A movie review of
Directed by Dome Karukoski
(Fox Searchlight Pictures/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2019)
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This article includes plot spoilers for the film Tolkien.
We readers have a fraught relationship with cinematic adaptations of our beloved books. We’re excited by the lavishment of Hollywood money and glamor on our dusty interests but fear the distorting effect money and glamor inevitably bring. Add to this an additional problem: our outside interest in the adaptation often alienates us from our fellow filmgoers. Our literary fandom makes us outsiders by virtue of our excessive investment. As one wag put it, “I grew tired of being disappointed by film adaptations, so I gave up reading.”
I experienced this alienation today. There were three people at my showing of the new film biopic Tolkien. My friend and I weren’t hot on the film, and the only other person in the theater said, as he walked out, “Wasn’t that movie great?” “Meh,” I responded. Bear in mind, there were only three people in the theater, all of whom, presumably, were there because they really like Tolkien. Because of that, however, two of them didn’t really like Tolkien.
There’s nothing deeply wrong with Tolkien. It plays a bit like a History Channel version of Dead Poets Society with a fantasy twist. The story cuts between J. R. R. Tolkien (JRRT) in the trenches of WW1 and his youth and young adulthood back in England. We begin with an Edenic childhood scene in a Shire-like setting, only to have the boys quickly uprooted to the Mordor-ish Birmingham, a smoking hellscape. This juxtaposition is interesting and touches on an important theme in Tolkien’s work: his preference for bucolic, agrarian life against industrial advancement. Given the ease with which this theme meshes with the popularity of environmentalism, it’s a bit surprising that more is not made of this element in Tolkien’s writing. In some sense, the whole geography of Middle-earth is built around this preference. The Shire is, for Tolkien, an idealized vision of the sort of agrarian life he values. The young Tolkien is told to “hold this” childhood landscape in his heart. Later scenes of Oxford are so beautifully presented that we instinctively feel that he has recaptured, in some small way, this lost paradise. But it is only in Tolkien’s writing that this vision is ever fully recaptured. Sadly, little in the film takes us into the pages we see Tolkien always carrying with him.
The best part of the film, and its center, is the “fellowship” between Tolkien and his three main school friends, the self-dubbed Tea Club, Barrovian Society (TCBS) who accept JRRT into their ranks despite his “impecunious circumstances.” These friends spur each other on in art and valor. We see the boys share their various interests in painting, music, and poetry. They act like boys with a bit too much spending money and a bit too much mischief but also display nascent virtues. These moments have a charming, old-fashioned earnestness that conjured a different age. I would wish for such a group of friends for my own son. In one scene, TCBS-member Robert Gilson is spurred on to stand up to his father, not in the petulant manner of modern cinematic teens, but using the language of honor and gentlemanly pride.
Tolkien’s relationship with his own father figure, the Catholic priest Fr. Morgan who acted as legal guardian for the two orphaned Tolkien boys, is less charming. Though Fr. Morgan is played with gruff lovingness, his role is largely that of the antagonist. Forbidding JRRT’s relationship with Edith Bratt, he stands in the way of the cinematically inevitable union of the two fetching leads. Much like the Roman Catholic faith he represents, his role in Tolkien’s life is minimally present and muddily presented. Though a devout Christian, JRRT’s faith is never explicit. One scene even suggests that the boys had insufficient awareness of Christian worship, as Tolkien stumbles over the hymn in his first school chapel service, only to recite Chaucer from memory in the next scene. One really can’t overstate the importance of Tolkien’s theology for his work. The influence of thinkers like Boethius and Augustine shape Tolkien’s understanding of divine providence and his ontology of evil. Simply put, The Lord of the Rings could not have been built from the material of Norse mythology alone, even if the movie leads us to believe this.
As other film reviews have pointed out, this omission from the film handicaps the story’s integrity. Tolkien’s great work, his legendarium, and two major novels, masterfully combine his love of language, myth, and Christian theology. Indeed, it is hard to think of a more ambitious work of Christian mythmaking in the history of English literature. The movie strains to do justice to Tolkien’s love of language, and then to connect that to the myths that made him a one-word household name but does not lift a finger to triangulate these with Tolkien’s faith. Tolkien’s mother is charmingly portrayed as conveying to the boys her love of myth, but not her love for Christ, the myth-become-fact. This, together with the movie’s vague intimations of homosexuality in one of the TCBS members (a supposition that seems entirely unfounded), play into all the traditional suspicions conservatives have about Hollywood.
Viewers familiar with Tolkien’s autobiography will, with the opening scenes from the trenches of WW1, be prepared for the direction the film is heading. As Tolkien himself wrote, “To be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.”1 The Battle of Somme killed and injured a million men. The film’s depiction of trench warfare visually evokes the darkest evils of the recent film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings (LOTR). The terrible slaughter of so many, the film suggests, is so great that mere history cannot comprehend it. In one of the film’s few flights of dark fancy, trench warfare transforms into evil incarnate as a wraithlike figure stalks the battlefield like the Witch-king of Angmar. But this enemy is so powerful no man (or woman) is capable of defeating it. As a result, Tolkien’s first fellowship is broken.
However, Tolkien does little to make much of the connection between the evils of war and the need for imagination. We see Tolkien struggle to recover from the war. We hear Fr. Morgan, in his final appearance, say that “modern words” are “useless” to make sense of the loss. Though Fr. Morgan suggests that Christian liturgy is able to speak in the presence of great evil, Tolkien himself (and Tolkien the movie) offers only a glimpse of the power of the poetic imagination to reckon with such destruction. An earlier scene hints at literature as a way of wrestling with war’s toll. If I heard rightly, the lines of Chaucer that Tolkien recites from memory speak of a siege that claimed all the “housbondes” of a town, a common enough occurrence during the Great War, when whole English villages lost their young men to machine guns. The film concludes with the beginnings of The Hobbit, though there is little to show how Tolkien’s work actually wrestled with war, while still making room for real hope in its aftermath.
Indeed, little of Tolkien’s actual writing is present in the movie. No doubt because so much of LOTR and other works by JRRT are now VVIP (very important intellectual property). The knowing viewer will mourn the lack of interaction with the story of Beren and Lúthien. This tale, often reiterated throughout Tolkien’s work, is one of the oldest of his stories (begun during his military service) and was inspired by his own forbidden relationship with Edith. It interweaves themes of hope and despair far more skillfully than the movie that bears the author’s name. The film’s exclusion of explicit reference goes so far that it concludes with a mention that Tolkien and Edith’s graves bear the names of characters from his legendarium, but makes no mention that the names are “Beren” and “Lúthien.”
Here I come close to the sort of quibbling I dislike from experts who pick apart popular films. This omission, much like the omission of a later fellowship of encouraging artists — the Inklings — is probably more than the economic storytelling of a Hollywood film could bear. Perhaps, though, this movie will send a new flock of readers to books like Bandersnatch or Tolkien and the Great War. There they can find a fuller picture of the great man and his great works. Perhaps it’s enough that the film presents a snapshot that invites us to step back and think about Tolkien’s immense accomplishment.
This upside, that such movies generate a fresh round of interest in subjects readers love to discuss, is best not to under-rate. I’ve published essays about The Hobbit because of the cottage industry built around Peter Jackson’s lackluster blockbuster. Further, Tolkien’s work is deeply important for anyone living in our modern, disenchanted age. His work is explicitly aimed at helping us to revisit lost virtues though this lost tales. This movie will invite in new readers. The figure of Tolkien is certainly charming in the film, even if Tolkien is not enchanting. —Philip Tallon
Philip Tallon is an Assistant Professor at Houston Baptist University, where he chairs the apologetics department and teaches great books in the Honors College. He is the author of The Poetics of Evil (OUP, 2011) and an essay in The Hobbit and Philosophy (Wiley, 2012).
- Quoted in John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 310.