Let me nail my colours to the mast and start by saying I’m a big Tolkein fan. I read The Lord of the Rings at least once every year from the age of about fifteen to my late twenties. I’ve gradually cut down and these days probably only go back to it every four years or so. I’m not sure where this puts me in terms of Tolkein Geekdom but I think I’m certainly on the spectrum.
I’ve chosen The Two Towers not so much for the fact that it’s a good book, (it is by the way), but because it contains the point where the film absolutely got it wrong. I’m talking about Rohan, and I’m talking about Theoden.
In the film Theoden is actually possessed by Saruman. He speaks Saruman’s words and taunts Gandalf who then effectively performs an exorcism in order to cast out Saruman’s spirit. Afterwards Theoden is physically younger, his hair turns from white to brown, and he behaves like an angry middle aged man. It’s totally over done, a classic example of the film exaggerating something in order to use the visual medium to the full and losing the point in the process. It happens in Harry Potter, the curses and spells thrown by the Wizards when fighting the death eaters are shown in the films as just a series of zaps and explosions, it might as well be Star Wars.
Contrast this with the book. In the same scene Gandalf does reveal himself as The White Wizard in all his power and he silences Wormtongue, but he works no dramatic magic on Theoden. He bids Theoden to stand, to walk outside and survey his kingdom. The real magical moment is when Gandalf suggest that Theoden should hold his sword again.
“Slowly Theoden stretched forth his hand. As his fingers took the hilt, it seemed to the watchers that firmness and strength returned to his thin arm. Suddenly he lifted the blade and swung it shimmering and whistling in the air. The he gave a great cry. His voice rang clear as he chanted in the tongue of Rohan a call to arms.”
The story of Theoden is that of a man who chooses to step out of darkness into light. He remains an old man, but one who has regained his nobility and taken control of his destiny. In the book Gandalf expects Theoden to lead the women and children to a safe haven, instead Theoden chooses to lead his armies into battle. Theoden’s story is a crucial part of the book, the film doesn’t do it justice.