Review: Tolkien [Film] (2019)

So… I went to see the Tolkien biopic yesterday evening. Yes, it’s belated, but then the film only came out in New Zealand on 6th June (a month behind everyone else), and the screening times were decidedly inconvenient. Would it have killed Dunedin cinemas to show it at night or on Sundays? As it was, I ended up going by myself – inconvenient time for friends – and the theatre was choc-full of old people. Make of that what you will.

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The Tolkien biopic seems to have been dividing opinions. The actual critics have been, well, critical, with accusations of it being unimaginative, and suggestions that the fantasy elements are a bit on-the-nose. The audiences themselves, however, genuinely seem to like it. This was borne out anecdotally: as I was leaving the theatre, I heard several of my fellow audience members expressing sentiments that “they’d really enjoyed that,” and that it was “definitely worthwhile.” One of the few non-elderly people – he had a hat and a beard – was remarking that it would only have made sense to someone familiar with The Lord of the Rings. Well, yes. Why else would someone watch a Tolkien biopic? For the Beowulf scholarship?

Myself… I’ll confess. I did enjoy it. It’s far from perfect – we’ll get to that – and I kept comparing events to what I remembered of Tolkien’s early life from Carpenter’s biography, and from the man’s own letters. But here’s the thing – is the primary job of a biopic to be a biography or a film? A portrait of the artist (as a young man!) or a dramatised fiction inspired by the author’s life? In a strange way, I found myself reliving the Purist vs Revisionist  argument all over again. While, again, I am at heart a Revisionist – what matters is the quality of the movie – it occurred to me that there is even a ‘B-52 over Mordor’ red-line to be drawn here. Would I have accepted a movie (even a very good movie) that had Tolkien as, say, Jack the Ripper? Well, no. I wouldn’t have. Details and accuracy still matter, at least to some degree, and it is the absence of those details here that left a slightly sour taste in my mouth.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s a very fun movie, with some lovely Edwardian sets (the film focuses entirely on Tolkien’s early life, up until the mid-1930s). The acting is good too, with Tolkien portrayed very much as a Norse-loving introvert. We get his invented languages, and his personal relationships – his mother, Father Francis, the T.C.B.S., Joseph Wright, and, of course, Edith. We get his theory that languages ought to have meaning and resonance via the power of story. This was a moment that made me smile, even if they play a little bit fast and loose with the source of that idea. And the film includes some amusing anecdotes that actually did happen – the throwing of sugar cubes at hats, and the commandeering of the bus – together with Tolkien’s rugby experiences. The best moment of all though was the playful stab at Peter Jackson – “it shouldn’t take six hours to tell a story about a magic ring.”

The centrepiece of the film is the Battle of the Somme, however. Which is portrayed appropriately gruesomely, with corpses, mud, madness, and Tolkien’s own personal loss of his friends. This is where the film introduces fantasy elements, via the hallucinations of trench fever, and, well, there has been some criticism of that in the wider media. As though Tolkien’s later work can be explained allegorically by his earlier experiences – a tick-box of influences, with little room for imagination. While I can see that argument, I would point out that Tolkien’s very first Middle-earth story, The Fall of Gondolin, envisaged mechanical dragons attacking a city, and, however heavy-handed the film may be, the desolation of No Man’s Land clearly affected him. Plus, as far as influences go, it is more cinematic than a geeky introvert stumbling across Kirby’s translation of Kalevala and trying to teach himself Finnish.

As I have suggested, there are some liberties taken. They have intellectualised-up Edith (she is now the source of the idea about words and resonance of meaning), and given her a passion for Wagner (I don’t recall her having one in real-life, though I might be wrong). The Wagner thing – which obviously plays up the magic ring – is a bit curious, since we know that Tolkien hated the comparison, though I do recall it coming out that Tolkien had written a Wagner essay in his youth. Artistic licence, maybe? And were Ronald and Edith really intending to sit through all fourteen hours of the four Ring Cycle Operas? Furthermore, Tolkien is portrayed as an enthusiastic maker of myths well before the War, and, yes, he was writing his William Morris-inspired retelling of Kullervo… but the original prose (rather than retellings or poetry) came later than the movie suggests. But that’s a quibble: they were jumbling up the timeline for drama.

The biggest and most questionable liberty is the handling of religion. Tolkien’s Catholicism was an integral part of his life, and his discussions with C.S. Lewis were famous, but one would not know it from the biopic, not least because we never get to the point where he meets Lewis. Sure, there are bits and pieces – notably Ronald’s chats with Father Francis, and the comment that Edith is “not even a Catholic,” and it is undoubtedly more difficult to portray Tolkien’s personal faith than to show him in a War, but… Tolkien without his Catholicism isn’t really Tolkien. Apparently they filmed (and cut) a Communion scene, but a later line of Ronald talking to Father Francis about Edith’s conversion would have been nice. To be fair though, Tolkien apparently went through a less religious period of his life, so while it might have been misleading in portraying Tolkien’s life as a whole, that particular slice can potentially be regarded as unrepresentative. If you squint.

For myself, I would have also preferred some references to Lord Dunsany and William Morris, and, yes, Kalevala. It would not have needed to be lengthy either – just a scene of Tolkien gushing about it, and noting that England has lost its own mythology (there is no reference at all to Tolkien’s youthful dream of a Mythology for England). Same with Beowulf, whose influence on Tolkien the writer – never mind Tolkien the scholar – was profound, but which is not referenced in the biopic. I’d have loved a scene where some academics are discussing the various approaches to analysing Beowulf, whereupon Tolkien stands up and delivers his famous allegory about the stone tower. Oh, and I kept waiting for Joseph Wright to tell Tolkien “go in for the Celtic, lad. There’s money in it.” But it never happened. Oh well.

**

Thinking about the movie as a whole, I would say it is certainly worth watching – the good definitely outweighs the bad, and my sympathies are certainly more with the run-of-the-mill audiences than with the critics. The biopic also occupies a curious half-way house in terms of its intended audience. On one hand, someone not familiar with at least the Peter Jackson movies would have no time for this one, but on the other hand, one suspects its intended audience isn’t supposed to know more about J.R.R. Tolkien than that he wrote fantasy and loved language. There are holes (both religious and literary shaped), and there are curious add-ons (Wagner), but as far as trying to adapt this source material goes, it’s not a bad effort.

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