Director: Dome Karukoski
Writers: David Gleeson, Stephen Beresford
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.
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!