Just finished the first half of the second volume of the Lord Of The Rings (so… the third ‘book’). The second book ends when Frodo and Sam leave the party and head out for Mordor on their own. The third book is about what everybody else does after Sam and Frodo leave. And it starts with Merry and Pippin getting grabbed by orcs. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli give chase. Gandalf is out running errands.
This is the part where Jackson’s movies really start to deviate from the books. In the books, the Theoden and Wormtongue episode is just a few pages long and feels rather inconsequential – just another pit-stop on the journey. Wormtongue gets just a few lines before Gandalf dispatches him with a couple of stern speeches. But in the movie, Jackson makes the encounter interesting by giving Wormtongue a lot of screen time and letting the awesome Brad Dourif play him: he skulks and lurks and schemes and whispers and sneers. And he’s great at it. More importantly, he gives us a reason to enjoy seeing Gandalf eventually take him down. This Theoden guy, some boring old king, that we just met comes out of his stupor? Who cares? But that deliciously evil dude! He totally steals the scene. And Gandalf crushed him! Point: Jackson, with a strong assist by Dourif.
Eowyn is the only woman in this book, and she barely exists. She gives Aragorn some sexy eyes, and then gets left in charge when all the men leave. But that’s more than Arawen got, back in Rivendell; she was barely scenery. And the poor Ents… all their lady friends wandered away eons ago, yet they still pine for them.
Then we’re off to the centerpiece of the second movie: the big battle at Helm’s Deep. There is no Elvish army at the battle, in the book. Nor is there any dwarf tossing. Nor does it take a full hour. Tolkien’s battle is quick, and rather muddled and anti-climactic. It’s basically won by a moving forest of vengeful trees (the Huorns). Everyone rides off to Isengard. Point: Jackson.
Merry and Pippin hang out with the Ents. That’s a fun section. But it seems too short, in the book. They meet Treebeard, tell their story, he gets the other Ents together, has the meeting, and then they’re off. That episode ends with all the Ents looking out over Isengard, ready to attack.
Because that’s what Tolkien is really pushing for: everybody get to Isengard! To annoy a defeated Saruman! In the book, Saruman’s a mystery. We only meet him once, and that’s after he’s been defeated. He and Wormtongue come to the front door to vainly scold Gandalf for a couple of minutes. Gandalf’s like “meh”. Everybody leaves. The movie at least shows him (played by the excellent Christopher Lee) and Gandalf having their book-one wizard fight, so we have a reason to dislike Saruman personally when he’s finally brought down in book two. In the book, the fight is just a sentence or two in Gandalf’s explanation of why he was late meeting the rest of the party. Point: Jackson. Though honestly, they both could have done with more Saruman – this whole book, hundreds of pages, is about people rushing to fight him. But we only hear rumors of him, mostly from Gandalf. And we don’t actually see Saruman until he’s been defeated.
In the book, we learn about how Saruman was defeated when the Hobbits recount their adventures to Gandalf. They’re sitting around, smoking pipes or whatever, and we get a couple pages of flashback. Jackson does it better; he ditches the flashback idea and shows all that happening in the Merry/Pippin storyline, as it happens. The Ents show up at Isengard, carrying the two Hobbits; they go about smashing and flooding and burning and generally ripping the place up with Saruman watches helplessly from his tower. Lots of fire and explosions and smoke. Very smashy. And then, eventually, Gandalf and the others show up and marvel at what happened. It’s a small narrative change: instead of ending the narrative when the Ents arrive at Isengard, just keep the film rolling and show them then attacking and destroying it! That’s fun! Then, cut away to Gandalf and the rest as they journey to Isengard, having already missed all the Ent action – which we got to see, too! When they do show up, we get to share in the smugness of the Hobbits – where y’all been? You missed the fun! Point: Jackson.
Book four gets back to Sam and Frodo, starting off where book two ended. Thus, the whole third book thus feels like an interruption of the real story. You were enjoying this tale about a magic ring and Gollum (who we still haven’t really met) and elves? Cool. Now, let’s spend a few hundred pages running in the wrong direction with a new set of characters, to beat up a wizard you don’t have much reason to care about! Horses!
And that’s why this was always my least favorite of the books. But somehow, Jackson found ways to make an entertaining few hours out of it. Game: Jackson.