March 25, 2004

Faramir and the Ents Again

A couple of days ago, there appeared on Brandywine Books a conjecture as to a couple of plot changes in Peter Jackson's film The Two Towers, to wit, why does Faramir take Frodo back to Osgiliath, and how come the Ents first decide not to march on Isengard only to change their minds "hastily". I thought his conjecture was plausible, but I'm a book guy not a film guy, so I challenged Ian Hamet, whom as we all know is a film guy, to give his opinion.

Ian responded with a detailed and informative post in which he dissects the forces acting on the screenwriter and director who have the unenviable task of cutting a massive novel down to size. I won't repeat his observations here; you should go read them. But I do have a few comments.

First, I understand that very few novels can be translated to the screen without significant changes. The two media are extremely different, and the way in which you tell a story is different. That's fine, and I don't have any trouble with many of the changes that were made for this reason. As an example, Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring includes many scenes of Saruman and Isengard that are simply not in the book--but they are consistent with what we eventually find out in the book. That's telling the story in a different way, and it works, and it's appropriate.

But my view is, if you're going to bother creating a screen adaptation of a well-know and much loved novel, you had best tell the same story. Your inventions should, if at all possible, be consistent with the facts of the novel; and if they are not consistent with the facts, they should at least be consistent with the spirit of the novel. And if they can't be consistent with the spirit of the novel, they should at least make sense in the context of the movie.

Let's take the Ents' decision to march on Isengard upon seeing the devastation created by Saruman, immediately after the Entmoot decides to do no such thing. Ian's opinion is that this is a case of "show, don't tell;" the Entmoot's close decision in favor of not marching is overturned by showing them--and us--what Saruman has been doing to Fangorn Forest. Now, I agree with Ian thus far--the devastation, and the Ents' reaction to it, needs to be shown visually. But I think it could have been shown without requiring the Ents to make a snap judgement, something that Ents simply don't do. For example, the Ents could have closed the Entmoot with the resolution to investigate further--and then been roused to full anger when they saw the devastation.

But this is a lesser sin; it bugs me, but in general the right stuff happens.

Next, take Faramir. Faramir's purpose in the book is as a constrast to Boromir. Both are brave; Faramir is also wise. Jackson's changes relieve Faramir of a great bit of his wisdom, and weaken the character (among other things, as we shall see).

Ian argues that Faramir's decision to take Frodo to Osgiliath adds drama to Sam and Frodo's story, drama that is badly needed there since Jackson moved the Shelob's Lair sequence that ends Tolkien's The Two Towers to the third movie. (Ian explains why moving Shelob to the third movie was reasonable, and I rather agree with him.) Ian claims that without the extra drama, Sam and Frodo would have spent the last half of the movie doing a lot of boring clambering about on rocks, and the scene with Faramir would have been devoid of drama.

I'm inclined to disagree--and I don't think Jackson's feel for how much drama is needed in a given scene is all that good. Witness, for example, the collapsing staircase at the end of the Moria sequence in The Fellowship of the Ring. Our heroes have just fought a cave troll, Frodo has apparently been impaled, they are being chased by orcs, and they are about to face a balrog. No additional drama was required. Similarly, when the balrog's whip catches Gandalf, he clings to the cliff for agonizingly long moments; I think it would have been more effective (as well as truer to the book) if he'd shouted "Fly, you fools!" as he was falling into the depths, Doppler shift and all.

In fact, I think the Faramir sequence has scope for plenty of drama without changing its nature; for example, Jackson could have made Faramir much more reluctant to let Gollum go.

But that's not the real reason I complain about the Faramir sequence; I complain about it because it ends up with Frodo in Osgiliath and seen to be there by a Ringwraith. This simply makes no sense.

First, Jackson is ridiculously bad at conveying how large a place Middle Earth is. The battle scenes in The Return of the King, for example, make it look like Minas Morgul is about ten miles away from Minas Tirith; in fact, it's about fifty miles. Having Frodo take a detour to Osgiliath without paying any real time penalty for it is typical.

But OK; grant that the distance is negligible. What's unforgiveable about the sequence is the scene in which the Ringwraith confronts Frodo. As I recall, Frodo is standing on top of a wall, completely exposed. The Ringwraith has very likely seen him before, at Weathertop; but would definitely sense the Ring anyway. You can't tell me that the Ringwraith wouldn't have stooped on Frodo like an owl on a mouse and carried him off to Mordor. Pffft. End of story. Dramatic, yes--but also, absurd and nonsensical.

Back to you, Ian.

Posted by Will Duquette at March 25, 2004 08:44 PM

Phil said:

The Ringwraith confrontation irritates me too, though I was thinking "They can bring that thing down with a well-placed arrow or two. Why isn't anyone shooting at it?" Maybe the scream was too much for them.

Will Duquette said:

Actually, that didn't bother me so much. Nothing radiates existential dread like a Ringwraith; it's easy for me to believe that everyone present was pretty-well unmanned by its presence--even though the dread and fear of its presence is hard to show on-screen.