(M) Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney. Derek Jacobi
This review contains minor spoilers.
I saw the film Tolkien on the weekend. I enjoyed it. I’m not arguing it’s a great film, because it isn’t, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.
It’s a tough task, to make a film about someone who looms so large over the world of literature as J.R.R Tolkien, whose intellectual interests and capacity leave the rest of us in the shade. You can’t do it without somehow trying to capture what’s going on in his mind, rather than in what he said and did. That’s not the sort of story-telling that visual media excel at. It’s little wonder that Tolkien’s descendants have refused to support or endorse any attempt to make a film like this.
Be that as it may, what we have is a movie that portrays Tolkien as a man whose intellect, though immensely superior, did not puff him up and whose life and work above all celebrates love and friendship. In particular, it portrays a man who had a loving relationship with his wife that was central to his world and, as it turned out, central to the world he created. I’ll come back to that thought later.
As with any “bio-pic” (not bi-op-ic, as I worked out only fairly recently) you need to realise that it’s not going to get all the biographical details accurate. That’s not possible in a 90-minute rendition, in which some events have to be ignored, some glossed over, some combined with others that didn’t happen at the same time, some exaggerated. However, the good biopics still convey the things in a person’s life that influenced them to become the person whose story we’re interested in seeing on screen. I think that Tolkien, which focuses on his life prior to the writing of The Hobbit in 1937, accomplishes that reasonably well.
One historical error is evident right at the beginning. Tolkien didn’t move from South Africa to England as a young boy because his father died. Rather, his father died while they were on a holiday, so they had to remain. Does that matter? Perhaps not. I think the real story is more tragic and sad, but it would have taken longer to convey in a film without adding a lot to the ultimate point.
That ultimate point is that Tolkien was shaped by love and friendship, and their power to overcome all things. His mother is shown inspiring his imagination and his school friends (a group that meets in a local tea house and calls themselves the TCBS) encourage his academic mind. And as with the real-life Tolkien, his relationship with Edith Bratt is crucial, encompassing elements of muse then lover and wife. In this relationship, Nicholas Hoult (who plays Tolkien, and who you may remember as the kid in About a Boy) and Lily Collins (daughter of the singer Phil) are highly convincing as the young lovers who marry in the dark shadow of the Great War.
And it was a shadow, that was also important as an influence on Tolkien, the man and the writer. The delirium that Tolkien experienced in the trenches of the Somme is used in the film as an interesting plot device. The film opens with him there and, at first it seems that it moves to flashback mode to tell the story of his childhood. However, as the movie progresses, it’s more that the trench scenes become flash forwards, with the main narrative being Tolkien’s pre-war life that moves inexorably towards that crucial experience.
I don’t think that the WW1 scenes are intended to be viewed as narrative. Tolkien contracted trench fever from lice after a few months at the Somme. In those few months he saw plenty of death and horror, including the loss of two of the TCBS right at the start of the famous battle in 1916, but his direct war experience was not long and it’s not those experiences that are being depicted. Rather, we see his delirium and his memory interacting at the end of his time on the front, creating glimpses of characters and figures that appear later in Tolkien’s writings. For example, we can see a shadowy figure that looks like an embodiment of evil – an embodiment that would take the form in his writings of a massive dark creature wielding a fiery flame, the Balrog.
We also see Christ on the Cross. This is where I think a lot of Christian reviewers of the movie are missing something. It’s been common to say that the film leaves out his Christian faith, but I don’t think it does. It’s there, in the cross, in the midst of his delirium, in the midst of horror, as a reminder that there is one whose life and death means that love and loyalty and courage and friendship do ultimately win over wickedness, sin and death. In coming out in an image like that it’s similar to the way Christianity comes out in his writings. There it’s expressed in the language of fairie and of myth that he was known for, rather than evangelical preaching, but it’s as clear as anything for those with ears to hear.
So why is this enjoyable film not a great film. There are a few minor reasons: at times it plods along, especially the Western Front trench scenes which are laboriously dragged out unnecessarily. However, there’s a more significant reason in play. There are just too many scenes in which a concept that would later appear in The Lord of the Rings is forced into an incident during his life. Seeing the Balrog on the Western Front is one thing, but give the man some creative credit! One that annoyed me particularly was the scene where he takes Edith to the opera, Wagner as it happens, and voila! there’s the ‘one ring to rule them all’ presented to him on a plate. This approach to the story undersells Tolkien’s imaginative genius, making him seem like someone who just cobbled together a bunch of life experiences that presented ideas to him, rather than him being the creator of those ideas.
That said, to finish on some positives, it would be wrong to think that Tolkien didn’t draw at all on his experiences and friends in putting Middle Earth together. I mentioned earlier that the evolution of the relationship between Tolkien and the girl who became his wife, Edith Blatt, is central to the film. It’s a really good love story!
The film is not wrong to infer that without Edith we wouldn’t have had one of the powerful elements that helped found the much-loved mythical world. After all, on their shared tombstone, Edith Mary Tolkien is also named Luthien and JRR Tolkien is named Beren. I can’t imagine the world of Middle Earth being what it became without the tale that Aragorn tells Frodo about his elven and mortal ancestors and the world that their love created, a love echoed in Aragorn’s own relationship with Arwen. If it’s smalzy to tell Tolkien’s story like that, as many reviewers have opined, then perhaps they’re just ignoring the smalzy aspects of the stories he wrote.
Finally, a very personal reaction to the film. The early scenes showing the relationships within the TCBS were very emotional for me. I had a friendship group in my late teens a bit like that one. We were tight, we were somewhat academic, but we celebrated life together and had great fellowship together. Those scenes brought all that back for me.
A movie that touches someone’s heart like this one touched mine mightn’t be a great film, but it’s a good and worthy one.
Warren Bird is the Executive Director of Uniting Financial Services.