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Tolkien, A Review

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One of the advantages of reading biographies is that even if they’re not very good, there remains the consolation of having learned something. Sadly, this is one of the few positive things that can be said about the recent biopic Tolkien.

Biographies can be tricky to adapt for the screen. Filmmakers will want to adhere to the truth as much as possible while still being able to tell a coherent and thematic story. How much artistic license is too much? I’m sure the answer has to do with whether the subject is still living or whether his estate wields a lot of clout. In the case of beloved fantasy author J. R. R. Tolkien, the latter is most certainly true. Not only did the Tolkien estate recently disavow Tolkien, it had also filed a multimillion-pound lawsuit over royalties from the wildly-successful Lord of the Rings films. I’m sure director Dome Karukoski and screenwriters David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford had to tread lightly when telling the story of the man commonly regarded as the father of modern fantasy fiction.

Perhaps as a result, Tolkien underwhelms. It tells the story of young Tolkien, from his impoverished childhood, through his school years, and into his time in the trenches of the First World War. The story ends in the 1930s, just as he puts pen to paper to write The Hobbit. Many passages in the film are slow and insipid, and, in general, the film suffers from a surfeit of earnestness. Tolkien (played by Nicholas Hoult) is a perfectly nice and sensitive young man. He has a genius for language; he’s haunted by fantastic visions; and he has a slight jealous streak regarding his lover Edith Bratt (played by Lily Collins, the daughter of rock star Phil Collins). Other than that, he’s unremarkable. If this were a fictional story about a fictional author, Tolkien would disappear without a ripple. Because the subject is so famous and important, however, the film has inherent informational value for those who care. Faint praise, I know.

Why Tolkien fails, however, is interesting. The story comes across as a jack-of-all-trades yet master of none. At any given point, it is about love, friendship, language, or war. These threads do not interconnect very well, leaving the story disjointed and confusing, and diminishing the power of its ending. It seems the filmmakers preferred to ape the major chapters of their subject’s life rather than tell a story with a proper beginning, middle, and end. Further, they refused to give the audience much of what it really craves: insight into Middle Earth and Tolkien’s great works The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. One would think that in order to sell tickets, the film’s producers would have basked as closely as possible in the One Ring’s glow. But they didn’t.

For example, the kindhearted and attentive soldier who accompanies Tolkien in the trenches is named Sam. Here was an opportunity to link Tolkien to the Samwise Gamgee character from The Lord of the Rings. But that didn’t happen. Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas appear in the story as well, yet such an obvious connection to Tolkien’s future work never seems to turn a light bulb on in the young author’s mind. Instead of any direct links to the world of Frodo and Gandalf, we get a few mutterings from Tolkien and the occasional demonic images of dragons or death riders on horseback. This is not enough to scintillate in the way that, say, Johnny Depp’s J. M. Barrie did in 2004’s Finding Neverland. This film sets the standard for an author biopic, since it seamlessly weaves the author’s famous works into every aspect of the narrative. This does not happen in Tolkien, but could have.

Tolkien’s failure also reflects a lack of understanding of what makes a story exceptional. Not only are the film’s major threads disorganized, most of them come off as ordinary or incomplete when taken on their own. Just because young Tolkien formed lasting friendships with his school chums does not necessarily make this “fellowship” interesting. The kids are seen leaping along cobbled stones and sipping tea at trendy cafés, crowing about how they will change the world through art. Did the filmmakers not see how trite this is? Tolkien’s romance with Edith has a few nice moments, such as when they couldn’t afford to see one of Wagner’s Ring operas and instead act out the play themselves in the theater’s basement. Overall, however, there’s nothing special about it. They get in a spat over Tolkien’s jealousy; he leaves her to go off to Oxford after much handwringing, and they reconcile just as he is about to sail off to fight in France. As far as romances go, this is pretty weak tea.

As for the war scenes, to which we flash forward quite often, not much is there, either. J. R. R., who is desperately ill, scours the trenches to find one of his aforementioned school chums who has not been answering his mother’s letters. Not bad. Karukoski also portrays the trench war scenes impeccably, almost to the point of making them an homage to Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant Paths of Glory. There’s just not enough of them. The film suffers every time it cuts away from gripping war drama to the more pedestrian concerns of the lovelorn Tolkien at Oxford.

The thread of the film that works best was, for me, Tolkien’s interest in language. He makes up his own, and through it is able to spontaneously generate lucid and evocative myths. His story about the magic place “celador” and the intertwining black and white trees, which he shares with Edith, provides a memorable example. Hoult’s performance seems to get a jolt every time the topic of language comes up. Later in the film, he meets the eccentric philology professor Joseph Wright (played wonderfully by Derek Jacobi) who teaches him about the vital importance of language. “It’s the lifeblood of culture,” he tells his student while waxing on about how integral language is to the past, present, and future of a people. This is great stuff, and not just from a white or English identitarian standpoint. It’s where the film really has something new to offer. But as with the war scenes, there is too little of it; and almost no effort is made to connect young Tolkien’s philological passions to the elaborate flights of linguistic fancy found in his great works.

J. R. R. Tolkien holds a special place in the literature of the English-speaking world. He created a magnificent and enduring mythology while spearheading an entire genre of literature. He did so with a love for European languages and the grand, all-encompassing mythos they embody. It would be impossible for anyone identifying as white or English not to admire Tolkien for this. Tolkien may lurch through a barely tolerable biography of the great author and touch ever so slightly on these themes, but it stands in stark contrast to most other Hollywood films which de-prioritize European civilization and the role brilliant white men like Tolkien played in creating it. For all its faults, Tolkien does not do that, and so for now, at the very least, it will do.

Spencer J. Quinn is a frequent contributor to Counter-Currents and the author of the novel White Like You.

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14 Comments

  1. Gnome Chompsky
    Posted June 2, 2019 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Tolkien wrote (unconvingly) about having received no influence from Wagner`s ring cycle.

    This is not to detract from his great artificial mythos, but is a point that I find irritating, it is amusing if, as you say, the movie is referring to the connection.

    You, Spencer, have a higher evaluation of it than any other I have read.

    Perhaps I will see it, thanks to your review. I tend to avoid movies from the (((them))) controlled nightmare that the Disney corporation (and, yes, we all know Walt will be spinning in his grave) has become.

  2. Lord Shang
    Posted June 2, 2019 at 2:36 am | Permalink

    I don’t think this review is accurate, at least in the overall impression it leaves of the film. While there was a certain disjointedness, Quinn already has accounted for that by pointing out the difficulty of telling a story about a real life, given that real life rarely forms as tidy a narrative as fiction. I had read some reviews of TOLKIEN before seeing it, and most seemed to find it boring. Still, it was playing on the screen right next to my showing of JOHN WICK 3, and had only just started when the other finished, so I couldn’t resist theater hopping into it, despite the low expectations.

    I was very pleasantly surprised. The movie was beautifully directed (especially considering the somewhat anemic script it had to work with), shot, scored, and, mostly, acted. I found myself rooting for the character, romance, friends’ survival of the trenches, etc, something I rarely do in most films. I loved the old buildings, and depictions of old manners and behaviors (obviously vastly more civilized than anything one finds today; it’s good to be reminded of what we once were, and could be again). And I recognized the many none-too-implicit tie-ins to Tolkien’s famous later work. To take one such example, Quinn writes:

    “the kindhearted and attentive soldier who accompanies Tolkien in the trenches is named Sam. Here was an opportunity to link Tolkien to the Samwise Gamgee character from The Lord of the Rings. But that didn’t happen.”

    It didn’t NEED to “happen”, because it just did! When a shell-shocked Tolkien mentioned his helper’s name “Sam”, of course the audience would be expected to see this as a foreshadowing of the famous helper of Frodo. How much more unsubtle would Quinn have liked the scene to be?!

    Quinn seems to have missed the two best features of the film (esp. from a WN perspective): the uncharacteristic (for any 21st century film) complete lack of anachronism (none of the characters behaved as contemporary persons merely wearing Victorian or Edwardian clothes and attending Oxford), and – always my greatest fear when watching British period pieces – not a single background minority (that I can recall now). No witty Hindu scholarship boy, or noble Abyssinian prince holding ‘court’ in the pub. Just White characters, living normal lives in a time before “White guilt”.

    This moving film is worth renting.

  3. David Stanley
    Posted May 31, 2019 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    Apparently they cut out any mention of his Catholic devotion,by far the most important influence in his life and without which LOTR and it’s sources are hard to understand.

    • Rob Bottom
      Posted May 31, 2019 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

      I agree the omission of his religious faith is most likely political, but I disagree that you need to be well acquainted with that to understand his work. There are multiple levels of understanding, of course. It seems to me a better use of screen time would be spent elucidating the commonalities between Tolkien’s lore and the European myths it borrowed from.

      • Guy White
        Posted June 1, 2019 at 5:01 am | Permalink

        The fundamental myths were Christianized before they were read outside Scandinavia. The runic ‘languages’ were not capable of narration until Christianized. All-Father Woden was gilded with Christ Jesus.

        • Gnome Chompsky
          Posted June 2, 2019 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

          Tolkien wrote a short essay on this. The gist of it is that any kind of explicit Christianity has to be absent because the setting is imaginary, but in the (very) distant past, so of necessity, it cannot be explicitly present. That is very good reasoning.

          He was also strident in claiming to hate allegory. Yet his works have much of it, particularly LoTR. Geo-political allegory.

          Tolkien’s writing on that point may be considered to be in opposition to his friend C.S. Lewis, whose legendaria are explicitly Christian allegory, but they are also not placed in a very distant past.

          I am not sure of the timing of Tolkien’s comments to that effect, IIRC, they preceded the fantasy works of Lewis, so there was no reactive quality, although Lewis may have had proving Tolkien wrong as a minor goal, and his Narnia works (and the planetary tales) are very clearly allegorical much of the time.

    • Captain John Charity Spring MA
      Posted June 2, 2019 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

      In 1919 when the war ended there were race riots in every English port. Scouring the shire as it were.

    • margot metroland
      Posted June 7, 2019 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

      Re: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Catholicism, this was certainly the central fact of his life. But in a fictionalized film version that is something virtually impossible to portray. In the popular idiom of Christianity, the traditional picture of European chivalry and vigils and quests has been replaced by an insipid image of flowing-robe people in a Levantine never-never-land. The easy solution is to avoid the matter entirely.

  4. Dr ExCathedra
    Posted May 31, 2019 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    Tolkien was also a convinced and devout Roman Catholic, at a time when that once-great faith was not an embarrassment. The absence in this movie of that major element in his life and character is entirely predictable.

  5. James O'Meara
    Posted May 31, 2019 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    Do they include this scene? If so, I’m buying a ticket:

    At Oxford in the nineteen-forties, Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was generally considered the most boring lecturer around, teaching the most boring subject known to man, Anglo-Saxon philology and literature, in the most boring way imaginable. “Incoherent and often inaudible” was Kingsley Amis’s verdict on his teacher. Tolkien, he reported, would write long lists of words on the blackboard, obscuring them with his body as he droned on, then would absent-mindedly erase them without turning around. “I can just about stand learning the filthy lingo it’s written in,” Philip Larkin, another Tolkien student, complained about the old man’s lectures on “Beowulf.” “What gets me down is being expected to admire the bloody stuff.” — https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/12/05/the-dragons-egg

    • UJC
      Posted June 1, 2019 at 3:54 am | Permalink

      To understand the full horror, you need to know that Anglo-Saxon is (to this day) obligatory for students studying English at Oxford

      • James J. O'Meara
        Posted June 1, 2019 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

        Good Lord. My understanding is that when English was first proposed as a course of study, both Classics and Sciences demanded to know what kind of field of knowledge was needed to read books in English; the Anglo Saxon requirement was added give it a “serious” basis. I would have thought the opposition had faded by now, or something “relevant” like sociology or psychology substituted. Home of Lost Causes indeed.

        • Ronald Blake
          Posted June 2, 2019 at 5:57 am | Permalink

          I recall Kingsley Amis’ low opinion of English Literature as an academic discipline, in a biography. He felt that it was meant to be enjoyed, not studied.

      • Captain John Charity Spring MA
        Posted June 2, 2019 at 7:10 am | Permalink

        What’s the big deal?

        The Rood, AS chronicals, beowulf, Alfred’s translation of the Bible, battle of maldon, bedes ecclesiastical history… There isn’t much to cover tbh.

        Typical question might include

        Did Bede invent the notion of Englishness?

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