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