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The Two Towers

A Movie-goer’s Guide

Like The Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson's The Two Towers is a tremendous movie - visually stunning and rightfully hailed as a true epic. What it very definitely is not, though, is any kind of direct translation of Tolkien's original book to the medium of film. Where the movie version of The Fellowship of the Ring really only differed from the book in matters of detail, it's fair to say that The Two Towers reinvents more than a little of the history of the War of the Ring.

Like our original Movie-goer's Guide to The Fellowship of the Ring, this article is mainly aimed at those who've seen the movie before reading the book, to help introduce that much deeper and richer world created by Tolkien. It's unavoidable that it also discusses some of the major variations from the book to the movie.

You should be aware that this article, and indeed this entire site, contains reference information that might spoil your enjoyment of the movies or the books. If you haven't seen (or, better still, read) The Two Towers, then we strongly recommend you don't read any further until you have.

This article has been updated to include a few comments relating to the Extended Edition DVD.

Of Books and Films

Purely from the perspective of its faithfulness to the book, The Two Towers is a much more controversial film than its predecessor. From viewers who have never read the original books, the response seems to be almost universally positive. For those of us who know Tolkien's tales well, though, while we can certainly enjoy the movie on its own level too, it's probably true to say that there's a general sense of discomfort at its distance from the original work. It's beyond the aims of this article to try to judge the rights and wrongs of such changes, but they've generated such a response that it would be remiss not to comment on them, however briefly.

At one extreme of this argument is the view that sees the movie of The Two Towers purely as a work by Peter Jackson and his colleagues. This view was succinctly expressed by the commentator Mark Lawson in his column for The Guardian newspaper. Writing of negative responses to The Fellowship of the Ring, he expressed the view that 'This hostility to interpretation is anti-cinematic. The point of movies is to rip up the words and reassemble them as pictures which may - which should - differ in key details.' It has to be said that - at least in a general sense - he is absolutely right about this. One recent popular example of this is the adaptation of Ted Hughes' wonderful fable The Iron Man, which was turned into an animated feature film, The Iron Giant, in 1999. That film jettisoned almost every character and situation from the original book, deleted its entire second half, relocated the action in time and in space: in fact, it fundamentally modified the original in almost every way, and yet the result was a charming and engaging tale in its own right (to the extent that visitors to the Internet Movie Database consider it the 198th best movie ever made, at least at the time of writing). So, there clearly isn't anything intrinsically 'wrong' about making radical changes like this.

But this freedom of interpretation must surely be valid only up to a point. If we were to see a film version of Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending, say, it's hard to imagine the critics accepting that 'reassembly' in a positive light. When Thomas Bowdler attempted to revise and adapt Shakespeare's works to his contemporary (early nineteenth century) audience, his reward was to be immortalised by the scornful word 'bowdlerise'. So, there is a line beyond which an adapter strays at their peril, at least for some exceptional works.

Of course it would be preposterous to compare Tolkien to Shakespeare (or Peter Jackson to Thomas Bowdler!), but it can be argued that his work has a particular exceptional quality of its own. Tolkien is unique in that his stories take place in a fully realised universe, and one that (to a great extent) pre-existed the stories themselves. The Lord of the Rings is an historical novel, and the trivial fact that its history is a fictional one is really beside the point. Its consistent adherence to its own underlying reality is a key (perhaps the key) strength of the book. Even the tiniest of changes within the story can potentially have profound effects on the fabric of its universe, and it's that universe, as much as the stories he set in it, that is Tolkien's true legacy. Perhaps that consideration can help define what's a reasonable change to the original story - the extent to which it enhances or diminishes the broader tapestry into which the story is woven.

The extent to which Peter Jackson steps over this hazy limit, if at all, is really a matter of personal judgement. In the rest of this article, we'll leave such considerations aside and try to bridge the gap between Peter Jackson's movie and J.R.R. Tolkien's book, and also delve a little into the background of the story.

Which Two Towers?

Originally, Tolkien had meant The Lord of the Rings to be a single book, rather than a trilogy. When The Lord of the Rings came to be published in the 1950's, paper was still in short supply after the Second World War, meaning that it could only practically be produced as three separate volumes. The middle volume of the three contains so many varied lines of action that Tolkien seems to have found some trouble naming it. In his own words:

"I am not at all happy about the title 'the Two Towers'. It must if there is any real reference in it to Vol II refer to Orthanc and the Tower of Cirith Ungol. But since there is so much made of the basic opposition of the Dark Tower and Minas Tirith, that seems very misleading."
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien No 143, dated 1954

Tolkien also considered at least five other combinations of the towers of Barad-dûr, Cirith Ungol, Minas Morgul, Minas Tirith and Orthanc, and it seems that he never settled on a definitive identity for the eponymous towers. (If you haven't read the book, don't be surprised that you haven't heard of the towers of Cirith Ungol or Minas Morgul. In the movie version of the trilogy, the story of Cirith Ungol has been moved to The Return of the King, and Minas Morgul gets only a fleeting mention in The Fellowship of the Ring.)

Peter Jackson seems to have suffered no such indecision over his two towers. In one of the earliest scenes of the movie, Saruman identifies them as his own tower of Orthanc at Isengard, and Sauron's Dark Tower of Barad-dûr, and this is in fact one of the many combinations that Tolkien suggested himself.

Major Changes from the Book to the Film

This section takes a look at some of the more fundamental ways that the movie differs from its source material. These are changes that modify the underlying structure of the story in important ways, or introduce events that never occurred in the original book.

  • Perhaps the most obvious and significant difference is in the way the various storylines of The Two Towers are presented. Tolkien's original was literally divided into two books: the first tells us the complete story of Aragorn's adventures in Rohan and the overthrow of Isengard, and then the second returns to Frodo and Sam, and concentrates on their journey through the borderlands of Mordor. It was Tolkien's hope that a movie version of the book would preserve this separation of the story. Of an earlier attempt to film the book, he wrote, 'It is essential that these two branches should each be treated in coherent sequence.' (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 210, dated 1958, with original italics). Nonetheless, it is perhaps not too surprising that the current movie version follows a more conventional approach, cutting between the various storylines as they develop, rather than treating them as entirely separate.
  • In both of the story strands, the movie finishes much earlier than the book. Tolkien's The Two Towers covers events in a period of seventeen days, but the movie only deals with the first thirteen of these, losing about eight chapters of the book in total. If rumours are to be believed, some of these missing events will be transferred to the opening scenes of The Return of the King.
  • The film contains several sequences that are entirely the invention of the film-makers, with nothing directly comparable in the books. Perhaps the most extensive of these is the battle between the Rohirrim and the Wargs on the road to Helm's Deep. That battle is unique to the film version, as are Aragorn's subsequent adventures (he falls into a river which sweeps him away from the others, and eventually spies the armies of Saruman approaching before riding to Helm's Deep).
  • Similarly, the entire sequence showing Elrond's remonstrances with Arwen, and Galadriel's commentary on events, occur only in the movie version. None of these characters appear anywhere in the original book. The idea behind this sequence seems rather at odds with Tolkien's intention - in the book, there is no question of Arwen sailing away from Middle-earth, nor of Aragorn thinking she might do so - these two had long since 'plighted their troth'. While the movie suggests the real possibility of romance between Aragorn and Éowyn, then, this is quite unthinkable in the original book.
  • The story of Frodo's meeting with Faramir has been radically modified. Tolkien's Faramir is one of the most insightful and compassionate characters in the book, intelligent enough to divine the importance of Frodo's mission, and to let him continue without hindrance. In the movie, he's lost all these qualities - deciding to take the Ring to Minas Tirith, he drags Frodo and Sam some forty miles out of their way, allowing a Nazgûl to discover the Ring in Osgiliath, before he realises he's made a mistake.

    In fact, the idea of the Ring being revealed to one of the Ringwraiths in Osgiliath threatens to undermine the entire plot. The whole purpose of Frodo's mission is to bring the Ring to Mordor in secret. His only hope of success is in Sauron's ignorance of the Ring's whereabouts, but here we seem to see one of Sauron's slaves discovering its exact location, and on the very borders of his master's realm. It's not completely clear how Frodo survives this encounter - no such dangerous and foolhardy adventure occurs in the book.

    The Ring in Osgiliath

    The feedback we've had on this point suggests that it's worth exploring in a bit more detail. A lot of people have pointed out that Sauron already knew that the Ring was in the hands of a hobbit, and would have expected it to be on its way to Minas Tirith, so its appearance in Osgiliath, only about twenty miles from the City of Gondor, wouldn't have made a significant difference to his plans.

    Actually, at this point in Tolkien's original story, we have a clearer idea of Sauron's beliefs about the Ring than this suggests. He knew about Saruman's capture of the hobbits beneath Amon Hen, and assumed that one of these had been the Ring-bearer. Through Saruman's palantír (in a scene that hasn't yet appeared in the movie version) he says, 'Tell Saruman that this dainty is not for him. I will send for it at once.' (The Two Towers III 11, The Palantír). Soon after this, he discovered Isengard had been overthrown, and so would presume that the Ring was in the possession of the Rohirrim, out of his reach at that time, but far from Minas Tirith, too.

    The situation presented by the movie would overturn all these presumptions, suddenly presenting him with the Ring all-but unguarded on his own borders. Of course it's impossible to say with certainty what would have happened in a situation like this, but it's also difficult to believe that it wouldn't have affected Sauron's actions in any way at all. Having presumed the Ring to be hundreds of miles away, he would suddenly have found it on his own borders - a few minutes' flight for the Nazgûl, and with a huge army stationed just a few leagues away at Minas Morgul. Given this extraordinary opportunity - the key to victory dangled in front of his grasp - Sauron would surely have made some attempt to recapture it.

    Boromir in Osgiliath

    It should be said that Faramir has several extra scenes in the Extended Edition DVD, and together they go a long way towards presenting the more thoughtful and sympathetic sides to his character that we see in the books. One of these scenes is particularly interesting: a flashback to events in Osgiliath before Boromir left for Rivendell. At one point, Boromir's father Denethor tells him that Elrond has called a Council, and Boromir agrees to set out for the north. Their discussions include the following curious piece of dialogue:

    Denethor ...It is rumoured the weapon of the Enemy has been found.
    Boromir The One Ring? Isildur's Bane!
    Denethor It has fallen into the hands of the Elves...

    This is quite at variance with the book's version of events, in which Boromir is not summoned to Rivendell at all. In the original story, he sets out for his own reasons long before Frodo even leaves the Shire, and has no inkling what 'Isildur's Bane' might be until he sees it at the Council of Elrond. The movies' new version of events raises some interesting questions.

    The book orchestrates events so that Boromir arrives at Rivendell within a few days of Frodo, but here he needs to wait for a messenger to arrive from Elrond before setting out himself: a round trip approaching two thousand miles in length. From this, we'd have to assume a delay of at least several months between Frodo's arrival and the beginning of the Council of Elrond.

    Boromir's motivations are made a little more difficult to understand by this scene, too. In the movie of The Fellowship of the Ring, just as in the book, he's presented as a noble warrior who is uncontrollably tempted to take the Ring for himself. Here, though, we see Denethor instructing his son to capture the Ring for Gondor, which seems to suggest that he is actually working as an undercover agent within the Company, and plotting to recover the Ring all along. The implications of this change are quite profound, but rather beyond the scope of this article.
  • In both the book and the movie, the Ents are motivated to attack Saruman in Isengard, but the details of how this comes about are strangely different. In the book, the Ents gather in Entmoot to discuss the destruction Saruman has been wreaking on their forest, and finally decide that they will attack him in Isengard. In the movie, the same meeting takes place, but the Ents decide that they won't attack. Pippin then manipulates Treebeard into witnessing the destruction of the forest, causing him to change his mind and summon the other Ents to war.

    The logic of the film version is rather difficult to follow. If Treebeard didn't already know about Saruman's destruction of the forest, why was Entmoot called in the first place? If it's necessary for the Ents to hold a council before going to war, why is it that Treebeard can single-handedly overturn their decision? Even more curiously, after walking for miles through the forest away from the other Ents (remember that they had decided not to attack Isengard) Treebeard has only to call them, and they step out of the trees in unison, ready to charge. All in all, Tolkien's version of this plotline seems to make more sense.
  • A word needs to be said about Éomer, whose role in the movie has shrunk to almost insignificant proportions. In the book, he is one of the key characters - after King Théoden is healed by Gandalf, he is made heir to the kingdom of Rohan, and remains with Théoden from then on, fighting beside Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli in the defence of Helm's Deep. In the original, Helm's Deep isn't relieved by Éomer (who is already there), but by a quite different character named Erkenbrand.
  • Tolkien's version of the battle sees Saruman's army ultimately defeated by the Ents and their huorns (the moving trees of Fangorn Forest). There's no hint of this in the theatrical version of the movie, but the Extended Edition DVD changes the ending of the battle slightly - the fleeing Isengarders find themselves confronted by a newly arrived forest, run into it, and are destroyed.

Minor Changes from the Book to the Film

Apart from the larger changes to the structure of the book, the movie also introduces a host of smaller adjustments. These are changes that don't really affect the progress of the story, but are nonetheless quite different from their equivalents in the original.

  • The first of these is the sheer scale of the Battle of the Hornburg (or the Battle of Helm's Deep, as it seems to have become universally known from the movie, though Tolkien never used that term). In Tolkien's version, the entire battle occupies about ten pages - less than one of the book's twenty-one chapters. In the movie, it has been expanded to occupy almost a third of the story. It will be fascinating indeed to see how the movie-makers approach the much larger Battle of the Pelennor Fields in The Return of the King!
  • The idea of the Elves of Lórien marching to the aid of Rohan is verging on the unthinkable - certainly nothing of the kind occurs in the book. These Elves had no historical links with the Rohirrim at all, and were in any case under threat of attack themselves at this time (a strand of the story that the film doesn't attempt to cover). As for Haldir, since he never travelled to Helm's Deep in the original version of events, he didn't die in battle there. Instead, he presumably fought in the defence of his own land, though in fact he is never mentioned in the trilogy after the departure of the Fellowship from Lórien.
  • After fighting the Wargs and being swept away by the river, Aragorn wakes to find a horse. He immediately recognises this horse as 'Brego', which is odd, because no horse named Brego appears anywhere in Tolkien's books, nor has it been mentioned in the movie before this point, at least in the theatrical release. The Extended Edition of the movie solves this puzzle, by providing scenes explaining that Brego was the horse of Théoden's son Théodred. He became wild after his master's death, but Aragorn tamed him again and set him free. In one of the new scenes, Aragorn tells Brego he has a 'kingly name' - a reference to Brego son of Eorl, the second King of Rohan and Théoden's distant ancestor.
  • The idea that Théoden is somehow 'possessed' by Saruman, and that he has to be 'exorcised' by Gandalf is entirely the invention of the movie-makers. In the book, there is no magic involved in this at all, merely the whisperings (and probably poisonous drugs) of Gríma Wormtongue.
  • Understandably, the movie has had to simplify and contract the geography of Rohan somewhat. In the original, the people of Edoras were not sent into danger at Helm's Deep, but were led by Éowyn to the much nearer and more suitable refuge of Dunharrow, in the mountains south of the capital. Only the King and his soldiers rode to war (and in fact they did not originally intend to go to Helm's Deep at all, but past it to defend the Fords of Isen).

Trivia and Curiosities

One of the noticeable differences between The Two Towers and The Fellowship of the Ring is that rather less of the intricacy and detail of the book has made it onto the screen. Because of that, there's rather less in the way of trivia to explore than for the first movie, but there are still a few curiosities that are worth a mention.

  • Legolas' eyesight might be incredibly keen, but his sense of direction leaves something to be desired. Near the beginning of the film, he tells his companions that Saruman's Uruks have turned northeast. This would take them back over the River and off into the wilderness - in fact, their destination of Isengard was northwest from where Legolas stood, and this is confirmed by Faramir's map later in the film.
  • Faramir's map is generally very similar to that given in the books, but with one apparent omission - the tower of Minas Morgul has disappeared. This is strange indeed, since Minas Morgul was Sauron's main base west of the mountains, ruled by the Lord of the Nazgûl himself. It was also within a day's march of Faramir in Osgiliath, so it seems very odd (and somewhat dangerous!) that it should be missed by Gondor's map-makers.
  • Our Movie-goer's Guide to The Fellowship of the Ring mentions Saruman's statement - quite unfounded in the original book - that Sauron could not yet take physical form. The movie of The Two Towers goes to even more bizarre lengths, presenting Sauron as a huge electrical eye hovering over his Dark Tower. These strange renderings are difficult to understand, especially when Tolkien gives a perfectly sound description of the character: 'Sauron should be thought of as very terrible. The form that he took was that of a man of more than human stature, but not gigantic.' (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 246, dated 1963).
  • At the edge of Fangorn Forest, Merry reminds Pippin of the strange trees of the Old Forest on the borders of Buckland. In fact, though we don't see it on screen, the hobbits should have travelled through that forest on their way to Bree in The Fellowship of the Ring. Merry and Pippin were nearly crushed by a tree there, in a scene which reappears on the Extended Edition DVD. The movies change things around a little, so the Hobbits are trapped in Fangorn instead of the Old Forest, and their rescuer is Treebeard, not Tom Bombadil.
  • In the defence of Helm's Deep, we gain a fleeting glimpse of a bearded soldier raising his arm. That's Peter Jackson, in a director's cameo.
  • The Movie-goer's Guide to The Fellowship of the Ring mentioned the curious occurrence of certain vegetables in Middle-earth, like tomatoes, that shouldn't really have been there. In The Two Towers, we have a similar oddity - Sam talks about potatoes several thousand years before they were introduced east of the Great Sea. While the oddities of the first film came largely from the film-makers, these references to potatoes are definitely from Tolkien himself. You can find out more about the botanical peculiarities of Middle-earth in the FAQ.
  • Though Tom Bombadil may not have made it into the movie of The Fellowship of the Ring, some fragments of his dialogue have crept into the Extended Edition of The Two Towers. As they settle down to sleep in Fangorn, for instance, Treebeard tells Merry and Pippin to 'heed no nightly noises', which is Tom's instruction to the Hobbits in the original story.
  • The Extended Edition of the movie includes a scene revealing that Aragorn is eighty-seven years old, and served with Théoden's father Thengel decades before. Though there's no directly equivalent scene in the book, Aragorn did indeed live this long (the royal line of the Dúnedain had exceptionally long lives). To be precise, the movie gets his age very slightly wrong: Aragorn was born on 1 March III 2931, so the day he met Gandalf in Fangorn Forest (1 March III 3019) was his eighty-eighth birthday. He reveals his age to Éowyn just a few days after this, so he should really have told her he was eighty-eight, not eighty-seven.

‘Historical’ Background

If the movie gives us a little less detail than its forerunner, it does at least provide a few brief moments that hint at the greater depth of the original story. Here, we delve into the aspects of Tolkien's fictional history that lie behind some of the events and comments in the movie.

  • Aragorn calls Éowyn 'daughter of Kings', and this family tree shows what he means. Her mother Théodwyn was the youngest sister of King Théoden. She could claim descent from Théoden's father King Thengel, and all of his royal ancestors back to Eorl the Young, who had founded Rohan more than five centuries earlier.
  • One of these great ancestors was Helm Hammerhand, after whom Helm's Deep was named. During his time, the land of Rohan was overrun by its enemies the Dunlendings, and Helm led his people to shelter in the ravine behind the castle of the Hornburg. Helm is only fleetingly mentioned in the movie, but we do see his statue, and Gimli blows his famous horn in the castle. Earlier in the movie, we see Saruman encouraging Men in his own armies: these are the descendants of the Dunlendings who had invaded Rohan two hundred and fifty years beforehand.
  • Aglarond, the caves behind Helm's Deep, are given a brief mention in the movie. What isn't mentioned, though, is their effect on Gimli. With his Dwarvish love of underground places, he is enraptured by the caves' beauty. In fact, in the years after the War, he will return here with more of his folk from the north and found a Dwarf-kingdom, taking the title Lord of the Glittering Caves.
  • The film doesn't give much background about the city of Osgiliath, visited (in the movie, at least) by Frodo and Sam. This city on the Great River was the ancient capital of the kingdom of Gondor. It had a disastrous history, including a destructive civil war and a great plague, so that at the time of the War of the Ring, it had been deserted for centuries.
  • Right at the end of the film, we hear Gollum muttering about how 'she' will be able to get the Ring for him. If you know the story already, of course, you'll know who 'she' is, but if you don't, and you can't wait a year to find out, you can jump to 'her' entry by clicking here.

The Language of the Rohirrim

The Elvish tongue spoken throughout The Fellowship of the Ring, and occasionally in The Two Towers, was entirely Tolkien's invention. The language spoken by the people of Rohan, though, is not an artificial language, but a real historical one: Old English.

To understand why, remember that neither Old English nor modern English had developed in the ancient times in which The Lord of the Rings is set. In the context of the story, most of the characters actually spoke a language known as the Westron, which is represented in the books and films as modern English. That language had itself evolved, in part, from an older tongue that was still used by the Rohirrim, and so Tolkien used Old English (which shares a similar relationship to modern English) to translate it.

Old English isn't just used to translate the language of the Rohirrim, but also their names. This has introduced some peculiarities in the movie version, because names have been moved from one character to another without considering their meaning. So, the boy who flees Saruman's armies early in the film is called Éothain, 'horse-warrior', while Théoden's relatively young lieutenant in Helm's Deep has the name Gamling, meaning 'old man'. (In the book, of course, these names belonged to more appropriate characters).

Because the ancestors of the Rohirrim had travelled widely through the history of Middle-earth, remnants of their tongue were found in communities far from Rohan (just as personal names and place-names in English-speaking countries today often owe their origins to Old English). Many Shire-names have their roots in Old English (for example, Samwise means 'half-wise'). Sméagol's people had come into contact with this tongue long ago, too, and his name is also Old English - it means 'burrowing' or 'worming in'.

In The Fellowship of the Ring, the film-makers were very careful over the pronunciations of Elvish words, but they seem to have taken rather less trouble in the The Two Towers with the language of Rohan. In particular, éa and éo represent two 'diphthongs' (combined vowel-sounds) that should have their own distinct sounds, but they are spoken literally by the movie's actors. So, for example, the King of Rohan would not be addressed as 'Theeohden', but more as if his name were spelt 'Thearden'. This would be an extremely minor point, except that these sounds are very common (éo in particular - it is a word for 'horse') and appear in the names of some important characters.

The list below gives some the meanings of some of the words, names and phrases from the language of the Rohirrim that are heard in the film:

Arod One of the horses given to Aragorn by Éomer near the beginning of the film. The name means 'swift'.
Brego 'Chieftain' - in the movie, this seems to be the name of Théodred's horse, later ridden by Aragorn. In the original trilogy, though, it was the name of an old King of Rohan: Brego son of Eorl.
Edoras 'The Courts', the royal citadel of Rohan. Théoden's great hall in Edoras was Meduseld, the 'mead-hall'.
Ferthu hal! Literally 'fare you well', essentially meaning 'goodbye and good luck'.
Hasufel The name of the horse that accompanied Arod, with a name meaning 'grey-coat'.
Mearas The greatest of horses - Tolkien characterised their relationship to other horses as being comparable to that of Elves to Men. The word mearas is actually just an Old English word for 'horses'.
Riddermark 'Borderland of the Riders', the name the Rohirrim used for their own country. The more common name Rohan came from Elvish, meaning 'horse-land'; the Rohirrim themselves usually called their land the Riddermark or just the Mark.
Shadowfax Gandalf's great horse, one of the Mearas, whose name means 'shadowy hair'. ('By day his coat glistens like silver; and by night it is like a shade, and he passes unseen', says Gandalf in the book of The Fellowship of the Ring.)
Simbelmynë A white anemone-like flower that grew especially on graves and tombs, from which it gained its name, meaning 'Evermind' (that is, 'always remembered').
Westu hal! A greeting: 'Be well!' Oddly enough, the movie has Gandalf say Westu hal to Théoden's dead son Théodred as he lies in his tomb.

Where Next...?

This site has entries for all of the main characters and locations in the film. You can look them up using the indexes on the left, or you can jump straight to more important entries using these links. You might not recognise some of the names, like Ithilien or Henneth Annûn, but if you've seen the film, you've already been to these places - just click their links to find out more about them.

Characters Locations

Original content © copyright Mark Fisher 1997-2005. All rights reserved. For conditions of reuse, see the Site FAQ.