Directed by Dome Karukoski
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, Derek Jacobi, Patrick Gibson, Anthony Boyle, Tom Glynn-Carney
Written by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford
Released: May 10, 2019 (USA)
On the surface, the life of author John Ronald Reuel Tolkien does not seem like prime material for a Hollywood biopic. He was a bright young scholar who fell in love with language and legends, fought in World War I after graduating from Exeter College, Oxford. After being sent back to England from the front lines of the Somme thanks to a bout of trench fever, he rarely traveled again. He became a philologist, worked on the Oxford English Dictionary, helped write a new translation of the Bible, and spent years as a professor of Anglo Saxon at Oxford. He married his high school sweetheart (as it were) Edith Bratt before going to war, and they had four children together. Had Tolkien not written books that forever changed the literary landscape, he would still have been known in academic circles for his translations and his lecture, ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics‘, which changed how scholars view the epic Anglo Saxon poem, Beowulf.
Thanks to two works in particular, though, the world knows the name of J.R.R. Tolkien. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have been loved by readers since their premieres in 1937 and 1954-55, respectively. Since then, every Western fantasy author has been inspired by or drawn from Tolkien’s legendarium, and it is safe to say that fantasy as we know it would not have happened if it hadn’t been for J.R.R. Tolkien.
Thanks to Peter Jackson’s duo of film trilogies based upon The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (LotR, 2001-2003; The Hobbit, 2012-2014) and the upcoming Amazon television based upon Middle-earth’s Second Age, interest in the Professor (as he is known to many fans) has never been higher. Enter Dome Karukoski’s biographical film about Tolkien’s early life and the friendships that marked his formative years.
The film opens in the trenches of the Somme where an ailing Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) embarks upon a personal quest to find his friend Geoffery. He is accompanied by his batman, a loyal servant and friend named Sam, who looks after Tolkien and saves his life more than once. As the journey progresses– and as Tolkien grows ever more feverish– the narrative flashes back in time to his childhood: happy scenes from the countryside of Sarehole; his mother, Mabel, moving Tolkien and his younger brother, Hilary, to the industrial city of Birmingham; Mabel’s untimely death; the brothers being taken in by Father Francis and sent to board with Mrs. Faulkner. The narrative rushes through these events at breakneck speed, only slowing down when young Tolkien arrives at school and meets three other boys: Geoffrey, Robert, and Christopher. They become fast friends and form an unbreakable fellowship of artistic and literary scholars whose friendship survives all things until WWI breaks out.
The film also slows down when Tolkien meets Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a fellow orphan boarding with Mrs. Faulkner. Edith proves to be a match for Tolkien, both in her ability to inspire his stories (one memorable scene features Edith dancing among the trees, a true moment that inspired one of the greatest tales in all of Tolkien’s work: that of Beren and Lúthien), and for her ability to question some of his basic assumptions about words and their meaning. The film shines brightest in these scenes and produces some of its greatest drama when Tolkien’s guardian, Father Francis, forbids him to see Edith until he attains his majority at twenty-one. This incident was pulled from reality, but the circumstances of their reunion are altered for the sake of Hollywood drama.
More shining moments occur when Tolkien meets his mentor, Professor Wright (Derek Jacobi), who helps put Tolkien onto the path that made him the scholar who could build a world like Middle-earth. The discussions of language and meaning will delight fans of philology, but they aren’t the stuff of high drama. Still, for those wishing to express to others their love of words and language, these scenes between Tolkien and Wright are excellent to refer back to.
The film falls short in a few places, though. The pacing is too quick early on and rushes through Tolkien’s childhood, overlooking the profound effect that Mabel’s death had on him. J.R.R. and Hilary’s father died when they were small, and Mabel died when J.R.R. was just twelve. Yet her love of stories helped shape his own literary tastes, as well as leaving a mark of profound melancholy that haunted J.R.R. for the rest of his life. The film also overlooks Tolkien’s religious beliefs. Mabel converted to Catholicism when her sons were very young, and she was cast out of her family for it. Though they struggled, she never second-guessed her decision and passed on her strong beliefs to her sons. When she married Tolkien, Edith converted to Catholicism, too, and faced her own hardships because of it. And yet the film says virtually nothing about these struggles and the role faith played in Tolkien’s life and his work.
But these are the complaints of a lifelong fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories. For someone new to Tolkien’s life and works, the film Tolkien is as effective as any Hollywood biopic could be about a man who lived a scholar’s life. And if it opens the door to Middle-earth for new fans, so much the better.
Save for a single utterance of the word ‘hobbit’, none of Tolkien’s most famous characters are mentioned in the narrative. Apparently, this is due to licensing and rights issues, which are always a tangled and often thorny issue. ‘Eärendel’ is mentioned as part of the Anglo Saxon poem that inspired Tolkien’s own tale of Eärendil the Mariner.
For more (and accurate) information about the life of J.R.R. Tolkien, try J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter or The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien edited by Christopher Tolkien and Humphrey Carpenter.