‘Tolkien’: The early life of a creative genius on the big screen
by Francis Phillips | May 04, 2019
Nicholas Hoult as Tolkien
Directed by Dome Karukosi. Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, Derek Jacobi. Running time: 111minutes. Rating: PG-13 (for some sequences of war violence)
When you go to see a biopic about an author whose life you know quite a lot about, you are forearmed to be critical. This film about the much-loved author of The Lord of the Rings is no exception to the rule. How would it treat his early life, his school friendships, his romantic attachment to a fellow orphan (the woman he was later to marry), his Catholic faith and the genesis of his famous sub-creation? Add to these influences Tolkien’s time in the trenches of the Great War and you have material enough for an epic.
The problem for the director and the screen writers is that there is too much rich and suggestive material for them to handle. It would have required the delicacy of touch and the imaginative sensitivity of a William Nicholson (who wrote the screenplay for Shadowlands, the biopic about CS Lewis and his love for Joy Davidman) to make a success of this film about an equally famous member of The Inklings, the group of friends that regularly met at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford to discuss what they were writing.
What the film “Tolkien” has done is to try to include everything (apart from, tellingly, the bookish creator’s devout Catholic faith) in the hope that interspersing scenes of trench warfare in all its horror with student revels and romantic interludes would somehow coalesce into a penetrating and unifying portrait of the man. It doesn’t and it can’t.
The temptation in a biopic such as this is to invent dramatic events that didn’t happen because they provide the necessary excitement that poring over philology textbooks, which is what Tolkien did for most of his student years, cannot provide. This is probably the reason why the Tolkien family has publicly distanced itself from the film; it enters into sacred areas, such as the relationship between Tolkien and his wife, Edith – enduring, faithful yet fraught, as many marriages are – in an intrusive, inept and clumsy fashion.
One can understand the wish to make a film about the author of the trilogy, following the huge success of Peter Jackson’s films about Tolkien’s invented world. But Tolkien is not a good subject for a film: reticent, scholarly, inhabiting the private world of Middle-Earth at night, while lecturing, tutoring and composing a Middle English dictionary during the day; a pipe-smoking, clubbable, family man, whose Catholic beliefs were the foundation of his life and who helped to make CS Lewis see Christianity as a “true myth”. There are no scandals here – or even the conflict Lewis experienced when he finally renounced his bachelor life for love of an American, Jewish divorcee.
So, as other critics have already pointed out, “Tolkien” is distracting, messy, unfocused and weighed down by a surfeit of material which it handles in too obvious and literal a fashion. One might ask here, how can a film ever convey the inner processes of creativity or how the imagination might translate lived experience into literature? In my memory (I saw it many years ago) the director Ken Russell managed this feat with his biopic about the composer Edward Elgar; but music is so much more intense and immediate in its effects than words, especially the kind of words and languages invented by a philologist, even if he is also a genius.
Having said all this, I would add that I am glad I saw the film. You can always extract something worthwhile, something to reflect on, even in something that is second-rate. When you have put the necessary criticism aside you do glimpse something of the Edwardian world that Tolkien grew up in, with all its conventions and restraints; you can envisage the youthful patriotism of the Oxford undergraduates as they joined up so innocently in 1914, unaware of the carnage that lay ahead; you can sense the pain Tolkien – and others of his generation ‑‑ must have felt at the loss of his boyhood “fellowship” in the war.
At the very least, watching the film might prompt the wish to know more about the actual life rather than the invented one. A life such as Tolkien’s might be quietly heroic while a film is all sound-effects and sensations. Let’s not be too snobbish.
Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.