Movie Review: Tolkien (2019)

Information

Director: Dome Karukoski
Writers: David Gleeson, Stephen Beresford
Release: 2019

Summary

As a student, Tolkien forms a close friendship with three other boys that will help sustain him through WWI.  Meanwhile, he is also courting fellow orphan Edith Bratt.

Star Divider

Review

Potential spoilers follow.  (I don’t go into great detail on the film, but if you prefer to know absolutely nothing about what is depicted, read no farther.  I also “spoil” some of Tolkien’s actual biography, if you can do such a thing.)

Tolkien’s early years are so perfect for a movie, it seems a wonder no one made one before.  Along with some of his closest friends, he made a pact that they would try to change the world, try to make it better, through art.  Their love for each other and their belief in their combined powers helped sustain them through WWI.  At the same time, Tolkien was courting fellow orphan Edith Bratt, then suffering a three years’ separation by his guardian’s orders, then trying to woo her back after she became engaged to another man.  Do you want heartbreak?  Drama?  Romance?  Tolkien’s early life had it all.  And so it is truly marvelous that Tolkien the movie had little heart at all.

Tolkien is really just the sketch of a biography; the outline of Tolkien’s early life is there, but the details are almost all artistic license.  For some scenes, this makes sense.  We know, for instance, very little concrete about Tolkien’s courtship; personal letters of that sort are not included in the official Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien.  So Tolkien’s dating scenes are going to be almost entirely made up.  However, we do know a bit more about Tolkien’s close friendships, especially thanks to John Garth’s wonderful Tolkien and the Great War.  And yet the film deviates from what we know, creating scenes that may be entirely plausible (even the copious amounts of alcohol Tolkien and his friends imbibe), but that ultimately lack heart.

The main problem with the film is that I never really believed the friendships depicted on screen could change the world.  And there is no reason for this when we have the source material to make those friendships come alive.  When I read Tolkien and the Great War, I wept.  I wept when I read the letters Tolkien and his friends exchanged.  The film only takes one moment (that I caught) to quote from these letters.  And it was, for me, the most poignant moment of the film.   But the film largely glosses over the deep conversations that bound the T.C., B.S. together, instead showing them drinking and messing about.  Realistic behavior of boys?  Certainly?  A testimony to the lasting impact of this group on Tolkien and his career?  I didn’t see it.

The film also, for reasons I cannot comprehend, entirely glosses over the details of Tolkien’s service in WWI.  There is a lot of interesting material to work with here, from Tolkien’s late enlistment due to his desire to focus on school (and the contempt he hinted he received as a result) to his time a signal officer.  Yes, Tolkien spent most of his time recovering from trench fever–a fact that probably saved his life.  But I still do not understand the decision to depict the entirety of his WWI experience as feverishly stumbling about the trenches while hallucinating fantasy figures.  In this case, it seems to me that real life is actually far more interesting than art.

In addition to these criticisms, I cannot help but also note that I agree with the reviewers who were shocked to find practically no mention of religion in a biography of Tolkien.  Catholicism fundamentally shaped Tolkien’s life, his philosophy, and his writings.  Catholicism certainly would have influenced his idea of how to “change the world” and it also played a role in how he perceived his mother’s death–he believed she died, in part, from being cast out by her family after she converted.  Catholicism also played a role in his courtship as he wished Edith to convert before they married.  In short, Tolkien’s religion colored essentially every aspect of his life.  A biography that ignores this must always be a biography that fundamentally misunderstands and even misrepresents who Tolkien was.

I did not expect the film to be entirely historically accurate, but I did expect it to capture something of the spirit of Tolkien’s life.  To me, Tolkien is a nice period film about a boy growing up and falling in love, but it is a film that feels like it could be about practically any fictional character.   It lacks inspiration, never truly delving into what made Tolkien, Tolkien.

*If you are interested in reading more about Tolkien’s early life, I highly recommend John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War.  I can’t say enough how much I loved this book and how much it contributes to our understanding of Tolkien’s life and work.  It is truly a seminal work in Tolkien studies.  Go read it, everyone!

3 Stars

35 thoughts on “Movie Review: Tolkien (2019)

  1. Greg says:

    I was curious about this movie and disappointed to hear that religion was just glossed over. And the artistic license, I suspect, would grate on me. I’ll skip this one. In fact, maybe I’ll get Tolkien and the great war instead- sounds like a better use of time!

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    • Krysta says:

      I read a defense of the film that said religion was subtly hinted at with Tolkien’s walks through nature and the presence of his guardian, a priest. But Tolkien really wasn’t subtle about his religion so the subtle approach doesn’t ring true for me. My understanding, for instance, is that his pact with his friends was, at least for him, somewhat religious in nature, bringing some sort of Christianity back to civilization. So ignoring that in the film feels untrue to who Tolkien was.

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  2. David says:

    Glad to read your review! I started working on my review tonight.

    I actually do recommend the movie for Tolkien fans. Your complaints are quite legitimate, but I think you gloss over much of the film’s beauty, and the ways in which it does truthfully represent so much of the Tolkien we love. For one, it brings out with some depth just why languages and words were so important to him, in a way I don’t know of any other film addressing. And for me, I absolutely bought the deep friendships of the TCBS. The actors were fantastic at creating lively, unique characters whose interactions felt natural and important. The scene at the end with Tolkien and Smith’s mother was both heart-wrenching and inspiring. But I really wanted more of them, and more indication of how the four of them might actually have been able to work together to change the world, had they all survived intact.

    So the film was certainly flawed. It didn’t always connect its ideas as well as it should have; scene didn’t always feel supported by proper buildup and payoff. It took shortcuts and liberties with the facts that didn’t always work for a better story. Worst in my mind were the “fantasy” scenes where Tolkien apparently hallucinates fantasy creatures in the trenches, as if that’s how artists get their inspiration. Also, too much focus in those scenes on the monsters of his tales and not enough on the love of beauty that primarily inspired him.

    And yet even as I acknowledge all of these genuine problems, I can’t help but remember all the stuff I loved in the film and smile. The TCBS especially, but also Hoult’s performance, and that conversation with Joseph Wright, and the fact that the movie portrayed a world in which platonic friendship could be one of the most passionate and pure forms of love, and in which even romance was stronger when it was moral. Many Christian reviewers have pointed out that even though the movie doesn’t make much of religion, it still essentially portrays a Christian worldview, and in that sense is utterly radical in today’s cinemascape.

    I find myself still itching to discuss the movie even many days after seeing it. I know I want to own it too, which is rare for me. I hope my own review will be of use to others when I finish it and get it posted.

    I’ll leave with two Christian reviews I found myself in agreement with, one Protestant and the other Greek Orthodox:
    https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/meet-the-maker-of-middle-earth
    https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/roadsfromemmaus/2019/05/16/tolkien-film-christian-reviewers-are-getting-it-wrong-spoilers/

    Forgive my long comment and thanks again for your review! Always enjoy reading your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Oh, I do agree there are moments of beauty! I think Tolkien’s scene with Gilson’s mother was perhaps the most moving part of the film. And I would argue that this is in part because it feels close to true events. Indeed, the most moving part for me was when Tolkien read Gilson’s last letter about keeping the spirit of the TCBS alive. That’s a real letter. And I think the film would have been a lot stronger for me if it had had more dialogue taken from real letters like that one.

      I also really enjoyed the restaurant scene when Edith was trying to flirt and Tolkien was getting lost in his theories of language. That felt real, too, because I always got the impression that Edith was more of a “regular” person who was a little lost by Tolkien’s interest in philology. The film did a nice job of showing that–she’s just trying to flirt, Tolkien!–but also depicting her as a strong, intellectual woman who could hold her own in a conversation and even challenge Tolkien. (But, really, we seem to know so little of Edith that I don’t know how accurate this scene actually is.)

      I can see the implied Christian worldview, too. I at least knew there would never be a bedroom scene. My friend kept saying she was afraid there would be one, but that seemed so far out for a film about Tolkien that I never considered they would show THAT! But I do think Tolkien’s religious beliefs were far from subtle, so it doesn’t seem quite right to me that they should only be implied. I don’t think he needed to make a monologue about them, but I think some more scenes of him praying and attending Mass would have been easily inserted as some transition or montage scenes.

      I don’t hate the film and I hope my review doesn’t imply that! I just felt like it could have been more. I could see it had all the pieces for a genuinely moving film that felt true to Tolkien, but, for me, they never really came together, perhaps because they were often not explicitly addressed. I wanted more background on Gilson’s relationship with his family. I wanted some more in-depth conversations with the TCBS, and not ones that seemed primarily steeped in jokes, though I feel that that was true to parts of Tolkien’s personality–he seems like he would have been fun at a party. I wanted it all to be tied together.

      I knew where the film was heading. I knew it must end with him writing the first lines of The Hobbit, as inspired by the TCBS and their vision. But I never felt like the film explicitly connected it all and brought us to that moment in a really powerful way. And that disappointed me.

      But, thanks for your very long comment! And I hope we get to read your review soon!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. bookwormmuse says:

    I was already a bit reluctant to watch this movie because from what I have read about Tolkien and the way Hollywood adapts books/ people to movies, well, it hasn’t worked for me. Now your review makes for a solid argument for not watching it. 😞😞

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    • Krysta says:

      I think it’s a solid film. It’s a nice period romance. I just wasn’t blown away. But I have seen plenty of really positive reviews, so I suppose other people were. But, yeah, I’m not sure I’d watch it again.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. MetalPhantasmReads says:

    Interesting review! I’ve been kinda interested in the movie but that’s sad they didn’t address how being Catholic did change his life. I saw a video that were 10 cool facts about him and I learned how much religion did affect him with trying to court Edith like you mentioned. I’ll check out that biography you mentioned 🙂

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, for me, not mentioning religion explicitly is really odd for a biography of Tolkien. It definitely was an issue in his courtship, as you say, and it was influential in how he interacted with his school friends and how he envisioned his own writing. Going for a subtle approach doesn’t really work here.

      Liked by 1 person

      • MetalPhantasmReads says:

        No. It’s sad that movies like that don’t approach the subject and I’m not sure why. It’s apart of people’s lives, especially back in that time when he had to go through so much to be with her 🙂

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        • David says:

          It is sad, although understandable. For one, in the film’s defense, Tolkien himself apparently regarded this period of his life as lacking in much religion. He didn’t go to Mass often and was living a more worldly life. His faith seems to have really awoken after the period covered in the film. And there’s another reason why the filmmakers (who aren’t religious that I’m aware) might have decided to avoid making much of religion: where are the good examples for portraying nuanced Christianity on film? Brenton Dickieson discusses this sad phenomena in his article: http://apilgriminnarnia.com/2019/05/17/tolkien-beauty/

          Liked by 2 people

          • Krysta says:

            I think it is difficult to depict religion onscreen. But I think Tolkien going to Mass or even talking to Edith about her being Protestant could have worked. Of course, having Tolkien ask Edith to convert to be able to marry him wouldn’t necessarily depict him in the most positive light, perhaps. It seems like Edith didn’t really convert in her heart, from what I’ve read, and that there was some tension later in their marriage from this.

            Liked by 1 person

            • David says:

              That’s the sense I got from Carpenter’s book. I would have liked a true, nuanced portrayal of their faith, absolutely, but I think I’d rather have the movie’s glossing than a badly done portrayal (for example, if they made Father Francis an oppressive fanatic or something like Hollywood likes to do).

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            • Krysta says:

              Well, I can’t argue with you there! I do think the film did a solid job. I just wanted more. But, that was perhaps inevitable for me. There are limitations to how much a film can put onscreen and still have cohesive storyline.

              Liked by 1 person

  5. bookbeachbunny says:

    I soured a bit on the film when I started reading up on what was left out. It’s a good rental though 🙂
    But I will definitely check out the Tolkien and the Great War book!

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  6. Sammie @ The Writerly Way says:

    I was curious about this movie, so I was super glad to see you did a review! While I love Tolkien’s work, I’m not huge on biography films. They’re generally too slow for me. I didn’t know that much about Tolkien’s history, but it does sound fascinating. I just don’t think, ultimately, this movie will be one I’ll watch. But I am for sure going to check out Tolkien and the Great War, so thanks for the recommendation. :3

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    • Krysta says:

      I think the pacing on this one was fairly fast, maybe because we had a lot of flashbacks and we moved from Tolkien’s childhood to his college days. So you got a lot of biography in a short amount of time! I also really enjoyed watching Tolkien’s romance unfold, but I always fall for a good love story! The WWI scenes were less interesting to me, mainly because they were of Tolkien stumbling around hallucinating. And that gets old quickly. I would have loved to see him doing signal officer work! Or even writing a letter home, for that matter.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Michael J. Miller says:

    Thank you for your review. I was very intrigued by the film, especially with it seemingly popping up out of nowhere and completely surprising me when I spend A LOT of time at the movies. And who wouldn’t be interested in a film about Tolkien?! I am sorry it was a disappointing experience for you though, but I appreciate your falling on the sword for this one and now I know I’ll pass on seeing it. However, I haven’t read ‘Tolkien and the Great War’ so I think I’ll do exactly what you suggest and check that out instead!

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    • Krysta says:

      I do think my experience of the film was a very personal one based on my knowledge of Tolkien’s life and what I would have liked to see in a film. I went with a friend and she liked the film (and I think she wishes I would stop listing reasons I was disappointed!). So it might be worth at least one watch, even if you wait and borrow it from the library. My preferred method of watching films I am unsure about!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michael J. Miller says:

        Hmm, okay. But your being so invested in Tolkien’s life is exactly why I was excited about your review! I know you know what you’re talking about. Also, I hate seeing a film anchored in history/biography when I don’t know a lot about the subject only to find out later it wasn’t super faithful (not that Hollywood is ever really great about adapting history :/ ).

        I’m especially sad they don’t let his faith play a larger role as that is so fascinating to me – especially being a Catholic who teaches theology and loves exploring the intersection of theology/spirituality/faith and art. So I think I’d’ve been bummed about that regardless. But maybe I will check it out sometime later, once it can be borrowed from the library.

        And I feel for you with your friend. That was my experience with almost everyone I knew after ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ XD. While I loved ‘Avengers: Endgame,’ I was not a fan of it’s predecessor and I don’t think people appreciated me telling them why! At least they didn’t appreciate it enough ;).

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        • Krysta says:

          Well, that is a fair point. I will give you that! 😀

          Yeah…I know I read an article somewhere where one of the filmmakers talked about the difficulty of putting religion onscreen. But this film moves from Tolkien’s childhood to his first writing The Hobbit. There are years of opportunities there, even if it’s just showing his priest guardian taking him to church after his mother’s death, or Tolkien and his brother serving as altar boys. or Tolkien going to Mass at some point. I’m pretty sure the timeline is already a bit condensed/moved around (like they don’t show him waiting to enlist, attending school in a near-empty Oxford). So even if we can’t verify “Tolkien went to Mass on this day/in this year” I feel like it would have been workable and in the spirit of Tolkien.

          I wonder, though, if some of the removal was done to…protect Tolkien’s image? For instance, Carpenter’s official biography indicates that he asked Edith to convert to Catholicism, which she did reluctantly. Later in life (I don’t recall the details), I think this caused some tension in that she maybe stopped attending Mass or went back to her own service? At any rate, there is a line about Edith being Protestant, given to his priest guardian, but the film manages to avoid Tolkien commenting on it, which possibly would have been a distraction from the main point: how his early life inspired his works. You’d just be sitting there thinking he was kind of awful in that moment because Edith apparently felt forced to convert in order to marry. She was getting “old” so it wasn’t like she was going to try again for some other fellow, right?

          I was with you on Infinity War, though! I was kind of sitting there thinking, “How much emotional impact should this have in light of what we know about Phase 4?” It was odd!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Michael J. Miller says:

            I appreciate the tension (to a degree) of trying to be careful with how religion is used on the big screen. Producers have put a lot of money into these movies and they want to protect their investment. So they don’t want to turn off viewers who may be turned off by an overtly religious message. However, for authenticity’s sake if nothing else, when you choose a figure like Tolkien as the subject of a biopic I feel it does a major disservice to strip the religion from his story. His faith was so central to who he was! To remove his Catholicism is to not really talk about Tolkien at all.

            I had a similar struggle with the film adaptation of ‘The Other Boleyn Girl.’ Teaching church history, I was SO excited they were making a film of that story starring actors of the caliber of Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman, and Eric Bana. Buuuuuuuut I clearly forgot the only thing Hollywood is worse at adapting than literature is history. There was hardly any religion in it! How do you tell the story of the English Reformation and only reference religion in two or three scenes?!? I had hoped I’d found a film I could show every time I taught the class but all I got was regret.

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  8. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Fabulous review! It’s a shame so much of the early years lacked heart and that it missed so many poignant moments. I have actually been unsurprised at them choosing to neglect the fact he was religious- not because it’s a logical decision (in fact this decision to be shall-we-say loose with historical fact is why I can’t be bothered to watch the film) but because it seems to be the fashion in Hollywood to erase religion from a lot of their movies. I think it does sound like it could’ve been about anyone. Anyway, great review!

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    • Krysta says:

      It wasn’t a terrible film, but it didn’t surprise and delight me the way I thought it would. I think the strongest parts were Tolkien’s scenes with Edith. She had a lot of spirit and really made the film.

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  9. ConsumerRants says:

    Thank you so much for this extensive review, and those recommendations —I’m always looking for new reading material. I got really excited when I heard this movie was coming out, mostly because I wanted to see how it’d portray Tolkien’s relationship with C.S. Lewis. I’ll probably check out the letters first now!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, the film doesn’t cover the Inklings at all, but rather Tolkien’s childhood, college years, and experiences in WWI. So I’d look elsewhere for C. S. Lewis! Diana Pavlac Glyer’s The Company They Keep is a good read about how the Inklings influenced each other’s writings.

      Liked by 1 person

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