Like my post on The Fellowship of the Rings, spoilers abound for both the books and the movies!
Now that The Two Towers is in the bag, I have some more comments, comparing the movie (my favorite of the trilogy) with the book.
In the books, Helm’s Deep, while intense, is a much shorter event, and is done within the first third of The Two Towers. While enjoyable, it’s certainly not my favorite part of the two books I’ve read so far.
The movie’s depiction of the battle is far more exciting. They did a wonderful job of creating tension, stretching out the battle to encompass much of the second film, and the battle is one of my favorite moments in any movie. Theoden and the few remaining warriors charge forth to certain death, to die nobly and honorably just to buy their loved ones a few more precious minutes to escape. Just before their blaze of glory is extinguished, when it looks like all is lost, Gandalf and the Rohirrim arrive, turning certain death into certain victory in a mater of moments. Light pours over the battlefield, and suddenly dead men walking have new life.
But it comes with a downside: the movies does such a good job of making the situation feel dire that the rest of the trilogy never really compares. After the Uruk-hai are defeated at Helm’s Deep, the tides have turned, and the peril is never quite so dire again. The road is dangerous, but the momentum is in the heroes’ favor as the final third is entered.
Which brings us to my next point…
Sauron and Saruman’s Relationship
While a shorter event that’s over in the first their of the book, Helm’s Deep is such a turning point in the movies partly because The Two Towers makes it the focal point of the entire second story, and partly because Saruman is depicted as being a willing servant of Sauron, his forces a part of Sauron’s own army. Therefore, the defeat at Helm’s Deep is a direct defeat for Sauron. While a necessary change to justify the sustained focus on Helm’s Deep that finishes with the film’s climax, it does carry the flaw discussed above.
This is avoided in the books by giving them a tenuous alliance, with Saruman clearly portrayed as a scheming rival of Sauron. It’s an alliance of convenience moreso than servitude, with both Saruman and Sauron willing to play nice with the other as long as they share enemies. Saruman makes his own power plays, but they pale in comparison to the might of Mordor.
This negates the “tides turning” issue of the movie, because Sauron’s might is undamaged by the defeat at Helm’s Deep. Meanwhile, Helm’s Deep is handled quickly and Isengard falls (relatively) easily, showing them to be much smaller threats than Mordor. The chase outside of Rivendell was dangerous, the mines of Moria even moreso, and Isengard yet more dangerous still, but none come close to Sauron.
More succinctly, the book does a much better job of portraying the grave threat of Mordor.
“Gandalf the White” Means Something in the Books
After watching the films, I felt like the whole “Gandalf the White” thing was left hanging. His big return brings with it a new name and title, but it seems to mean little more than a symbolic gesture implying that Saruman has lost his claim to the moniker.
Not only does the book explain what this means–that he is now the head of the Council, and more powerful than Saruman–but his character undergoes a clear change. Merry accurately describes him as “kinder and more alarming, merrier and more solemn than before…” Gandalf the White is a more intense Gandalf, something I felt was lost with the films.
Faramir is a stronger character than in the movies. He feels every bit as notable as Boromir. He’s strong, confident, and wise, whereas in the movie he suffers both from lacking confidence and some of the same rashness as his brother.
Your mileage may vary, but I prefer the book Faramir.
Frodo and Sam Feel Like the Main Attraction
Perhaps the biggest thing I’ve noticed yet again ties in with the movie’s focus on the battle of Helm’s Deep: in the book, Frodo and Sam are the real stars. The movie’s focus on Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli makes them feel like the standout characters, with Helm’s Deep the standout storyline (with Frodo’s quest being set up as the focus of The Return of the King).
The book, however, puts them front and center. Without the tense, exciting, high-stakes battle of Helm’s Deep constantly winning over my interest and focus as in the movie, I found myself far more engrossed with them and their adventure. Never have I previously been so interested in them, having always preferred the rollicking adventures of Aragorn and company when watching the movie.
Is that better? I suppose that depends on what you prefer, but it’s certainly more true to Tolkien’s intended purpose!
It might sound like I’m favoring the books thus far, but they do have their flaws, and I still have one last leg of the journey to go. The Two Towers is my favorite of the movies, but perhaps not of the books.
I’m hopeful that I’ll be done with The Return of the King within the week. The joys of vacation!