlefields of World War II.

The trilogy had a truly huge cultural impact, apparently far surpassing Tolkien's wildest expectations. Now we have Peter Jackson's movie renditions of the books... and it looks like we'll be starting another round of cultural influence.

From what I've seen of this so far, other personal experience, and scholastic studies, it looks like art and life are too intermingled to say one or the other is the sole driving force. Media affects culture just as much as culture affects media -- and both are affected by, and affect, the populace. Ideally, they all enhance and enrich each other. Ideally.

Given that, I try to make sure the small amount of media I put out is interesting and well considered. It may only interest a small niche group, and my opinions are but the opinions of one among many, but I'll still do my best to think and share my thoughts as well and clearly as I can.

My goal is to promote thoughtful consideration, to entertain, to amuse myself. It is not to manipulate others to my way of thinking, any more than Tolkien's was.

I think that's why I was ultimately so disappointed in Jackson's The Two Towers, although it took me a while to put my finger on the reason why. It wasn't that Jackson had departed so radically from the books -- it was his blatant attempts to manipulate his audience, and to do so at the cost of the dignity of a particular group of society.

Jarring Dissonance

I refer to the scenes of the battle at Helm's Deep. In the movie all boys over the age of 13 or so were drafted into the army to help hold the walls, while all the women were sent below with the children.

They did what?!

Let's think about this logically. These very young boys were portrayed as lightly built, insecure, and untrained. Some had apparently never picked up a sword before, let alone worn armor. There weren't very many of them; they were frightened and had no real reason to defend the walls, other than to save their lives.

The women, on the other hand, were shown as numerous, sturdy, and strong. Furthermore, they had extremely good reasons to defend the walls ruthlessly -- their children and families were behind those walls.

Why were the more effective, more numerous women sent off with the children, while what were (in effect) nothing more than a handful of male children were kept at the walls?

Women and War in History

Historically speaking, this is nonsense. Women have been warriors throughout the ages, both in cultures which honored them, and in those which tried to suppress them. If the subject interests you (and I always encourage research), please read through the Women Warriors section on the fascinating web site GenderGap.

There's a Bibliography at the end of the "Women Warriors" page. I find it both telling and very sad most of the factual books on historical women and war are out of print, despite their being mostly no more than about 20 years old.

Still, let us return to Tolkien and his times. In the book the women and children were sent away, although during WWII they had to live through the bombing of London just like everyone else. I was asked by a friend if perhaps there was, from those times where Londoners had to sit out bombings in basements, some justification for Jackson's portrayal of women as cowering and weeping?

Nice try, but no cigar. Many years ago, for a class project, I was lucky enough to talk to an English nurse stationed in London during the bombing in World War II. She was an amazing woman, and told her stories briskly and with enthusiasm.

She talked of people calmly comforting the children, not cowering with them, and of both men and women needing that comfort as well sometimes -- because everyone went underground when the bombs fell, just as everyone helped with the subsequent digging out, and retrieval of the dead and injured.

She related with pride helping people keep their courage up and smile for the children, even if shakily, by briskly reminding them they were English -- what were a few silly German bombs to that?!

She cheerfully talked about listening to the high-pitched squeal of falling bombs and counting the seconds until they landed -- and if you couldn't count all the way to five or so, well then, the bomb would be landing on you!

Most moving to me was her relating stories of everyone sitting together, sometimes in utter darkness, holding hands and singing patriotic songs to keep their spirits up -- while the ground around them shook from the bombings.

Now that's bravery. Why couldn't Jackson have shown that?

Another friend pointed out if the women had helped on the walls of Helm's Deep, then Eowyn's sneaking off in armor to fight like a man would have lost much of its emotional impact.

All well and good, but yet again -- why were the women shown as so cowardly? Why did Jackson treat the women of Helm's Deep so shabbily, instead of just sending them off someplace safe -- like Tolkien did in his book?

Advertising & Emotional Manipulation

An interesting sidenote: studies have shown people look at advertising for only seconds at most, unless the ad somehow catches their interest. If the ad can do that, you look at it longer, and are more likely to remember the brand name.

This means advertisers must pack a great deal of information into a very small, compelling space. The easiest way to do this is to tap into the culture's societal expectations, which are sometimes referred to as 'gut feelings.'

Everyone knows an ad which really 'clicked' for them. A good example of this not working well was the Mentos ads several years ago. They left both myself and most of the folks I knew utterly puzzled -- what were they trying to say?

It did not surprise me at all to discover the ads were apparently made in Germany. Doubtless the ads were perfect for a German audience, and tapped into their cultural expectations. However, they weren't just bewildering to American audiences -- for many they were an active turn-off.

[Archived text-only version of article available if link is dead]

Deliberate Emotional Manipulation?

It's my belief this is why Jackson had the folk of Helm's Deep do such a foolish and dangerous thing as send away strong adults in favor of having children on the walls -- like an advertiser, he was (possibly non-consciously) attempting to tap into people's non-conscious gut feelings.

Brave women and men shown manning the walls against a ravening horde, or courageously singing songs together in the basement to keep their spirits up -- that's uplifting, exciting, inspiring! Unfortunately, it's obvious Jackson felt that wasn't enough. He apparently thought he needed to make the scenes more emotionally 'grabby' -- so he tried to call on people's protective feelings as well.

This isn't a bad thing... but why couldn't he accomplish that effect by either following the book, or by showing the littler children being bravely cared for by the older children, while the women and men of Helm's Deep courageously defended the walls?

I don't see how that lessens the movie's impact -- if anything, it would surely increase it. However (unsurprisingly), I wasn't consulted on the movie's social or emotional implications.

Instead, Jackson tried to blatantly manipulate our emotions. He portrayed cowering, helpless women and children as nothing more than the 'prize' at the end of the battle -- terrorized, passively ineffectual, and incapable of determining their own fates.

I don't like it when people try to manipulate me like that, regardless of whether it's emotionally or otherwise. Give me the facts and let me make a reasoned decision; don't treat me like a thoughtless child.

That's what Jackson did to his audience -- he treated them like little children who're incapable of reasonably understanding the danger the characters were in.



The Jackson movie The Two Towers is based on a story written by Tolkien, who was probably an unwitting, unrepentantly ethnocentric Englishman. As a consequence, Tolkien's writing carries all the cultural baggage of his time, which I can't blame him for.

I don't have any issue with Tolkien's writing -- it is from another time and place, and he wrote what made sense to him. This included his removing the women and children entirely from battle -- not leaving them pointlessly cowering and crying in a basement.

Unsurprisingly, the movie doesn't completely follow the books. That's to be expected, considering the incredibly huge scope of the books. Ultimately, however, I found myself wishing if Jackson was going to depart so from the story, why didn't he depart even more, and dispense with the pointless and inaccurate sexism?

I like encouraging media which doesn't lean on tired old clichés for emotional impact. Furthermore, when societal expectations are stifling, blatantly false, or belittling of a particular group, I can't imagine why any intelligent, thoughtful creator wouldn't want to do their best to help shatter them.

In the end, Jackson's art distorted -- it did not imitate either the art which initiated it, nor the life which initiated the creation of that original written art. I sincerely hope life will never imitate his demeaning view of female and male role models.

This is pretty much why I found The Two Towers an acceptable action movie -- but due to the transparent emotional manipulation Jackson stooped to using, it was ultimately not terribly enjoyable.


27.03.04: Lou's comments

Okay, I've read this. It's even still March! =)

I didn't have many deep thoughts on it. We'd discussed this in person enough that I've had a chance to give you what I thought about it.

I hadn't really thought about the conscription of the boys as manipulative, but it certainly was, and that was another mark against it. I'm less and less impressed with the movies, the more I think about them.

This is only one place he made a manipulative decision that went differently than the books; it's merely a hot button for you. I think the Ents were made to look like foolish dupes, the courage of the Tooks was utterly lost, and that Gimli's portrayal was not nearly as strong as it could have been.

Oh, gosh, you're right -- I'd forgotten that! Yes, the "non-Frodo-or-Samwise" hobbits were stupid children who kept getting others into trouble with their thoughtless antics, and should have been left at home. The Ents were breathtakingly simplistic morons in the movie, and I found the "everything is aaaaall the same!" at the end, when the hobbits returned home, to be... well, childishly naive. No one goes through ordeals like that unscathed -- no one I've ever heard of, at least.

05.03.04: Dobie's comments

Interesting! The GenderGap site was interesting, although I wish it'd provided specific cite information for its claims (I know it had a bibliography, but it didn't footnote) since I'd like to know more about some of the historical bits it cited.

My perspective on TT is a bit different. Both Arwen and Eowyn were highlighted in the movies in the way they weren't in the books. In the books, except for Arwen, Eowyn and Galadriel, women are invisible. I'd have to watch the movie again (been a while) but my initial impression wasn't that the women were cowering as much as just plain scared - obviously there's much room for interpretation here. If you're going to take aim at sexism, then go right to the source - the books and the time in which they were written. Comparing real world history to an film adaption of a fantasy literary work that was steeped in ethos of its times doesn't quite work for me. I didn't see the siege as any more emotionally manipulative than any other cinematographic techniques in any other adventure (or even within the series) - but obviously mileage varies.

Your choice. I stand by my critique as it is now constituted. I find it faintly amusing you too are 'poo-poo!'ing the situation with how the women were portrayed, by suggesting my objections are due solely to how I "interpret" the movie, rather than that I might have an actual point, and by demanding I turn my attention to something I clearly stated in the review was not an issue within the movie for me.

My particular nitpicks with TT had more to do with the various changes between the books and the movies; how certain characters and situations were handled. But that's a different and more extensive critique.

It's been done -- and this is only one of several such sites. Google for more if you wish.

06.03.04: Scott's comments

I read the article, and I found the article, good reading as usual. The two items that to me stood out about your reaction is in the first part, your knowledge of history, specifically the role of women in pre-20th century situations, is unusual, and that when you see something that contradicts your studies, your "suspenders of Disbelief" snap.

It is analogous to what happens when I see a War Movie, and see items that are incorrect, or misused documentary footage. But until recently, most people making war movies, did not care, as long as the action was exciting, and the box office was good. Only as of late, after the success of "Saving Private Ryan" has the authenticity standards of WW2 movies risen. Now to bring this back on the subject at hand. WW2 is still within "living Memory" where people can ask their elders "What they did during the war". However, times before the 1920's get increasingly vague with the first world war about now at the extent of "living" memory, now. Any events that have occurred before then are only on plaques and books. History is becoming less and less popular in school, and the texts are terrible, and sanitized. The only consciousness the average person has about history is what they have seen in movies or read in historical fiction, neither of which is very accurate, and usually painted quite broadly for entertainment purposes.

The second item is the Art of Film Itself. The art of film in its very nature is manipulative. It is it's foundation. Where stage acting is "revealing, and truthful", Film is about guiding passive audience members to the points where the director wants them. Film and Film production is one of the few areas of study I applied myself (and the few times I had fun with school homework), so I think I have a fairly good knowledge of film techniques. One of the most successful Modern Directors, Steven Spielberg is also one of the most shameless manipulators.

Films and Audiences have evolved simultaneously, so that Old Films, one can see the manipulation with greater clarity, than you can in more recent (good) films, until they hit a note, where, due to your education and research know is false. To prove that the foundations of Film are manipulation, one only has to look at the composition of each shot, and then how these are edited together to form a sequence. Things such as the height of the camera, in relation to the photographed subject, and the perceived size of the subject within the frames. As Soon as film broke away from it's early forms of simply filming a stage full of players pantomiming, Directors have used shot composition to guide the emotions and thinking of their audience. From simple shot composition, one then moves into lighting, and the psychological effects of color and shadow, The channels of communication to the audience steadily got broader and broader. The effect of Musical Score on the emotions of the audience was explored as soon as sound became reliable. With WW2, the utility of Film as a propaganda tool was explored and exploited, and afterward, Directors used those techniques to convey their messages fairly precisely. Already the knowledge of the manipulation was becoming widespread as terms such as "Tear Jerker" (A very bold acknowledgment of the manipulation) became common around toward the end of the war.

Spielberg has become more subtle in recent years, as the "maturity" of his stories has suggested he should be, so the blatancy of "Poltergeist", "E.T." may no longer be his style, but it does show his propensity for manipulation. Using different techniques such as Monochrome for Schindler's List", and Reduced Saturation and adjusted shutter openings to get that adrenalized crispness of "Saving Private Ryan".

So Film is by it's very nature, manipulative, but I also think that the Audience may usually be "okay" with it. Unlike the stage, Film is a medium of passive observance. The directors try to gage and engender audience reaction, but they cannot know if their success, unless they tune the picture with a lot of test screenings (and many do). But the Average Audience Member pays their money to go sit in a comfortable seat, and expect to be entertained, to be emotionally engaged to the point they can forget their daily troubles. They are thinking "Entertain me". They put a certain amount of trust in certain directors, stars, genres, and go to have their "entertainment".

Because of this I think Film is most successful when it is an "emotional" rather than an intellectual medium, and because of the expense needed to mount a film production, the bulk of production will move where the better and larger returns are. So it would follow, that PJ's who's first films were Comedy and Horror (with comedy in it), built his career in trying to engage the emotional extremes of his audience, and learn his craft. With each movie he broadened his emotional range,His subtlety, and improved the look and craft of his works. (Instead of staying in one limited emotional range that other lesser directors find and rarely leave). That he was trying to emotionally manipulate the audience is no surprise to me. That you caught him at it, is no surprise to me either, as you do seem to be a little sensitive to the portrayal of women in any media. But in P.J.'s defense, he is operating in a long and celebrated tradition of emotional manipulation in film.

When it rings false, though, yeah it taints the whole film. E.T. for me was so blatant I fumed through the movie, and thought that "Poltergeist" released later that same summer was a much better movie.

10.31.05: Greg's comments

(and my replies)>

Just a quick blurb, not even worthy of posting...

Sure it is! ;)

I didn't really like Two Towers either (though for different reasons than what you mention)...of all of them, I prefer the first best of all...Return of the King was good in places, but failed on others, for me.

What were your reasons for not enjoying "Two Towers"? I agree, the first one was the best. I think it also cleaved most closely to the original, which I consider telling.

I guess I'm just wondering how you view the troika of movies all together, both as a whole and individually, as opposed to just 'Two Towers' alone. If you feel like writing about the other two, please do. ;)

Hmm... I don't know if I'll ever write about the other two, for the simple reason I don't really have that much urge to watch them again. I do recall one truly awful moment in the last movie, though -- toe-curlingly bad! It's the scene where the 'good guys' are charging on horseback down a steep hillside... into a packed embankment of pikes!

Even though I knew the sunlight would demoralize the orcs, I found it highly unlikely
none of them had the presence of mind to hold their pikes steady another second or two... which would have led to a truly bloody and horrific massacre as the horses screamingly impaled themselves on the pikes and dumped their riders in their agonized thrashing.

No, I didn't like that scene at all.

05.28.06: Pretzel's comments

(and my replies)

Thank you for sharing that. It's been a conversation I have had a lot of times that never goes well (possibly because it is usually with men who are fans of the movie) so it was good to see.

It's been over a decade since my last attempt to read the books. I think I read the hobbit like 4 times - each time trying to read the whole series. I only made it as far as the end of the 3rd book once - and it was only by force.

I couldn't figure out what my aversion was (other then my ADD and the sheer amount of chaos going on) and it took watching the movies as an adult in 3d to see why the child and adolescent me might have felt left out.

Your observation of the difference in JR.T's disinterest in telling the female story vs Jackson's using them as "prize" or emotional manipulator.

I'm glad to hear you found it interesting! You have my sympathies regarding that unpleasant frustrated feeling some forms of media create -- and it's always something you can't quite put your finger on, and all the guys you know think you're silly for not liking it... yeah, that's no fun.

Thanks again for your feedback! ;)