J.R.R. Tolkien was a writer who, it sometimes seems, launched a thousand books and now a thousand movies. (I exaggerate.) And at the start, I have to say that I am not a fan.
Of course, I love the life of Tolkien – the idea of him: the young scholar who became a soldier and then an Oxford don, and later creator of what, beyond his scholarly work as linguist and philologist, may surely be called an unequaled legacy of fantasy literature. Unequaled except, perhaps, by his friend and Oxford colleague C.S. Lewis.
Lewis’s books are – to me – more accessible, and that includes his scholarly work. His The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition is a favorite of mine. And my sons, when they were young, truly loved The Chronicles of Narnia.
I’ve tried to read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) and failed. My problem with Tolkien is similar to my struggles with Tolstoy: prolixity. And I’ve never found the Tolkien equivalent of Anna Karenina, a better, shorter book than the tedious War and Peace.
The work of the aforementioned writers has been given excellent screen treatment, although Peter Jackson’s versions of the LOTR trilogy (and the Hobbit film trilogy) have far surpassed the those of Lewis’s Chronicles series in terms of critical acclaim and financial success. Again, I find the Narnia movies (directed by Andrew Adamson and Michael Apted) more entertaining.
Now comes the biopic, Tolkien, by the Finnish director Dome Karukoski – designed to do what, by his own plain words, Tolkien said he never wanted to have done: generally, films made from his fantasy novels and, specifically, any attempts to explain where he “got” Middle-earth. “The book,” he told London’s The Telegraph  in 1968 (referring to LOTR, published in 1954), “is not about anything but itself. It has no allegorical intentions, topical, moral, religious or political. It is not about modern wars or H-bombs, and my villain is not Hitler.”
But the new movie begs to differ, although it wasn’t the backdrop of WWII that gave us Middle-earth but WWI, in which the 23-year-old married student from Exeter College served, beginning in the Great War’s second year. He deployed briefly in France but was too ill for combat and was repatriated to England after four months in the trenches.
The film begins with the young Tolkien’s visions of knights and dragons and childhood fights with wooden swords. His mother teaches Latin to him and his younger brother, which sparks his interest in languages.
Eventually, he would “read” history at Oxford before switching to philology under the guidance of Prof. Joseph Wright (played by Derek Jacobi). Tolkien would eventually be able to speak many languages and read some thirty-five – from pretty much every English there ever was to Esperanto. He was a genius.
If only this came across in the script and in the performance of Nicholas Hoult. His Tolkien is earnest and intelligent and there are some quick scenes of him speaking this or that tongue, including those Tolkien himself invented. Mind you, Hoult is a good actor, and his performance comes alive whenever he shares a scene with Lily Collins as the woman who becomes his wife. But there’s something missing . . . although Miss Collins is, as they say, radiant as Edit Bratt Tolkien.
But, again and again, Mr. Karukoski interrupts his narrative of love and scholarship with flashbacks about the war, insisting (pleading!) that we understand it was in the crucible of battle that Tolkien’s art was born. No doubt the war affected him greatly, but there were other influences as strong or stronger.
As the catalog for last year’s “Maker of Middle-earth” exhibit of Tolkien’s papers and art at Oxford’s Bodleian Library put it, Tolkien “wished more than anything to ‘make England Catholic’ again, and in doing so to reintroduce beauty, purity, and love to his country.” And I think it’s appropriate to suggest that Catholicism, along with the myths and literature of medieval England (and the rest of Northern Europe), are more at the heart of Tolkien’s work than his experiences in World War I.
But you would not know about the Catholic influence from Peter Jackson’s films, which is understandable since they’re about Middle-earth, or from Mr. Karukoski’s biopic, which makes no sense. Tolkien does show some of the young man’s interactions with the priest, Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan, who was his guardian and who had been an assistant to John Henry Newman at the Birmingham Oratory, behind which Tolkien grew up, spending nine years there. The film shows Fr. Morgan’s initial opposition to Tolkien’s romance with Edith Bratt, who was Protestant – a union the priest eventually blessed – but does not bother to note that Edith converted to Catholicism.
Knowledgeable Christian viewers will be disappointed, I suspect, in the lack of attention to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Christian faith given by Mr. Karukoski (and screenwriters David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford), and it’s hard not to imagine that Karukoski et alia see Catholicism as a commercial liability.
It isn’t necessary to assume that John Henry Newman was the model for Gandalf, or otherwise strain to connect Tolkien’s Catholic life to every aspect of his later storytelling, but it is odd – if not bizarre – to altogether ignore that connection in the film. Tolkien’s college rugby playing receives more attention than his religious faith.
And Tolkien’s scholarship is also slighted, though certainly alluded to. Mr. Karukoski might have screened Jodie Foster’s Little Man Tate, Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, or Morton Tyldum’s The Imitation Game for clues about how a genius may be effectively depicted on screen
But I must add that Tolkien is an enjoyable film with solid acting and some lovely shots of Oxford and rural England – the “shires” that Tolkien so loved. Colm Meaney and Mr. Jacobi are a solid as Fr. Morgan and Prof. Wright, and Patrick Gibson, Tom Glynn-Carney, and, especially, Anthony Boyle are excellent as Tolkien’s companions in mischief and learning, rugby and war: the T.C.B.S. (Tea Club and Barrovian Society) – an early and influential Fellowship.
Tolkien is rated PG-13 for those repetitive and disruptive sequences of war.