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