“Tolkien”: The Monsters and the Critics

Tolkien: The Monsters and the Critics

Audiences seem to have ignored Tolkien at the box office, but it raised quite a noise among the Tolkien fandom. Many regard its inaccuracies and dramatizations as a kind of betrayal of the man, whereas its supporters say that its accuracies and artistic truths make it a beautiful and moving tribute to the Professor and much that he valued.

What I caution is this: it simply isn’t helpful or honest to be polemical. For one, Tolkien is a drama, and to demand that a drama be instead a documentary is ludicrous. Likewise, to demand that the film be either a perfect success in all areas biographical and artistic, or else be judged a vulgar failure and disgrace, is to apply a standard so hideously unfair that nothing not divine could satisfy. Any good standard must acknowledge the imperfection of every human work and counter that with, as Christians ought to know, grace. Some films, even after this grace, will seem bad. In others, we begin to marvel at the good that flourishes in spite of the flaws. And this is how I see Tolkien. It is not a great biography, nor artistically a truly Great Film, but it is a good and unique film that deeply loves J.R.R. Tolkien the man and tries very hard to do right by him. Its stumbles are disappointing, but when it stands tall, strides purposefully, and finds deep meaning in dancing, it manages to evoke and celebrate much that I love about John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and his work.

Plot summary, please

Plot summaries are boring and have little to no place in a review because they reveal next to nothing about the story’s quality. Reviews should be concerned primarily with a story’s quality.

Getting curt with your section titles, are you? Seems a bit self-indulgent, but it’s your blog, I suppose. Still, what’s actually in this film?

Tolkien covers J.R.R. Tolkien’s teenage and young adult years, ending before the publication of his famous novels. A wise choice, I think, as his later years were fairly sedate, to my understanding, and would have been difficult to dramatize. Instead, the film specifically examines his relationship to his future wife Edith Bratt, his deep friendships with the club known as the T.C.B.S., and how his love of and affinity for languages fed into his desire to change the world through art.

Opinion summary, if it ain’t too much trouble, guv

While not a definitive exploration of the themes or events of Tolkien’s life, Tolkien is very good and I strongly recommend it for fans of the man. The film is sincere, good-hearted, and often beautiful, though it sometimes stumbles and loses sight of the real man at its heart.

But is it ACCURATE?

Did you know that the famously tweed Professor was an avid rugby player in his youth?

The film does alter or gloss over some details of J.R.R. Tolkien’s life, which is simply a thing that all biopics do for their subjects, and frankly Tolkien changes far less than most. I commend it for including so much:

  • his hatred of his childhood move from the English countryside to dirty Birmingham
  • his early interest in languages
  • the stern but generous help from Father Francis
  • his lack of academic diligence and direction until his meeting with Professor Joseph Wright (who provides two of the film’s best scenes)
  • the loyalty and idealism of his early friendships
  • the ways in which he and his romantic interest Edith gave each other a unique support in difficult times
  • the way he was kind of an obsessive nerd, but also was an aggressive rugby player
  • that he also was a passable artist who illustrated his own work
  • the fact that this period of his life was characterized by some benign trouble-making and testing of boundaries (i.e. the scene where he and friends “steal” a bus is based on a real incident)
  • that he was a somewhat lower social status than his three friends in the T.C.B.S., being a poor orphan living on scholarships and charity whereas they were all from rich families, and yet they all not only accepted him as a brother, but counted him as the most worthy of their number for academic and artistic success
  • and so, so much more detail and nuance from Tolkien’s biography that the film portrayed quite nicely

The film plays with the chronology of real events as it attempts to emphasize certain themes and relationships. Sometimes I think the result was less effective than the real history; for example, its alterations to the timeline of Tolkien and Edith’s relationship felt less meaningful and were awkwardly conveyed, whereas the account in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography was clear and moving.

What about his Christian faith and the Catholic Church?

One notable glossing is in the area of religion: the role of the Catholic Church in Tolkien’s life is mentioned a handful of times, and positively, but he is not shown to personally participate in it. I’ve heard people complain about this, as though there was some attempt to erase or downplay Christianity in the film. And while I get that complaint, I think it is also based on some misunderstandings.

The real Tolkien at 24, a lieutenant with the Lancashire Fusiliers. Image from Wikipedia.

On the one hand, I would have loved for the film to address his spiritual development directly, and to have shown how it influenced his relationships and work. But in actuality, this period of Tolkien’s life is one that he himself regarded as spiritually weak. He went an entire year without once hearing mass, and Dr. Corey Olsen, a Tolkien scholar, believes that the religious influence on Tolkien’s writing at this time was pretty slight. From what I can tell, the film’s portrayal is a much smaller deviation than many reviewers seem to think. It wasn’t until later that he began attending mass every day and taking an active role in his own spiritual development.

The film’s representative for Catholicism, and indeed for any Christianity, is in Father Francis, Tolkien’s legal guardian. It’s a very fair portrayal, quite in line with what we know. He was stern, but very generous and sincere in his concern for Tolkien. He forbade Tolkien from seeing Edith until he was an adult, partially on account of Edith being Protestant but also because Francis knew, correctly, that romance would distract the easily-distracted Tolkien from his already struggling studies at Oxford, and could seriously endanger his future. Rather than fashion Father Francis into a symbol of a repressive and unforgiving Church, the film acknowledges his generosity and the perfectly valid reasons he has. It’s a refreshingly true, even-handed portrayal.

The other thought to keep in mind has to do with the art of adapting someone’s life for a dramatic medium. You simply can’t cover every aspect of the subject’s life, you have to choose which threads are most relevant to the story you want to tell. And since Tolkien’s religious practice was weak both outwardly and inwardly during this period, it makes sense for the filmmakers to leave it at the barest mention and spend more time on the aspects of his life which were dominant. If a film wanted to examine Tolkien’s faith and its relation to his life and work (and I very much want to see that film), it would probably choose his later years with the Inklings.

How is the portrayal of Tolkien himself?

“Not all who wander are lost…”

Nicholas Hoult is excellent as the young John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, and this sentence is a relief to type. He has a sort of nervous energy, as though his intelligence is itching for the chance to express itself creatively but hasn’t quite found the right outlet; which is fair, because while Tolkien was in fact already writing and studying languages by this point, his imaginative ideas hadn’t quite coalesced in the way we think of them now. He is brilliant with languages but slacks off at school. He plays rugby confidently but his words stumble over themselves when he tries to express himself. He adores Edith, but also sometimes overlooks her until she stands up and demands his attention. And he is deeply loyal to his friends, even though it was they who sought him out rather than he them. All of this is close enough to the Tolkien I met in Carpenter’s biography and in the earliest of Tolkien’s letters.

If there is one part of him I wish they had portrayed more, it is Tolkien’s humor. His earliest letters have a light, wry touch even when describing unpleasant circumstances. “I had to pay a duty call to the Rector in the afternoon which was very boring,” he writes to Edith in Letter 1 of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. “His wife is really appalling! I got away as soon as possible and fled back in the rain to my books.” I was also disappointed to see no reference in the film to the time at university when Tolkien acted in a student play and made his role, a grumpy old battleaxe of an aunt, the most hilarious and memorable part on the stage! Hoult’s Tolkien is too serious for all that, able to enjoy his friends’ jokes and silliness without offering much of his own.

But Hoult does portray Tolkien’s passions, loyalty, and intelligence quite well. It’s a nuanced portrayal that held my interest the whole way through.

And the others?

This is one of those films that will make you fall in love with Oxford.

Tolkien’s friends made for the strongest thread in the film. They met each other at King Edward’s School and formed a club they called the Tea Club, Barrovian Society (or T.C.B.S.), after Barrow’s Stores where they took their tea and discussed art, literature, and the future of the world. The actors all do fantastic jobs, portraying young men intoxicated with the possibilities of the future, with the strength of their education, with their own artistic talents, and especially with the bonds of brotherhood that were growing between them. They have a natural charisma as a group, and the growing realization that their fellowship is destined to be torn apart by a world war that none of them wanted or anticipated is upsetting.

One unforgivable inaccuracy: where is the mustache? WHERE IS THE MUSTACHE?

Edith Tolkien, as portrayed by Lilly Collins, is a sharp-witted, beautiful young woman who is frustrated at being trapped in a boring life of servitude to an old woman, and who challenges Tolkien to think more carefully about the meanings of words and how they affect people. We don’t actually know much about Edith from history, as the Tolkien Estate and family have elected to keep much of that information private. Collins’ spirited portrayal is pretty close to what we know of her, and makes for a good dramatic foil for the more stoic Tolkien. My one complaint is that in their attempt to have her contribute to Tolkien’s intellectual development, the filmmakers give Edith credit for certain ideas about language and story that I’m pretty sure Tolkien already was espousing before he met her. Still, it’s a fair enough change in service of the greater story: she did support his writing in reality, even though she didn’t share his enthusiasm for languages.

What of those “stumbles” you mentioned?

I can think of three main areas of the film that felt weaker than they should have been. The first is his relationship with Edith. The movie fumbles their first meeting by not really showing it! We see him get a first glimpse of her while she plays the piano, unaware of him. Then later we see them sit down to dinner at the house they both live, which is presumably the first time she’s seen him—but no acknowledgment of that is made. And then it literally cuts to a scene of them having a private, familiar talk together, as if they were already past introductions and into a fast friendship. By making their first meeting confusing this way, we lose the impact that meeting her really had on him. There are more pacing stumbles in the later parts of their relationship, too, where the timing of events becomes a little unclear to the point where the movie forgets to actually show their wedding.

Another concerns the T.C.B.S. – we needed to learn more of what really made them tick as a group, what their ambitions really were, especially regarding Tolkien himself. I loved watching them interact and encourage each other, but the film didn’t really show us how the four of them might have been able to change the world together, had they all survived World War I. And they never really let Tolkien himself share his writings with the group. The film will leave you thinking that Tolkien barely wrote anything of his own during this period, where in reality he wrote quite a lot of poetry (some of it gorgeous) that he was sharing with his friends and occasionally publishing.

The T.C.B.S. were Tolkien, Smith, Gilson, and Wiseman – Tolkien writes in Letter 5 of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien that they had believed they were “destined to kindle a new light, or, what is the same thing, rekindle an old light in the world; that the TCBS was destined to testify for God and Truth in a more direct way even than by laying down its several lives in this war.” He wrote that in a 1916 letter to Smith, after they had both received news of Gilson’s death. The way he writes to his friend sounds very much like the friendship portrayed in the film, with the exception that in the letter Tolkien is more explicit about his ambitions for the future than film made clear, and more confident in his beliefs as he tries to make sense of his friend’s death.

Scenes like this felt too on-the-nose for me, as a desperate attempt to shoehorn in allusions to “The Lord of the Rings.” Tolkien was nowhere near inventing the character of Sauron at this point in his life.

Which brings me to my final frustration with the film: its portrayal of Tolkien dealing with the horrors of war by hallucinating fantasy creatures on the battlefield. I think the filmmakers were trying to show how Tolkien’s trench fever and shell shock were causing him to process the battlefield in terms his imagination already understood, as a way of shoring up Tolkien’s belief in the ability of fantasy and myth to help us understand the real world. But because the film hadn’t showed Tolkien writing any of his own fantasy yet, nor even talking much about it, these scenes instead conveyed the idea that he got his ideas for stories from the hallucinations themselves. This all contradicts what Tolkien himself said about his experiences at war and writing his first fantasy stories in the trenches, it trivializes the process of art creation, and it also ends up downplaying the real horrors of the Somme.

Summation

This conversation alone is almost worth the price of admission for Tolkien fans.

And yet even as I acknowledge these genuine problems, I can’t help but remember all the stuff I loved in the film. The T.C.B.S. especially, but also Hoult’s performance, and his genuinely romantic chemistry with Edith. There are at least three brilliant conversations in the film: one where Edith chastises Tolkien for a moment of selfishness, one with Prof. Joseph Wright discussing the importance of the history of words, and a final, heart-wrenching conversation with the mother of Smith, who was killed in the war. Then there is fact that the movie portrayed a world in which platonic friendship could be one of the most passionate and pure forms of love, and in which even romance was stronger when it was moral. It is an essentially Christian worldview, and that a film today would advocate for such a worldview by showing it stoking healthy passions, self-sacrifice, and creativity is, in its own way, wildly, dangerously radical.

Image Credits

All film images from IMDb. Photo of the real Tolkien from Wikipedia.

10 Comments

  1. Some of the aspects you mention here disappointed me, as well. I think there was more room to expand on the TCBS and their desire to change the world, as well as room to focus on Tolkien’s writings. I don’t know if copyright issues came into play, but surely he could have at least mentioned Elves or writing a mythology or poetry (which I think he was largely focused on at the time). Even the WWII halllucinations seemed to be gesturing towards LotR and not hinting at the roots of Silmarillion, which is certainly not historically accurate, though I suppose understandable, since more audiences are likely to be familiar with LotR.

    I did like the focus on Tolkien’s love of language. And I loved how Edith came across as a strong, opinionated woman not afraid to stand up for herself or match wits with Tolkien. (I’m not entirely sure she was as interested in language as this film would like me to believe, but I give it credit for not wanting to present a romantic lead who was easily overshadowed by her genius date.)

    I am surprised audiences didn’t really turn up for this one, as Tolkien is so popular, I think his name alone would be a draw. I wonder if the marketing department dropped the ball here a little? Even though the film is biography and not fantasy, I think fans would show up if they’d known about it. In my theatre, I saw a father bring his son and it seemed like maybe they had decided to share this film together because they had seen the LotR films together or read the book. Surely more people would have shared this film had it been advertised more.

    1. I do think the marketing struggled to sell it. I think the later trailers weren’t actually that bad and at the time gave me a hope for the film that was mostly rewarded. But I was looking for reasons to like the movie. For the skeptical Tolkien fan, the trailers gave out much to concern them. These elements weren’t as bad in the actual film, but I can understand why many Tolkien fans didn’t turn up. I understand, but I disagree with them, which is why I wrote the previous post. 🙂

      But even if the movie had had a universally positive reception among the Tolkien community, I would still expect it to struggle through the box office and exit without leaving much impact. The great hosts of people who watched the LOTR and Hobbit movies were mostly filled with people who didn’t know the name Tolkien, or if they did, knew nothing about the man beyond that he wrote books. I know many people who are huge fans of the books who nonetheless have never read a Tolkien biography and would not make it a priority to see a film that was based on him rather than on his fiction. Makes me sad, but that’s the sense I get and it’s why I’m not surprised that the film failed to turn a profit.

      1. I wasn’t sure about the fantasy elements in the trailers, either, but I was willing to give the film a chance. I think those bits were supposed to appeal to more casual fans who watched LotR,but weren’t necessarily fascinated by Tolkien’s life. But it had the effect of concerning fans who care about Tolkien’s life. So, the film ultimately somehow failed to attract casual fans and as well as more serious fans.

  2. You’ve convinced me to check out this film when it hits Blu-Ray. Prior to your review, it was probably a no-go. The trailer was horrible, and those scenes of Rings-ish phantasms on the battlefield… ugh. My reaction to it was like an allergic rash. I’m glad that you found it to be about more than just how Tolkein came to conceive the twentieth century’s most (arguably) distinguished fantasy in English literature. I’m not myself a Tolkein scholar of any kind, so I guess I’ll be less interested in fidelity to his life than to what the film thinks is significant in telling his life’s story, and I’m heartened that you found some merit on that score.

    1. Oddly, it’s not really about how Tolkien conceived his fantasy at all — I expected and wanted more of that. It really focuses on his college friendships, his romance with Edith, and how a love of story and languages helped him through many difficult times, culminating in WWI. A strong story, for sure, but not a “how Tolkien wrote his stories” story.

      If you haven’t read a Tolkien biography, then I think you’re in a good position to see the movie on its own merits. Afterwards, by all means read up! Humphrey Carpenter’s biography is generally the place to start; it’s official, it’s not too long, and it’s a lovely, fascinating read. There are also many other studies of his life out there that I am eager to dig in to.

      Please let us all know what you think when you see it!

  3. My biggest concern with this movie (and one of the reasons I made no attempt to see it) is that his family was vocally against it. I guess Tolkien didn’t want a biopic? I don’t know the details. But your review makes me want to watch it once it comes out on DVD. 🙂

    1. That’s a misconception that the Internet sadly blew out of proportion. The Estate released their standard disclaimer letting people know that they weren’t involved in the film, same as for the Peter Jackson films. They didn’t make any judgment about the film itself: all those news articles about them “denouncing” or “slamming” the biopic are pure bull from people who didn’t read the original statement carefully and who don’t know the Estate’s history with adaptations. Generally, as far as I can tell, the Estate is run by older members of the family who for some reason are against any adaptations or portrayals of Tolkien or his fiction outside of “serious” art and scholarship. They’ve allowed some great official books to be made but seem to dislike films in general. But the younger generation of Tolkiens is different. Royd Tolkien, the Professor’s great-grandson, actually played a Gondorian ranger in some of Jackson’s films!

      I highly recommend “The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.” He actually does talk about film adaptations a bit! While he was skeptical of films and adaptations in general, he was willing to let them try and even change things for the medium…much moreso than the Estate seems to want! That’s my take on it, at least.

      1. Yes, I figured it was most of the older members of the estate protesting. However, with the recent rush to get an Amazon adaptation it did leave me somewhat skeptical. I’ll be honest I haven’t followed Tolkien news closely since he passed (soooo busy right now), so I appreciate the clarification.

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