Beyond being the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien was a gifted linguist, an exceptional literary star, and ultimately a man of doubts, loves, and ambitions. He was in fact then like any other person filled with the most human of emotions and inspirations, but in possession of a mind quite unlike any seen before. Director Dome Karukoski has attempted to shine this spotlight of human emotion on the legendary writer in his biographical film Tolkien, but while the intentions are noble the film ends up presenting a superficial recounting of the author’s formative years rather than an in-depth examination into his literary genius.
That J. R. R. Tolkien (played here by Nicholas Hoult) was a genius is unquestionable, and so it’s disappointing to see a film that really does not show us why; as viewers we are all very much aware of his literary output and so, of course, the expectation arises to be informed on how this man came to form classics of fantasy literature. However, we are instead presented with a two-dimensional portrait of the man and his influences. From his early years in Birmingham, his time at Oxford University and finally at service in the trenches of the First World War, the image of Tolkien we are given is one of a bright young man with extraordinary potential, but we don’t actually see what that potential is.
Because of our knowledge of his most famous works, we know what he becomes, but if anyone was unaware, they certainly would not be led to guess it through Tolkien. The filmmakers have assumed the audience is all well versed in Tolkien’s inspirations and life and so don’t need to delve more deeply into them. In reality, while most casual audiences will definitely know his name and works, that is where their knowledge stops; the movie had the opportunity to showcase how this great author formed the basis for some of the greatest novels ever written. What we get is the story of a young man in England, with a talent for languages, a love of literature, and his journey to claim the woman he loves (Lily Collins), but presented in such a manner that the protagonist could have been anyone and not specifically Tolkien.
Although it may be applauded that he is not glorified and is depicted in a most relatable way, conversely he is shown perhaps to be too pedestrian; besides his brilliance at creating languages, there is absolutely nothing captivating about the J. R. R. Tolkien shown in this film. It could be argued that this mundane personification accentuates his genius, but that approach only works when the mundane aspects of life are juxtaposed with actual scenes of brilliance. Films like Darkest Hour or The Invisible Woman (based on Charles Dickens’ secret love affair with a younger woman), portrayed Winston Churchill and Charles Dickens in plenty of mundane and everyday human situations, but equally balanced them with exhibitions of their talents. Thus we see that even though they were like us in many respects, their genius shone through.
This is not the case with Tolkien because we see plenty of the mundane, but very little of the genius. Indeed the genius is hinted at throughout with snippets of the inspirations that went into the Hobbit universe (the English countryside’s resemblance to the Shire, Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas, and the “fellowship” of friends), but we are ultimately told that the author did things, but don’t see how he did them. What texts did he read and study to form Elvish? What was his process for imagining such tales of heroism, and why did he specifically write fantasy? We see him hallucinating with images of dragons and knights on the battlefield, but this serves to remind us that this is the person who created Hobbits more than anything else, without much further examination.
Of course, biopics should not be considered totally authoritative on the lives they document, but they should at least provide a level of insight. A read through of Tolkien’s Wikipedia page would likely be more informative and in-depth than this film. Viewing it seems like the story of any young promising youth, but Tolkien wasn’t just any youth, and by failing to show how Tolkien really became Tolkien we are left with an incomplete portrait.
If there is one positive aspect of the film it is its depiction of trench warfare during the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and the message once more that so much life and talent was lost. Tolkien, fortunately, survived the War and goes on to write his groundbreaking works, but what if he died? We would never have the richness of Middle Earth, and so one wonders about what could have been for those who did not come home. What books might they have written? What inventions, paintings, medical advancements, and more could they have given the world? Perhaps it was indeed destined for Tolkien to live.
As a biographical film Tolkien is mostly a disappointment however because we are never shown why the man in this film deserves to be remembered any more than the next person; in retrospect, we know why J. R. R. Tolkien is important, but this movie does not showcase why or how he came to achieve such importance besides a number of fleeting moments. The Tolkien estate and family (including son Christopher) announced their disapproval of the project, perhaps not because it dishonors his name but because it does little to show us why he truly mattered. At least we can always return to the bookshelves to grasp the real genius of the man called Tolkien.