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Tolkien: the movie

I’ve seen the new biographical movie about Tolkien twice, once at a preview back in March, for which public comment was embargoed, and again upon its release this week, to refresh my memory and not really for any other reason, because otherwise once was enough.

Now it’s out so I may speak, and this comes from my personal blog post on the topic. So I’ll tell you what I said at the preview. When the lights came up I turned to those seated near me and said, “If they’re going to make stuff up, why can’t they at least make a coherent and interesting story out of it?” Only I didn’t say “stuff.”

The plot covers Tolkien’s life from the time his family moved away from idyllic Sarehole (at which time Tolkien was 8, though he’s played as a boy by a young man who was something like 16 at the time of filming) until his return from France during WWI, with a couple of later epilogues. The elements mostly come from his life, but by the time he gets to Oxford, the sequence and causality of the plot have departed sufficiently from historical fact that it’s essentially made up. But if they’re going to play so loose with history, why not include even any of the historically known ways that Tolkien’s life inspired his fiction, let alone make any up which they were free to do?

The movie is being promoted as “explor[ing] how … time spent in college and his service in the British army … and other events influenced his classic works,” but that’s exactly what it doesn’t do.

For instance, in an epilogue title card we’re told that the names of Beren and Lúthien appear on Ronald and Edith’s tombstone, but nothing is said in the movie itself of the inspiration for that story. There’s a brief shot of Edith dancing in the woods (at a different date than the occasion which actually inspired the story), but the allusion is left completely untouched.

I subsequently saw an interview with the director who said that he was trying to avoid the implication that Tolkien’s fiction encoded his life. An admirable concern, but that ship has sailed. The only point in making a commercial movie of Tolkien’s early life is to show how he became the man who wrote the fiction, and you can do that without reducing the fiction to a commentary on the life. See John Garth’s book for a start.

But it’s worse than lacking that connection. The movie keeps telling us that Tolkien was marvelously creative, but what it shows us is a man who’s mostly inert or at best reactive (more often unreactive). There’s a scene at the TCBS where the others ask Tolkien what he’s written lately and he says he hasn’t written anything. Why is this scene in the movie, then? There’s another scene where he brings Edith to meet the TCBS (I don’t think this ever actually happened) and the conversation is awkward at first, but as soon as Edith gets into a juicy discussion of Wagner with Christopher Wiseman, Tolkien jumps up and says they have to leave. Why does he do this? In the next scene Edith chews him out for it, but there’s never any explanation or an attempt to fit this in to a larger pattern of behavior. There’s almost as much attention in this movie to G.B. Smith’s poetry as to Tolkien’s writings.

Nor does the movie entirely avoid showing Tolkien’s creativity being inspired. But what it does show – fragments of some stories which have nothing to do with the legendarium; a hallucination of mounted knights clashing on the Somme; artwork pinned to Tolkien’s walls that appears inspired by the Book of Ishness but is far grimmer than anything actually appearing there – is of a tenor to give more the impression that Tolkien is the author not of his books but of Peter Jackson’s movies. At the end there’s a casual attempt to wrap up every experience Tolkien has had and claim they went together to make up The Hobbit, but it’s glib and the book doesn’t carry that kind of weight.

Perhaps it works better for viewers who previously knew nothing of Tolkien’s life, because it does at least convey Tolkien’s interest in philology – through his meetings at university with the intimidating professor Joseph Wright (played by Derek Jacobi, the most well-known actor in the movie giving by far its best performance) – and his love of Norse mythology: a wonderful scene from his childhood with his mother reading from Völsunga saga to her boys, and later the Wagner references (Tolkien makes up for the mysterious faux pas earlier by taking Edith to the opera, or trying to).

About the Author: David Bratman
David Bratman is co-editor of Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review, and former editor of Mythprint, the bulletin of The Mythopoeic Society. He likes to write about Tolkienian biography and bibliography.