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Fellowship was released only three months after the Sept. 11 attacks, and its good-vs.-evil quest spoke to audiences looking for old-fashioned moral clarity. Just as readers in the 1950s (when the books were published) found parallels to World War II, and hippies of the 1960s delighted in Tolkien's peace-loving hobbits, a new generation has embraced Tolkien's nostalgic vision of a lost world, an imagined past both idyllic and brutal. Indeed, the passion for the first movie and this one is part of a new American obsession with fantasy, a national journey to a mythical past where evil is punished and virtue rewarded (see following story).
Even though it's hardly in doubt that The Two Towers will be a smash at the box office, Jackson is still on edge. "The pressure last year was, Is the studio going to survive?" says the director. "The pressure this year is, Are people going to like this one as much as the first one?"
The answer is yes, or at least probably. Fellowship was often quiet and deliberately paced. Two Towers is an unabashed action film. Even Ian McKellen, as the wizard Gandalf, does his share of fighting. Those who appreciate the finer points of Tolkien's work may be taken aback by the new film's high-tech grandiosity. "It's impressive," says Two Towers star Viggo Mortensen, "but if you have that much emphasis on special effects, it's unavoidable that you'll lose some of the poetry and intimacy of the story." Still, those who prefer grunting, beastly warriors brandishing scimitars to gently dancing hobbits will be thrilled. Two Towers, says Jackson, "definitely isn't as cute [as Fellowship]. It has a much more gritty kind of edge to it."
The film's vast scope ranges from the snowy, unspoiled peaks of Middle-earth (shot in various New Zealand locales) to the city of Isengard (a composite of models and computer-generated imagery), which is destroyed--spectacularly--by a brigade of towering, treelike creatures known as Ents. Meanwhile, the hobbit hero Frodo (Elijah Wood) continues his quest: he must destroy the magic Ring before the Dark Lord Sauron can use it to rule the world. Aragorn (played by Mortensen, who transforms himself before your eyes from brooding beefcake to full-blown movie star) embarks across the desolate plains of Middle-earth to salvage what's left of mankind. Arrayed against him is an armada of Uruk-hai, armor-clanking warriors who make Freddy Krueger look positively cuddly. The battle of Helm's Deep, a rather brief episode in Tolkien's book, becomes a battle for the survival of the human species and the breathtaking centerpiece of Jackson's film.
The director readily admits that of his three films, Two Towers departs most from Tolkien's work. "We were aware that we were making films for the hard-core Tolkien fan base as well as everyone else," says Jackson, who co-wrote the script with Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh. "In the beginning, it was a difficult tightrope to walk, but then we sort of abandoned thinking about it. If we make a good film, we'll be forgiven, whatever the crimes we commit to the book." Arwen, the beautiful elf played by Liv Tyler, doesn't appear in the book. But in the film, Jackson has love scenes between her and Aragorn--a romance based on an appendix that Tolkien later wrote about their doomed relationship.