Tolkien Movie Review

TOLKIEN Directed by Dome Karukoski
Starring Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins

The “Tolkien biopic” had been rumored for awhile, but without any substantive news until just before its release. When I learned that I could catch an early May 7 viewing in 400 theaters with a live simulcast Q&A following the film, I bought a ticket right away at a local theater. The official US release date is May 10. I will be seeing the film twice (May 9 will be the second time), so I may tweak this review a bit following that second viewing.

GENERAL THOUGHTS – NO SPOILERS

Although Tolkien fans may be a bit divided on how they feel about this film, like always, I hope we can all agree that anything which gets people to read Tolkien’s works, and discover works of scholarship on him, is overall something to celebrate. For my own part, heading into the theater I was excited to see, for the first time in cinematic history, dramatizations of the important people in Tolkien’s early life: the T.C.B.S. alive and well in the glory of their youth, Tolkien’s intelligent and devoted mother, his brother, guardian Father Francis, and love Edith Bratt. For those who know nothing about Tolkien’s life or early years, I am glad that they now know these names and people, and have an understanding of what Tolkien experienced before becoming an established author and scholar.

After viewing the film, and seeing interviews with the director and cast, I warn that viewers should also be aware that this is a dramatization. While many facts about the individuals and circumstances in this film were accurate (beyond hope…more than I’d expected), there are also quite a few instances where creative license was taken. Timelines are changed, some personalities are shifted, most scenes have little or no actual historic occurrence, and some resonances (particularly Tolkien’s faith) are muted or diminished. A fellow Tolkien friend told me that the filmmakers had first presented the film with great historic accuracy, and it was found to be too dull. They scrapped it. What Dome Karukoski did on the next attempt was create a film filled with “dreams and emotions” (his words) or impressions. I think this is an apt description. You get some emotive qualities and a great deal of overall perceptions, but with a blurred factual premise.

When asked by Stephen Colbert, the simulcast facilitator, why Tolkien’s faith was not more present in the film, Karukoski answered that the scenes they had with it earlier (Tolkien in confession with Father Francis, etc.) had just not worked. Internal spiritual realities are, Karukoski said, “difficult to portray on the screen.” The result is that you see some trimmings of faith without any of its depth or importance in Tolkien’s life. Karukoski does say that Tolkien recites some religious poetry, and some cut religious scenes will be available on the DVD. I also saw a crucifix in one of the battle scenes which will require a closer look during my next viewing.

The film is also a beautiful piece of art. I enjoyed the scenery, costuming, props, and film making artistry. It made me miss England. I thought Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins also provided excellent performances, and Derek Jacobi is always a delight to see. He plays Tolkien’s philology professor at Oxford, which hey, bonus points for even PUTTING Joseph Wright in this film! I mean really.

While it’s not entirely clear how much research was done behind the scenes for the film, or which sources were used, we know that some Tolkien scholars were consulted, Tolkien’s letters were read by both director and cast, Tolkien’s recordings were played, and Tolkien’s artwork was examined. Bonus points to Nicholas Hoult for practicing drawing, while on the set of X-Men in his Beast costume, to try to get more in Tolkien’s creative mindset. Both Hoult and Karukoski grew up reading Tolkien’s works, and Karukoski said he related to Tolkien’s own struggles since he also grew up in a life of poverty. He calls Tolkien his “hero,” and made this film out of love and respect. With that, I raise a glass to him.

And if you’re wondering what the Tolkien Estate / Tolkien family is saying about the film, to the best of my knowledge they haven’t seen it, and have provided this statement.

SPECIFIC THOUGHTS – SPOILERS GALORE

These thoughts will be a bit more sporadic and rambling. My first comment is on the framing device of WWI scenes interspersed with flashbacks throughout the film. Karukoski stated that these war scenes only compose a small amount of the film (maybe 15 minutes worth) and could be taken as “fevered dreams” Tolkien was having in hospital rather than literal happenings. That relieves me a bit since the thought of Tolkien going (or being allowed to go) on a desperate search for G.B. Smith in the midst of open battle seemed fairly absurd. It was a thoughtful touch to give Tolkien a “Sam-like” batman, since there is evidence Sam is based upon the common English soldiers that Tolkien knew. It’s a nice resonance, not a fact or actual historic person.

The book of G.B. Smith’s poetry published after his death by his friends J.R.R. Tolkien and Christopher Wiseman. This 1918 volume is owned by the Marion E. Wade Center.

I was glad to see that the T.C.B.S. members were there with distinct characters. However, Rob Gilson’s characterization really threw me off-guard. Gilson seems to me to be much closer to how they portrayed G.B. Smith’s character: sensitive, personable, likable, and someone who deeply appreciates beautiful things. In the film, Gilson is the clown and trouble instigator of the group, and also has a strained relationship with his (overly-strict) headmaster father that I don’t remember seeing any evidence for in what I’ve read about him. Of course, all the T.C.B.S. members were young men with a proclivity to get into mischief from time to time, but Gilson’s portrayal seemed very uncharacteristic. Smith got all the sensitive and intimate moments that should have rightfully been shared by both of them. To learn more about Rob Gilson and his WWI experience, I highly recommend the Vimeo film about his life by Eliander Pictures. It’s 30 minutes you will appreciate, particularly after seeing the Tolkien film. The same folks did an excellent short film on Tolkien and WWI as well.

And the closing credit factoid about Smith dying during the Somme bothered me. He was wounded by a rogue German shell in late 1916 doing routine road maintenance and not in active combat. He dies in the hospital a few days later from wound infections (gas gangrene). WWI buffs help me out: can that still be considered “killed during the Somme”?? Gilson was killed in action in the Somme in July 1916.

And Tolkien and Wiseman jointly, along with G.B. Smith’s mother, published Smith’s poems in A Spring Harvest…in 1918. I was disappointed that Tolkien’s editorial efforts were reduced to “providing a foreword” in the movie, and many years after Smith’s death rather than soon afterward (before Tolkien himself had a published volume to his own name).

As for Edith’s characterization, Lily Collins said, rightly so, that research materials on her are scarce. The film makers felt the need, also rightly so, to flesh out her character a bit and give her some liveliness. She did play the piano, although I don’t recall her having a particular passion for Wagner as I believe that was something Tolkien shared and enjoyed with C.S. Lewis. I’m also not remembering her ever meeting the other T.C.B.S. members…in fact my impression from reading over the years is that Tolkien kept his personal life quite separate from his school and social life. Edith’s feelings of isolation, however, and remonstration for Tolkien having an intellectual and social outlet which she did not have, seems to agree with scholarly evidence. Tolkien had his career, colleagues, friends, and scholarship. Edith found it hard to make friends and was home raising 4 children. It is believable that there was tension there, although she may not have been as wholly desirous of intellectual community as the movie suggests. She did help Tolkien in his early writing as her own handwriting appears transcribing his manuscripts.

Edith was also engaged to be married, but convinced to break the engagement when Tolkien wrote to her at midnight on his 21st birthday, and later met with her in person, to say he still loved her. They were married in March 1916, 3 months before he went to war in June. And yes, she was Tolkien’s Lúthien, and danced for him in a woodland glade. 😉

I do feel like Father Francis got short-changed. He was not outwardly antagonized by the film makers, but he was also not seen as warm and nurturing, either. And since the role of the Church and Tolkien’s faith are downplayed in the film, it’s difficult to see the importance Father Francis had in Tolkien’s family and personal life.

And while some scenes of this film were really well-paced, fun, and engaging, others seemed to drag and slow everything down. The zoom out shot down the opera house hallway with Edith and Ronald kissing took FOREVER. Surely there was a better way to say “this is romantic!” without making me want to check my watch?

The Q&A following the film was with Hoult, Collins, Karukoski, and Colbert. Stephen Colbert is a huge Tolkien fan, and I was glad he asked some poignant questions, like why Karukoski did not include more about Tolkien’s faith. He also brought up the facts that Tolkien did not like direct allegory applied to his works, nor biographical studies of the author to try and psycho-analyze his writings. Karukoski responded that the small tie-ins to Tolkien’s writings (with knights, evil figures, and dragons appearing in some of the battle scenes) were dreams rather than allegorical representations. “We all have subconscious influences in our creative works,” Karukoski said. He also stated that Tolkien might have thought his life was too “uninteresting” (I think that was the word he used) to examine or dramatize. He hoped that should he and Tolkien meet up and smoke a pipe on a cloud one day, Tolkien would think that Karukoski’s film made his life more engaging and worthwhile for a broader audience to consider.

Personally I think Tolkien’s life, with all its normal facts, is incredibly interesting, dramatic, and inspiring for all readers to learn more about and enjoy. I’m very pleased that someone finally saw fit to share some of this fascinating life with a broader audience through cinema. If we’re honest enough to admit it, film is one of the best vehicles in our current society to promote interest and deeper learning into lesser-known subject matter. I hope more creators give Tolkien’s life a try. Do you think we could convince Ken Burns to do a documentary?? 😉

So my overall verdict on the Tolkien film, for those who prefer sound bites, is as follows:

It was charming, but not life-changing. I liked it, but didn’t love it. It inspired an emotive response, but didn’t fully capture my sensibilities as a viewer.

And since I’m an archivist…gotta recommend some quality additional Tolkien resources, my friends! For those who wish to learn more about Tolkien’s life here are some suggestions:

  • Carpenter, Humphrey. Tolkien: A Biography. Houghton Mifflin, 1977.
  • Edwards, Raymond. Tolkien. London: Robert Hale, 2014. (biography)
  • Garth, John. Tolkien and the Great War. Houghton Mifflin, 2003.
  • Hammond, Wayne and Christina Scull. J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator. Houghton Mifflin, 1995.
  • McIlwaine, Catherine. Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2018.
  • Tales Before Tolkien. Ed. Douglas Anderson. Del Rey/Ballantine Books, 2003.
  • Tolkien, John and Priscilla. The Tolkien Family Album. HarperCollins, 1992.
  • Video: Tolkien’s Beginnings – Friendship, Love, War, and Writing

Elen síla lúmenn’ omentielvo!

UPDATE

I enjoyed the film more the second time I saw it, for 2 reasons:

  1. I didn’t have to analyze every moment this time around, so I just got to enjoy it and notice a few things here and there I had missed previously.
  2. I went with the Wheaton College Tolkien Society, and viewing this film with a sympathetic and engaged fellowship was marvelous! 🙂

Another tidbit: “cellar door” is discussed as a beautiful-sounding phrase in Tolkien’s essay “English and Welsh,” so bonus points to the film makers for that reference to a lesser-known Tolkien essay.

Second movie viewing with the WCTS, May 9, 2019.

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16 thoughts on “Tolkien Movie Review

  1. I’ll second Brenton’s comment, and thank him for directing his blog-readers here!

    Good to have so well-informed, detailed, and thoughtful a review – and also a report on the simulcast discussion!

    To take up a couple interesting points:

    “A fellow Tolkien friend told me that the filmmakers had first presented the film with great historic accuracy” – it would be great to know more about that! In what form? In writing – and more? Sounds like something that would be good to have (a copy of) in the Wade archives! (I have been enjoying John Granger’s analytical and speculative discussions of the scripts and cuts of J.K. Rowling’s first two Fantastic Beasts movies, at his blog. Might something like that prove possible – or, even, unnecessary, if texts,etc., could be archived! – where the Tolkien biopic is concerned?)

    Interesting to hear the director said the “war scenes” “could be taken as ‘fevered dreams’ Tolkien was having in hospital rather than literal happenings.” Did you notice any ‘story-telling clues’ the second time that would help viewers pick up on that? (Before reading this, I had just been thinking about Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, as play and film, where most of what one saw was in fact a visualization of Salieri’s account of things, and who is to say, how unreliable an account? – however unfair this all may be to the historical Salieri!.)

    To your notes for further study, I would add:

    There is a documentary in the works, based on Joseph Loconte’s A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War, with trailers that can been seen on YouTube.

    Being out of copyright, Geoffrey Bache Smith’s book is freely available online in transcription at Project Gutenberg.

    John Garth’s little, richly-illustrated book (64 pages), Tolkien at Exeter College: How an Oxford Undergraduate Created Middle-earth, is also well worth reading. (And, of course, his website!)

    I also thoroughly enjoyed Andrew H. Morton’s Tolkien’s Gedling, 1914: The Birth of a Legend (Studley: Brewin Books, 2008) and hope to catch up with its companion, Tolkien’s Bag End; Threshold to Adventure (2009).

    And, something else I want to read is, what John Garth describes as ‘Uncle Curro’: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Spanish Connection (Edinburgh: Luna Press, 2018), José Manuel Ferrández-Bru’s biography of Tolkien’s guardian and ‘second father’, Francis Morgan – to this English version of which, he has provided a preface.

    :

    • Thanks for your comments, David! I’m not certain when or if we’ll get to see the original “more historically accurate” scenes from the film, but Karukoski did suggest there would be deleted scenes in the DVD, so that’s the first place I’ll check when it comes out.

      Upon my second viewing, I don’t think I saw any direct clues that the war scenes may have been dreams, so I think the viewer is left to make up their own mind about it. Tolkien’s perspective is already influenced by the fact he’s feverish while wandering the trenches, so there’s 2 layers of “fever” going on here. I was much more at ease watching the war scenes with the idea that they’re dreams, though, since as I mention in my review, they left me a little incredulous about their believability.

      And your additional sources are great recommendations too. Thank you, and all the best.

  2. Not one mention in the podcast or this review regarding the fact that the Tolkien family/Tolkien estate contributed nothing and wanted nothing to do with this film.

    • It’s common knowledge that the Tolkien Estate / family have not engaged much with recent film adaptations, so it wasn’t a surprise when they did the same here. If you missed the link above in the review to their official statement, you can find it here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/apr/23/tolkien-estate-disavows-forthcoming-film-starring-nicholas-hoult.

      However, the Estate did officially authorize Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, the Tolkien Family Album, Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator, and Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth. Those are some resources you can check out if you’re interested in Estate-supported material on Tolkien’s life.

      The Estate’s management has shifted in past years, and they have approved (and from what I’ve heard, encouraged) the new Amazon series set in Middle-earth. We’ll wait to see how that turns out!

      • I liked John Garth’s comment as quoted in Alison Flood’s Guardian article, linked at his website: ““Biopics typically take considerable licence with the facts, and this one is no exception. Endorsement by the Tolkien family would lend credibility to any divergences and distortions. That would be a disservice to history”.

      • But why wasn’t the Tolkien family/estate disapproval alluded too by those in the podcast.
        The indifferent newspaper reviews of the film (here in the U.K.) didn’t help either.
        Can’t help thinking Tolkien himself would be appalled that his early life would be the subject of entertainment/movie in later years!
        Quite simply, Too much Filler and not enough substance – simply because we just don’t know.

  3. You may be quite right about Tolkien’s feelings on being on film. The podcast had limited time for discussion, and since the estate’s public statement was so brief, there wouldn’t have really been much to “discuss” about it anyways. I think it better to let their public statement stand as is without doing too much additional speculation.

  4. My final few thoughts …..

    Other than a ‘non’ mention in the podcast (a serious omission) and indeed anything else churned out connected to to the film.
    You are right on one thing, there is nothing to discuss….or even speculate.
    So, Maybe the discussion should have included – why did they bother to make it in the first place, it’s actually a travesty! Done in the name of Tolkien?
    If the life of the author is allowed to become entertainment value (Netflix was mentioned, heaven forbid!) then it’s a sad day for anyone who cares about the life and legacy of Tolkien.

    Regards

    • I write this as a reply – but more as a matter for general consideration… How far is it a question of the life of an author, in any case, and how far is it a question of how carefully and faithfully the dramatization is done?

      To take another Wade author – I really liked the late Rex Walford’s ‘one-woman’ play about Dorothy L. Sayers – which I had the good fortune to see live at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1985, when I was there helping with a ‘one-man’ play about John Wilkes Booth. As far as I recall, both of those plays were made up completely of their subjects’ own words (or those of rôles Booth played, in his case). We later had Rex Walford talk to us about it, at the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society – and he showed us a videotape of a performance as part of his talk. The actress who played Dorothy Sayers so well, Miriam Rundle, had sadly suddenly died in the interval. I think that play was both respectful and highly entertaining – it would be a delight to see it again.

      • Thanks for those thoughtful comments, David. If I’ve learned anything about those who love and respect the life and works of an author (aka “the fans”), it’s that everyone will show their appreciation in different ways, and be ready to receive/participate in that appreciation in different ways. I will always be appreciative of things that are done with genuine love and respect, even if I don’t personally enjoy or relate to the particular creative manifestation chosen.

        I also see the other side of wanting to keep a person’s life and legacy as “true” to the original source as possible, and have it represented well. Ideally, art will embody both dichotomies, but the very nature of art reception by its audience makes it subjective, and therefore at times harder to find consensus on how successful it has been. The beauty is: where one method fails to reach one person, another method may succeed.

  5. Thank you! It occurs to me that it would be interesting to consider (and compare) (non-Biblical) historical/biographical ‘dramatic’ works by the Wade authors, to see how they did it. What spring to my mind are Chesterton’s The Judgement of Dr. Johnson: A Comedy in three Acts (1927), Williams’s Myths of Shakespeare (1929) and Francis Bacon (1932), his Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury (1936) and his Judgement at Chelmsford (1939), Sayers’ The Zeal of Thy House (1937) about William of Sens and The Emperor Constantine: A Chronicle (1951) and Tolkien’s own The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son (1953) – though only Beorhtnoth’s corpse appears in it. I wonder what examples I’m not (yet) thinking of…?

    The Williams and Sayers ones suggest that the Canterbury Festival plays and other analogous ones would provide an interesting field for other modern Christian authors’ works to broaden the comparisons. (T.S. Eliot and Christopher Fry come immediately to mind, here.)

  6. Quote from the Guardian ……
    Biopics typically take considerable licence with the facts, and this one is no exception. Endorsement by the Tolkien family would lend credibility to any divergences and distortions. That would be a disservice to history,” he said. “As a biographer, I expect I’ll be busy correcting new misconceptions arising from the movie…….

    That’s the point exactly.
    Maybe, just maybe, because there was so many liberties taken and glaring omissions in the film regarding Tolkien’s faith etc etc It simply should never have been made?
    We have no right to play fast and loose with the life of someone (now dead) That in reality we know so little about personally. That was the man…….
    And worse still, in the name of entertainment (questionable!?)
    How a tasteless and frankly unnecessary film was made with no credibility whatsoever from those that did know him (his family) They didn’t want to know!!!!
    Alarm bells should have rang!

    someone somewhere has made money out of this tasteless film and somehow that’s OK too?

    Concentrate and marvel on the authorship Tolkien, let the rest be – out of respect.

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