For as much as popular culture loves the classic fantasy works of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, such as The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, and so many others, little focus have ever been placed on the author behind the worlds that has captivated readers (and viewers) for nearly a century. Tolkien is the first biopic to try to shed some light on JRR’s early, formative years. While the film connects iconographic elements from his writings to his experiences, in the end we wander out of the theater with more awareness of the distance between us and Tolkien, rather than having become any closer.
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The most common image that comes to mind when most people think of Tolkien is as the elder Philology Professor of Oxford, complete with pipe in hand. That version of the man is from the latter stage of his life. Rather than exploring that latter end with the literary giant which he was to become, the film Tolkien sets the stage from his childhood, becoming an orphan, finding companionship at boarding school, and then trying to find his place at university and falling headlong into World War I.
Throughout his life the film shows J.R.R. (played for most of the film by Nicholas Hoult) as being exposed to images, feelings, places, people, and experiences which would later echo in his stories and their wider mythology. Most of the film revolves his childhood classmates which evolve into lifelong friendships and the formation of a semi-secret society, the T.C.B.S. (which stands for Tea Club and Barrovian Society) and his growing relationship with Edith Bratt (here played by Lily Collins).
The challenge the film faces is that J.R.R. himself was expressly steadfast throughout his life in interviews and letters that his books were now a direct reflection of his experiences in World War I (with a few specific exceptions), and always pushed back against the suggestion that they were an elaborate allegory. His seeing and elven princess in Edith, or the Shire in the landscapes around Sarehole are clear enough, but other aspects seem like it started with imagery which director Dome Karukoski wanted to make sure he presented, then came up with scenes to be able to tie it together.
The film’s structure and how it’s trying to express the evolution of a creator’s vision into their works bears strong similarities to 2017’s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, which follows the creation of Wonder Woman. However where Professor Marston explored the historic characters more in depth, Tolkien seems so focused on the imagery of the stories that it only paints the characters in J.R.R.’s world in wide strokes. Of his four main friends, only two are given any depth to who they were, the other two are expressed in fleeting shorthand. One example is it never touches on his creation of his many languages, he has already worked them out in his head and he’s just stumbling drunkenly around the Oxford quad spouting Quenya (one of his elvish languages).
There’s no doubting that J.R.R. was a most profound and talented individual which probably deserved the mini-series treatment (ala Fosse/Verdon) to be able to really delve into the person rather than only skirting with the goings-on around him.
The film is fine, and in some points heartfelt – there’s no doubting the love of the story which Karoukoski and his cast were trying to tell, but they might have been better served by focusing inward rather than outward. Fans of his works will likely enjoy it for a viewing as well, but it doesn’t really let us know much more about him in depth, but just some of the paths along which he travelled.