Reflections on the New Tolkien Film

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The Rabbit Room staff was lucky to attend a pre-screening of Tolkien before it officially hit theaters. Feeling protective of our beloved author, we all shared a good helping of skepticism going in—but, delightfully, our skepticism was assuaged, laughter was had, and as the credits rolled, we heaved a collective sigh of deep relief. At the very least, it was a heartwarming film, clearly sincere in its quest to faithfully represent the maker of Middle-earth. What follows are the thoughts of Chris Thiessen, Andrew Peterson, and Shigé Clark (in that order) after seeing the film.

First up, Chris Thiessen:

“I knew very little about J. R. R. Tolkien’s life. Of course, I knew the basics: his writings, his affiliation with the Inklings, and a vague idea of his service in World War I. But the circumstances, trials, and friendships which informed the Father of Modern Fantasy’s life and work remained unknown to me prior to viewing Dome Karokoski’s Tolkien. Fortunately, Karokoski’s film weaves between Tolkien’s schooling years and the deadly Battle of the Somme, offering a look into the foundational moments which would lead Tolkien to Middle-earth.

Tolkien is more than just a mere retelling of a beloved author’s life. Its strength lies in its discussion of imagination, reality, and the necessity of fellowship to embrace them both.

Nicholas Hoult portrays a humble, kind “Ronald” Tolkien whose love for language is rivaled only by his love for future wife Edith (Lily Collins) and a band of friends self-named the T.C.B.S (think Dead Poets’ Society but unashamedly more British).

Perhaps “rivaled” is the wrong word, however, as the important figures in Tolkien’s life only encourage his creativity further. In two of the film’s most striking scenes, Edith and philology professor Joseph Wright (Derek Jacobi) respectively enrich Tolkien’s understanding of language, teaching him that a word is not beautiful just because of how it flows off the tongue, but because of the tremendous reality it conveys and the culture it represents. In these conversational scenes, you can see Tolkien’s head spinning, imagining new worlds of elves, dwarves, and hobbits.

Courage in Tolkien doesn't come from internal strength. It is instead the fruit of meaningful, vulnerable fellowship.

Chris Thiessen

Courage, as well, becomes an important motif here. Whether making a foolhardy proposal to a waitress or climbing out of the trenches in one of history’s bloodiest battles, Tolkien and company display unrestrained courage with shouts of “Helheimr!” (the film’s “Carpe diem”). But courage in Tolkien doesn’t come from internal strength. It is instead the fruit of meaningful, vulnerable fellowship. It’s the courage of Sam, Frodo, Merry, and Pippin persevering through their fears together when they may have faltered alone. Though the film never depicts Tolkien’s literary characters or his later fellowship with the Inklings, the necessity of their camaraderie is felt when discovering how the deep bond of the T.C.B.S. shaped Tolkien’s life.

As a film, Tolkien is not as gripping as, perhaps, another recent film about fellowship and courage. Though its spot-on themes are perfectly portrayed in particular scenes, the film does suffer from attempting to focus on too much, leading to a lack of oomph in its ending. But despite whatever shortcomings the film has, Tolkien is heartwarming. It reminds us that though our lives are often troubled by darkness and loss, friendship and beauty will always persevere.”
—Chris Thiessen

Next, Andrew Peterson:

“Anybody remember the Beethoven movie Immortal Beloved, starring Gary Oldman? I saw it in high school and loved it, and when I asked a friend who loved Beethoven if he liked it, he said, ‘It’s a good movie, but it’s not about Beethoven.’ He explained that it worked fine as a piece of entertainment, but not as a piece of history. I was a bit deflated, but in the long run it didn’t matter, and here’s why. There’s a scene where Ludvig, who has gone deaf, is composing ‘Moonlight Sonata’ with his eyes closed and his ear pressed to the piano. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful, and it was the first time I ever really listened to that piece. It became, and still is, one of my favorite pieces of music in the world, whether or not the film was accurate.

That, in a nutshell, is what I hope happens with Tolkien. If you’re interested in niggling (see what I did there?) there’s plenty in the film that’s niggleworthy. I’ve read Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, most of Tolkien’s collected letters, and have picked up quite a bit about his life from other sources, so I’m aware of the factual deficiencies, but none were egregious enough to really bug me. After all, if you want to dig into Tolkien’s life there are plenty of sources you can turn to. Don’t forget, this is a movie—something you watch while gobbling handfuls of popcorn. That isn’t to say that it isn’t art, or that it shouldn’t be true and beautiful, but it’s good to keep in mind that, at the very least, what you’re buying with your ten bucks is a few hours of entertainment.

Here’s what I was afraid of when the theater went dark:

1) They would make a case that the war was the allegorical counterpart of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was adamant that his book shouldn’t be read as allegory, and to my great relief they merely demonstrated the way his imagination would have certainly been shaped by what he saw during his service in the Great War.

2) They would villainize the priest who helped to raise him and forbade him to see Edith while he was in school. The priest in the film was compassionate, if firm, and in the end was portrayed kindly. It’s pretty typical these days for films to turn any religious leader into a buffoon, a charlatan, or a monster, so it was nice to see that they didn’t invent any of that for the sake of cheap drama.

3) They would downplay the centrality of Tolkien’s faith. One could argue that they did, but in the same way First Man didn’t make a big deal of the planting of the flag on the moon because, after all, the movie was about Armstrong and not America, Tolkien didn’t make a big deal out of his theology because it wasn’t the point. A movie can’t be about everything, after all. And this film was (mostly) about friendship, not faith.

The filmmaker truly cared about what Tolkien cared about: the wonder of words and the power of story.

Andrew Peterson

From the opening scene in the trenches at the Somme to the closing scene with the bereaved mother of one of his friends, the arc of the story was about Tolkien the orphan, who hungered for fellowship, found it at school, and experienced its terrible loss because of the War. Of course, it’s a love story, too, as well as a wonderful depiction of his genius, from his love of fairy tales to his remarkable mastery of language. The conversations between him and Edith—and later, between him and Professor Joseph Wright—were well crafted and told me that the filmmaker truly cared about what Tolkien cared about: the wonder of words and the power of story. Add to that the fact that the film was surprisingly funny when it needed to be, and my popcorn-gobbling self was entirely satisfied.

SPOILER ALERT.

My one gripe was the ending. After tracing the history of the T.C.B.S. and their desire to change the world with art, then the breaking of the fellowship, then Tolkien’s years as a professor during which he certainly pined for a similar camaraderie with fellow story lovers, they should have ended with the birth of a new fellowship, called the Oxford Inklings—a fellowship that did in fact change the world with their art, not necessarily because of any one members’ genius but because they had each other. Besides, who wouldn’t want to see Tolkien, Lewis, Williams, and the rest all crammed into a pub, laughing together like the T.C.B.S. boys did when they were lads? It would have been a fitting denouement to a story about friendship.

Either way, if it makes someone out there pay that much more attention to Tolkien’s works, and leads them to The Lord of the Rings with fresh eyes, then who knows? Maybe it’ll become their ‘Moonlight Sonata.'”
—Andrew Peterson

And now, Shigé Clark:

“I’ll admit, I was not excited to see Tolkien. I responded to all mentions of it with the concerned groan of one who doesn’t want to see something she loves mistreated. I worried that this was Hollywood grasping at straws in the wake of the Lord of the Rings saga, leveraging its author to make the next buck. Greater than my worry that it would be unfaithful to J. R. R. Tolkien’s history (it is a dramatization after all), was the worry that it would be unfaithful to what he stood for. As the movie started, I braced for all types of disappointment. (Be warned, some spoilers lie ahead.)

What I got instead was a thoughtful and loving portrayal of Tolkien’s early life and influences. Rather than a blaring tribute to the Lord of the Rings, it is a quiet, often subtle film full of compelling visual storytelling. The allusions are there, of course, especially if you’re knowledgeable about Tolkien’s life and inspirations, but for the most part they’re woven into the story through imagery and plot-driven conversation. The focus of the movie remains where it belongs—on Tolkien and the relationships that shaped him—and to that end, it does a marvelous job. I was immediately drawn into the characters and the dynamics between them, their struggles, their love for each other, and their dreams most of all. Binding them together is a deep appreciation for artistic creation and the belief that art can change the world. Sound familiar?

For one hour and fifty-two minutes, we the audience are bathed in the understanding that art is vital, and beautiful, and powerful—without veering into pretension or self-importance.

Shigé Clark

What struck me most deeply—left me aching through most of the film and long afterward—was its reflection of the world from Tolkien’s perspective. From the onset, the power of story in his life is palpable, as are his imagination and love for language. The importance of word, art, and music is established from the first and never once negated. Neither Tolkien nor any of his friends are bullied, degraded, or outcast for their passions or beliefs. No one grows up to decide art is actually silly and unimportant in the grand scheme of things. In short, at no point does the movie depict that a person must suffer, be isolated, or be some mystical type of special in order to engage meaningfully in art. I didn’t realize how rare that was in film until I experienced it. Rather, the relationships in Tolkien are a magnificent depiction of art in community. Friendship, resonance, commitment to the craft. For one hour and fifty-two minutes, we the audience are bathed in the understanding that art is vital, and beautiful, and powerful—without veering into pretension or self-importance.

For me, that alone makes the film worth returning to again and again. I want to be able to watch it in my home when I’m discouraged and my efforts feel pointless. I want to share it with my little nieces and nephews and let them dwell for a while in a story that’s more than true.

Tolkien is by no means a perfect movie. There are some missed opportunities in plot and character development, some great potential that just wasn’t carried through. There are a few powerful scenes that center around the aspect of meaning behind our creations, and I would have particularly loved to see that motif carried to its fruition. Yet it’s clear that Tolkien genuinely believes in the things it attempts to honor, and I found it to be a superb tribute to the very things that drew me to the Rabbit Room. I left feeling validated and inspired, and that’s exactly how I want to feel at the end of a movie about J. R. R. Tolkien: inspired to create, to cultivate community, and to believe in the power and importance of art.”
—Shigé Clark


7 Comments

  1. Tim Murray

    I too recently got to see Tolkien, and was delighted by how alive Tolkien and his friends appeared when around each other (on screen). And yes, ‘twould have been fun if C.S. Lewis has briefly poked his head into Tolkien’s office to say, “Tomorrow morning at Eagle, yeah?”.
    I’ll certainly look to pick up the bio Andrew mentions. Thanks for your reflections, guys!

  2. Brent B

    @brentb

    I myself don’t really want to see it hearing his faith is basically a footnote. It is clearly an issue where Hollywood does not want to show Christianity in a positive light. Pretty sure the new Elton John movie will spend plenty of time about his lifestyle so just no way to justify not focusing on what the actual man would have said is the most important part of his life. As Lewis said ” I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” To leave out the importance of his faith is to change the story of his life. I can’t support that.

  3. Drew Miller

    @drewmiller

    Hey Brent,
    I totally understand where you’re coming from and share your concern, but I would hate for you to miss out on a good movie for this reason. If it’s any consolation, I would say that, in keeping with your Lewis quote, the film portrays Tolkien’s entire life in the light of his deepest convictions, even though they are not made explicit. There are even a couple more overt moments that do nod to his faith in a powerful way—I hope you’ll consider seeing it.

  4. Mike

    I thought the movie was done rather well. My biggest complaint was that it seemed like they tried to portray one of his friends as I’m love with him. I don’t remember anything like that in Tolkien’s biography and I feel like it really muddies up their friendship. It seems like that characters unreturned love should have been more strongly ties to his mother, which we learn about later. Instead it seems to be directed at Tolkien. I just feel like every movie I see these days has that same hint. As if there can be no deep friendships, everything must be erotic love. I wasn’t surprised, but disappointed since deep friendship was always a part of Tolkien’s life and even his stories.
    Anyway, I totally agree with Andrew Peterson’s suggestion for the ending, that would have been powerful.

  5. Bouris

    FYI: Just saw that Humphrey Carpenter’s biography on Tolkien is on sale (ebook) for $3, not sure for how long — as of May 15, 2019.

  6. R.Michael

    @rmspangler

    Well said. These reviews are well balanced. I watched it as a “half-fiction” but speaking to true realities either way. I would have loved this movie if it was completely fictional. Additionally, what really left an impression on me was the healthy depiction of manhood and womanhood. The movie tells a story of people with both flaws and virtues within very imperfect situations. It tells of men who are lovers of literature and poetry, yet courageous and ready to step up when needed. Not in a macho-bravado way. Edith was also displayed in a feminine beauty, but not a sexualized beauty (as is often the case in film). I loved the scene of them talking in the woods and her enjoyment of piano when she was free to play what she wanted. She was artistic, strong-minded, and intelligent.

    I enjoyed the ending, but it was almost displayed as “he arrived.” So Andrew’s suggestion was right on. I couldn’t think of a better way to have pulled it together than with the Inklings.

  7. Reagan Dregge

    @rdregge

    I did not cry watching the movie, but tears filled my eyes reading these reviews. Here is why: I have felt the camaraderie of the TCBS when I read posts in the (online) Rabbit Room. This place is my little tucked away back room that fills me up with words and tea and hope and the kindness of friends. Here I am challenged and encouraged and comforted and inspired.

    I hope to get the film when it is released on video, but after one viewing I think my favorite thing was the sense of influence all of Tolkien’s experiences had on his writing. The world is fraught with magic (“charged with the grandeur of God”), even the terrible and grievous moments, and in them he (and all subcreators) caught glimpses of a Deeper reality, and he turned them into art. Tolkien made something beautiful with the time he was given. I want to do this too.

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