One of the world’s most engaging authors in one of the world’s most un-engaging biopics. Go behind the prolific fantasy writing, linguistics, and mythology to discover the origins of author J.R.R. Tolkien. From his early childhood as an orphan to his studies and teaching at Oxford, follow the famed author on his own unexpected journey to eventually pen those iconic words “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Biopics are often challenged with balancing what the audience wants to see with the reality of what was, both the attractive, inspiring moments and, if applicable, the gruesome or repulsive. And over all, Tolkien does an adequate job of highlighting the personal history of Tolkien (tol-Keen); however, where the biopic does not deliver is evoking a significant emotional response from the audience. If you’ve read that it comes off as a glorified Wikipedia article, then don’t worry, that is not true. But, it isn’t an I, Tonya, Theory of Everything, or Amadeus either. As biopics go, it is pretty much middle of the road. Though the story may not be as fascinating or gripping as audiences want, it does deliver command performances by Hoult, Collins, and JRR’s three best friends. In addition to the impeccable casting, the production design is gorgeous and the score is compelling. Sometimes biopics make the mistake of treating the subject with too much reverence, thus overlooking or glossing over low points or decisions that place the subject in a less than favorable light. And, without knowing a detailed history of his life, I am left with the real possibility that this biopic did just that. Perhaps it’s the oversimplification of Tolkien’s quasi-privileged life that predisposes the screenplay to falling short of evoking strong emotion from the audience. If there is one message that is clear from this biopic, it’s that imagination served as an escape from the obstacles and trials of life, especially during WWI.
Years before he would write The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien found himself in a childhood fellowship with three other outcasts at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, England after his mom, who would regale him of stories of dragons and knights, unexpectedly passed away. This close friendship would follow him all the way through to college and even into WWI. These four friends would draw upon one another for courage and artistic expression. Taking inspiration from his own fellowship including the personal/interpersonal challenges Tolkien faced as he and his friends challenged one another and his affections for Edith Bratt, Tolkien reflected on these experiences to write The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Although the scenes from WWI serve as a framing device for this biopic, it is the formidable years spent at King Edward’s School and Oxford that truly defined Tolkien and set him up for his timeless masterpieces. Had the movie taken a more linear approach, the story may have been much more impactful. As it stands, there is so much oscillation between the “present day” moments and the flash forwards/backwards (yes, there are both in this movie) that it was difficult to focus. The majority of the movie takes place at Oxford, but the number of flashbacks and flashforwards took me out of the story periodically. Flashbacks can be a useful storytelling tool, to provide visual exposition, but they are often misused. Had this movie followed the approach that Fried Green Tomatoes took with the use of present-day and flashbacks, then I think it would have delivered more powerful story. Although as a screenwriting lecturer I recommend that my students not use flashbacks because of how tricky it can be to integrate them in such a way that they advance the plot, if a screenwriter chooses to use flashbacks, then the writer has to make sure that the flashback or flashforward works to move the plot forward–add something of value to the story. With Tolkien, the flashbacks do little more than frame the story. Other than some impressive visuals and opening a window into the world that inspired and shaped Tolkien, these moments do not significantly advance the plot in meaningful ways.
With Tolkien’s infatuation with (future wife) Edith Bratt, there was certainly opportunity to turn this into a romance, shifting focus away from the fellowship Tolkien had with his three close male friends. Thankfully, the romance between Tolkien and Edith was a nice B story to our A story. I say B story instead of subplot because it is a counterpart to the main outside action plot (story A). Furthermore, the romance between the two does heavily influence the and even inspire the romance between future characters Aragorn and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings. From romantic to close platonic relationships, that is truly what the plot of the biopic is about. Throughout the movie, you will encounter various relationships that Tolkien experienced during his life. Although we don’t spend much time with him and his younger brother, it is well-established that he has a moderately strong relationship with his brother. Furthermore, we see that Tolkien had a strong relationship with his mother, whom helped to shape his imagination in his younger years. It is widely known that Tolkien was a Catholic, but that is not highlighted in the movie (and it isn’t missed) but it’s that element that explains why the family priest is his legal guardian. Tolkien and the priest have a contentious relationship, but it is clear that the priest wants Tolkien to succeed in life. We don’t get to spend much time with his foster mom, but she seems to understand Tolkien and Edith’s relationship. Before getting to focal relationships, Tolkien has a strong relationship with his mentor and professor whom is chiefly responsible for Tolkien pursuing his scholarly studies at Oxford.
The central relationship(s) in the movie is between Tolkien and colleagues Christopher, Geoffrey, and Robert. For most of the movie, they are shown to be as close as brothers, but I appreciate the movie spending some time on the development of the relationships. What starts out as heavy conflict (that even devolves into physical altercations), soon evolves into the kind of friendships that you and I hope to have with close friends that ostensibly become our family. Despite Tolkien not coming from wealthy families like his friends, they share one very important thing in common: a desire to change the world through art. Each of the boys has a different interest, but they each inspire one another to stand up to the obstacles of life and achieve what each deeply desires. Of all his friends, Tolkien was closest to Geoffrey, whom was tragically killed during WWI along with Robert. Christopher is the only survivor out of Tolkien’s three friends. While Christopher’s scares (we are led to believe they are more emotional/psychological than physical) impacted his ability to compose music, Tolkien harnessed the atrocities of war to inspire The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I absolutely love the depiction of close friendship between these young men because we seem to have very few examples of this level of male companionship in cinema, by in large. Many of the closest friendships are often shown between women. The structure of the plot keeps the movie from being as inspirational as it could have been, but there is still a lot to like here.
As biopics go, this one is middle of the road. It is not outstanding nor is it a bore. For fans of the author, I feel that you will get quite a lot out of the movie. The impeccable casting is the strength of this story. Each actor/actress delivers solid performances. Whether you are more familiar with the books or movies, you will find surrogates for notable characters throughout Tolkien’s most famous writing. Interestingly, the late author’s estate released a statement saying that Tolkien’s family members “do not endorse it or its content in any way.” In fact, the estate has yet to see the movie. Perhaps its the exclusion of nuances that the family is aware of in the author’s life, but I am unable to see why any parts of this biopic are controversial in any way. If you enjoy reading his books or watching the movies that were inspired by them, then you should see this biopic. Not because it is an outstanding motion picture, but because it does give you insight into the real world of Tolkien.
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