“Not all those who wander are lost.” — J.R.R. Tolkien
As a kid I spent most of my days (and many of my nights) in a small dance studio downtown. There was a fantastic bookstore within walking distance of the dance studio, and a café next door that served the best French silk pie I have ever had. My older sister worked at a pizza joint up the street, so sometimes she would give me slices of pizza and sometimes we went to the bookstore together. The books at that bookstore were not very expensive (sometimes I could take $5 and come back with 10 books).
I still remember the birthday when my sister bought me used copies of the Lord of the Rings book trilogy. I already had a copy of The Hobbit — bought at a book fair at my elementary school — I had never actually read it at that point. I am one of those people that buys and buys books — far more than I will ever have time to read — out of fear of running out of things that I want to read.
For some reason, my sister buying the books made me want to read them more. (I wonder if she even remembers buying them for me or if she realized the lifelong impact she had on me with that small act of kindness.). She warned me to start with The Hobbit before I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy. When I got home that night, I picked up The Hobbit and started to read. I didn’t sleep that night (a frequent occurrence in my childhood), and I read the book cover-to-cover. I finished the rest of the books in the Lord of the Rings trilogy by the end of the week. This was the beginning of my love for fantasy books, and my love affair with the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. When the Tolkien biopic came out I had to see it. I wanted to learn more about the life of this author who has had such an impact on my life.
The Tolkien Biopic
We decided to do a two-movie weekend in the theatre. On Saturday we went to see The Biggest Little Farm (see my reflections on that movie here), and Sunday was devoted to Tolkien. Overall it was an acceptable movie, but anyone who sees this movie should pick up a Tolkien biography to better understand his life.
The Tolkien estate released a statement indicating that they had no involvement in the biopic and that they did not endorse it. As most biopics do, this one takes creative license with Tolkien’s life and romanticizes aspects that they really should not. The movie recreates scenes from Tolkien’s novels in an attempt to show how life events impacted his creative process and his writings, but this falls short of being convincing. Essentially, it feels forced and fake throughout the movie. I would have rather had a more accurate tale that focuses on his life without the need to force us to make connections to his writing (connections that fans of Tolkien can make without so much hand-holding).
The movie alternates between a view of Tolkien’s experiences during World War I and a depiction of Tolkien’s life as a child through young adulthood. The constant shifts back and forth become a bit tiring, and the attempt at postmodernist cinema falls short. Again, I think the writers and directors failed to think of their most likely audience in the creation of this film — Tolkien fans who (apparently) know quite a bit more about his life and writings than the creators of the film. Perhaps this was out of fear of the potential criticism of writing a biopic that was “for the family” only, but that type of movie would have been better than what they produced.
Early on they depict the death of his mother (although the details here are inaccurate when you reference biographies that cover the same topic), but they neglect the death of his father or the influence of his time in South Africa. They gloss over several important events in his life to romanticize him being an orphan. They make it seem as if he has no family left, but this is simply not true. They ignore the complexities of what was happening with his family and his guardianship at that time.
The movie alludes to the fact that Tolkien grew up as a Catholic in England (a topic I will touch on in future articles reviewing Peter Ackroyd’s History of England book series — stay tuned) and his mother’s friendship with their priest. The movie does not address the influence of Catholicism and religion in Tolkien’s life and writings. In many ways, the relationship with the priest comes across as antagonistic.
The story turns to the friendships that Tolkien develops while in school. They highlight his three close friends and try to force us to see the parallels to the friendship that emerges with the four hobbits in Fellowship of the Rings. The biopic forces the characters of those friends to match those depicted by Frodo and company in the movies (not the characters as revealed through the books — a topic for another time, perhaps). This causes the friendship portrayed in the biopic to come across as forced and just not believable.
The story then morphs from a story about friendship and fellowship to a love story. This thread simply misses the mark. As the focus turns to the relationship between Tolkien and Edith, the relationship with his friends becomes strained. The shifting themes create problems for the movie. It lacks focus.
Throughout the movie, they allude to Tolkien’s fascination with languages. The movie fails to demonstrate how this passion really began in childhood and was connected to his mother. Instead, they show this interest as emerging during his years in university. There is a failed attempt at trying to get the viewer to see his linguistics professor as inspiration for Gandalf. They hint at the influence of a teacher in his younger years when he is asked to read out loud in class (the boys have stolen his book), but do not adequately address the various influences that led to his love of languages and creation of languages. The movie demeans his creative process at one point in saying that he took most of one of his languages from an existing language.
The movie abruptly shifts back to the love story as Tolkien returns from war. The movie then rushes to conclude the various storylines that they have been weaving. This comes across as rather abrupt. Tolkien’s later adult life where he devoted time to being a professor and to his writing is largely glossed. Ultimately, it becomes a muddled love story where they attempted to interweave a tale of friendship and fellowship with the challenges of being an orphan.
Challenges for the Tolkien Movie
The movie faces several challenges and never successfully resolves them. The themes that I was able to identify in a single viewing (and I don’t have a desire to go back and watch it again) were: the death of his mother/being orphaned; the fellowship and friendship with his school friends; the love story; and his love of languages.
The death of his mother and being orphaned is not fully understood by the viewer. They give just enough to highlight the connection he has to his mother, but they abruptly end that without properly developing it. We see becoming an orphan as an unfortunate trope without truly understanding the impact this would have on his life. The connections to his mother are never explored or understood, and the impact of her death is not developed as it should be.
We abruptly shift to the story of his fellowship with his school friends. They force us to arrive at the interruption of friendship by a world war through the constant back and forth with his experiences while serving during the World War. Again, the attempt to force the four characters to match the personalities of the hobbits from the movie ruins this aspect of the film for me.
The development of the fellowship is interrupted by shifting the storyline to a love story. We see many references to unrequited love with and by his friends. They force the story to follow the arc of a love that is denied but then found again. Overall, the effect is just not there. The intermingling of the fellowship and friendship story and the love story causes us to just not buy any of it in the end.
Finally, there is a brief attempt to highlight the influence of Tolkien’s love of languages. Unfortunately, the entire biopic is a forced attempt to make the viewer connect aspects of Tolkien’s life to the movies based on his books. The books themselves are largely absent making me wonder if the creators behind this biopic have ever even read them. It misses the passion and life experience that is more important. They highlight Tolkien’s knowledge of languages as a means to explain how the languages he created for the book emerged. Unfortunately, they do not accurately capture his love and passion for languages.
Understanding Tolkien’s Life
If you are intending to use this movie to understand Tolkien’s life or his creative process — don’t. They force aspects of his life to match aspects of his writing. The creators of this movie should have focused on an accurate depiction of Tolkien’s interesting and amazing life and allowed the viewer to naturally make the connections where they exist.
Forcing a viewer to develop connections over the space of an hour and a half ruined this movie. If the viewer was given accurate and fully developed information and character arcs, we would have drawn natural connections. Essentially, this movie insults our intelligence as a collective audience. If you want to understand Tolkien’s life and see the connections between his life and his writings, read a Tolkien biography. Don’t watch this movie.
This movie would have been better if they had traced Tolkien’s creative processes. Aspiring writers, readers, and those who love the movies could have found a shared experience in watching that creative process. This is more of a challenge for the creative team behind the movie, but it has been done before. There are plenty of examples of successful movies that traced creative processes that they could have turned to for inspiration and guidance. Instead, this movie comes across as an attempt to capitalize on the excitement and momentum generated from the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. It was not successful.
Exploring Tolkien as an Adult
The only thing that this movie has inspired me to do is to go back and read more about Tolkien’s life. I want to understand what was missing from the movie and fill in the gaping holes in understanding how his life related to his creative process and the books he produced. I intend to do this through re-reading his books for the fortieth time and finding books that provide accurate portrayals of his life and biography. Overall, while I think the movie is worthwhile for entertainment value, as a depiction of the life of one of the world’s most important creative minds it falls flat.