‘Tolkien’ highlights the brilliant mind, but not the devout heart, behind Middle-earth
Sophia Buono May 3, 2019
Few fantasy tales have received such worldwide acclaim and popularity as John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.”
Since the former’s publication in 1937, both works have sold hundreds of millions of copies in dozens of languages and have been represented in six multimillion dollar films, whose sets in New Zealand receive hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.
But who was the man behind this magical series? Fox Searchlight Pictures’ upcoming film “Tolkien” (May 10) seeks to answer that question.
Directed by Dome Karukoski, this biographical drama follows the now-famous author from boyhood to young adulthood and offers viewers a glimpse into the filial, fraternal, and romantic relationships of his life.
Throughout the film, the aura of Tolkien’s fantasy world lingers in the background and ties the author’s story to the stories he created.
The stunning score echoes the elvish hymns of Peter Jackson’s masterpieces, and the impressive cinematography captures landscapes that evoke the charm of the Shire or the ugliness of Mordor. These moments give viewers an idea of how Tolkien’s life and surroundings shaped the world he formed with his pen.
Of course, Tolkien’s own story is not one of fantasy but of reality, and that reality is not always pretty. As the plot unfolds, his genius with languages becomes clear, and the actors for Tolkien (Harry Gilby as the boy and Nicholas Hoult as the man) do a fine job portraying the modest student who can recite Chaucer’s Middle English from memory and create languages of his own.
But they also demonstrate that Tolkien’s brilliance did not make his path a smooth one. Poverty and tragedy aggravate his struggle to complete his studies, and the development of a romance that his guardian disapproves of further complicates his journey.
That romance is perhaps the most intriguing element of the film. Edith Bratt (Lily Collins) shares Tolkien’s fascination with fairy story and language more than any other character, and their conversations mark the moments when the mind that dreamed up Hobbits and Ents truly shines.
In one elegant scene, the two discuss the intricacies of words and meaning, and Tolkien pulls a magical tail almost out of thin air. The exchange highlights not only the beauty of Tolkien’s imagination but also the earnestness of his love for Edith.
The film could have benefited from more moments like this that bridged Tolkien’s legends and his life — especially given that in real life, his wife inspired one of the greatest love stories of his fantasy world, that of Lúthien and Beren. Unfortunately, the film acknowledges this only in a screen note at the end.
To a certain extent, “Tolkien” does weave in the world of Middle-earth through some other characters and effects.
For instance, the schoolmates who form Tolkien’s innermost circle of friends become the foundation for the “fellowship” he later says will characterize his novel. And in the war scenes, Tolkien’s imagination comes to life by flashing images of fire-spewing dragons and Ringwraith-like Black Riders.
These particular moments are cleverly arranged and emphasize how Tolkien’s own experiences influenced his writing, but it is a real missed opportunity that no other scenes or characters are rendered with such fantasy. Why not flash a few moments of Edith envisioned as an Elf queen, or build upon Tolkien’s interest in Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” to foreshadow his iconic One Ring?
With impressive acting and likeable characters — from the spirited Edith to the earnest Geoffrey Bache Smith, one of Tolkien’s best friends — viewers will find themselves invested in Tolkien’s story and pained to see him and his loved ones suffer.
Nevertheless, for all the intriguing characters and poignant relationships, “Tolkien” lacks something to tie this multifaceted story all together. He was full of eagerness and talent, but what motivated Tolkien’s life and work?
This brings us to the core element of Tolkien’s character that the film overlooks the most: his faith. For an author widely known not just for his literary masterpieces but also for his devout Catholicism that inspired those masterpieces, Karukoski’s “Tolkien” surprisingly comes off as quite un-religious.
The fact that Father Francis Xavier Morgan serves as his guardian implies the importance of the faith to his family, but the film hardly shows the close relationship the young Tolkien actually had with the priest.
In fact, the one time he even hints at his faith is when he angrily tells Francis, who has told him not to court the Protestant “Miss Bratt,” that he is a priest and therefore cannot understand what love is. Such a characterization leaves us to wonder how the question of whether “The Lord of the Rings” is a “Catholic novel” ever arose.
Without the common thread that the author’s faith could have provided, the narrative flow becomes disjointed. We jump to and from the growing bonds between Tolkien and his friends, the hope and heartbreak within Tolkien and Edith’s love story, the horrors of World War I, and the emergence of the famous novel itself.
This back and forth without an underlying foundation makes it difficult to discern the central theme of the story.
For what it’s worth, “Tolkien” cannot leave anyone in doubt about the author’s unique talents and trials. It is true that because his life had so many complex layers, tying them all together into a two-hour narrative is no small task. It could very well be that by trying to fit in all these dimensions, the makers of “Tolkien” simply bit off more than anyone could chew.
Still, had this story been more rooted in Tolkien’s moral quest in life — including the importance of his faith — it could have been a more cohesive, compelling, and profound film.
Sophia Buono is a writer who lives in Arlington, Virginia.
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