The new movie Tolkien, about British scholar John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings books, feels sketchy as a bio-pic, but it’s almost a full-blown sequel to the Peter Jackson serial (2001–2003) that altered Millennials’ movie expectations. Turning Tolkien’s life story into fantasy distraction — the childhood perspective — is the film’s paramount aim.
Going from impecunious circumstances to a university academic, Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult plays the young-adult scenes) befriends several Oxford schoolmates, and the luxuries of their privileged clique encourage his own idiosyncrasies — the hermetic development of a personal language system that eventually became the basis for conceiving “Middle Earth” and the medieval realm of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Most bio-pics that depict how famous people achieved success are sold as inspirational, but Tolkien avoids that cliché for another: It urges filmgoers to see Tolkien’s experiences (and perhaps their own) as the source for self-mythologizing flights of whimsy. His life is a mere pretext for transforming history into unreality.
The historical details of Tolkien’s poverty, social and religious influence, individual ambition, and military service during World War I are blended into evocations of Peter Jackson imagery. Finnish director Dome Karukoski and cinematographer Lasse Frank Johannessen are not fantasists, but they work in the deluxe mode of BBC realism that used to be identified with Miramax-style Anglophilia, a distinct brand of pretentious cultural fantasy. It set the fashion for indie-movie dogma that can be seen in the ways that Tolkien follows a liberal agenda: His private imagination is unrelated to any specific belief system; Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), the boarding house occupant he loves, is a budding feminist; and his Platonic friendship with Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle) indicates open-minded sexual solidarity.
It’s all analogous to the Peter Jackson franchise, making each person a stand-in for Ring figures that fans can identify: Tolkien himself is a surrogate for Bilbo Baggins and Aragorn; Bratt, for Arwen; and Smith, for Sam. That fantasy world closes in on itself, but there’s something worse than this pop cannibalization: Tolkien’s near-death WWI experiences in the trenches at the Battle of the Somme structure the film’s flashbacks and flashforwards that subordinate everything to Ring legend. Giving priority to Peter Jackson’s blockbuster doesn’t make what Tolkien lived through profound; it distorts historical and cultural reality. On the battlefield, he envisions fire-breathing dragons as if emphasis on fantasy outweighed the experience of war itself.
All of life is seen as a boyhood tentpole adventure — from the Hobbits to Harry Potter, with the Twilight, Hunger Games, and Marvel franchises not far behind.
By normalizing Hollywood pandering in this way, the filmmakers erase our cultural foundations: Tolkien and Bratt argue that “words without meaning are just sound,” using as examples “trees,” “cellar door,” and “hands,” yet the latter never inspires Karukoski, and screenwriters David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford fail to make a culturally unifying association, such as to Shakespeare’s “let lips do what hands do” (from Romeo and Juliet). The English language itself is never used romantically. Hoult and Collins are both pretty, but their characterizations need fervor beyond pubescence — such as the way Kate Bush’s sensual, ghostly, utterly English update of “Wuthering Heights” gave pop-culture force to myth.
Such force is missing when Bratt’s passion for Richard Wagner is reduced to playing dress-up backstage at a performance of The Ring Cycle. She describes Wagner as “an agent of emotion,” yet the first stirring strains of the The Ring Cycle overpower everything in this movie — why should children be encouraged to seek out anything less?
Tolkien’s Catholic background also gets simplified, reduced to a surreal battlefield vision of a crucifix and a passing reference to religious prejudice. This diminishment doesn’t necessarily go against Tolkien’s stated dislike of obvious religious allegory (that’s an important difference between his books and those of friend and colleague C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia), but it’s slippery-slope stuff. And the indie-movie messages that the filmmakers slip in seem designed to prevent viewers from thinking more complexly about a man’s life and his work.
After Smith’s declaration of unrequited love, Derek Jacobi shows up (in a subtly queer, expressive cameo) as Joseph Wright, the Oxford philologist who inspired Tolkien’s interest in obscure languages. He advises, “There’s a comfort in distant and ancient things.” But a bio-pic, this bizarre-yet-banal doesn’t rouse the deep, post-war feelings of nationhood and camaraderie that moved Tolkien. That’s why his final speech about “quests, journeys to prove ourselves, fellowship, and friendship” sounds juvenile and hollow. And it’s why Peter Jackson’s damnable series was such an utter catastrophe: It never made sense of the feeling of brotherhood and sacrifice longed for after 9/11. This bio-pic merely takes us deeper into Tolkien’s solipsism without cultural resonance. He’s reduced to a box-office formula.