Film & TV

Tolkien: A Warm, Small Movie, Not an Epic of the Imagination

Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins in Tolkien (Fox Searchlight)
It’s worth seeking out if your idea of a magical realm of yore is Edwardian England.

There must be a hundred films about love for each one about friendship, and yet are the two not equally vital forces in our lives? I distinguish friendship from what you might call buddyhood. Lethal Weapon is about buddies, not friends.

There’s a lovely scene in the biopic Tolkien in which the young student Ronald Tolkien makes friends with Geoffrey Bache Smith in a library, the two talking to each other in the manner friends so often do, which is instantly. The movie traces the mutual respect and admiration from this first moment to its dismal end, on the Western Front. Together with Christopher Wiseman and Robert Gilson, two other boys from King Edward’s School in Birmingham, the boys formed an arts-minded quartet of schemers and dreamers calling themselves the T.C.B.S., for Tea Club, Barrovian Society. The scenes of the lads together over the years as they go on to university recall the warm camaraderie and self-discovery of Dead Poets Society. In one especially endearing scene, Wiseman learns to stand up for gentlemanly honor while practically trembling with fright before his father, the headmaster.

Filmed in the golden hues of fond memory, Tolkien, directed by Finland’s Dome Karukoski, is a pleasing if somewhat routine bildungsroman about the disturbingly Dickensian youth and happily Dickensian rise of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. The future novelist’s father died when he was a small child, and his mother when he was a teen. He and his brother Hilary were cast into a small group home, where young Ronald (sometimes known as John Ronald) meets a slightly older fellow orphan, Edith, at the piano. (At first she seems straight out of Great Expectations; even her name recalls that novel’s Estella.) Nicholas Hoult ably portrays the adult Ronald, albeit with sufficient English reserve that will make it challenging for moviegoers to warm to him, much less fall in love with him.

It’s taken for granted that we’re here for a bit of insight into The Lord of the Rings, but as with other movies about writers, Tolkien runs into the problem of how to translate into cinematic language the process of sitting at a desk and thinking. And as with other movies about writers, it relies heavily on “Here’s where he got the idea for that” moments. On the Somme, we’re meant to think, as Ronald surveys the wreckage of the battlefield: So this is where Mordor came from. This sort of thinking is reductionist and unfair to the work that goes into creating a novel, though, and much more so for one as huge as Tolkien’s quadrilogy. Millions of men fought in France but only one of them wrote The Lord of the Rings. Ultimately a film about imagination is likely to be frustrating if it sticks to approaching writers as being merely clever about observing and reappropriating elements from what they see around them rather than creating out of nothing.

Still, there is one obvious inspiration for Tolkien’s work: Richard Wagner. Edith (sweetly played as an adult by Lily Collins) is a fan of the Ring cycle, which leads to a contrived, very movie-ish scene in which she and Ronald sneak backstage during a performance of one of the operas and start acting out the opening scene in costumes they find in a storage area. The romcom cuteness is a bit much, and it pushes a legitimate area of inquiry to the background. The answer to the question “Did Tolkien rip off Wagner?” is fairly obvious, though for some reason neither this movie nor almost anyone else seems to have a problem with it. (The Tolkien estate, by the way, is disavowing this film, perhaps sensitive about this issue.)

The marketing Gandalfs may attempt to conjure up an image of Tolkien as an epic of the imagination to accompany the Lord of the Rings film, but it isn’t that. It’s a portrait of an idealized era of tea and philology and fine young gentlemen destined for happy lives until war rerouted some paths and cut off others. It’s a heartfelt movie, but it’s a small one, of a piece with the tradition of decorous Sunday-night dramas on PBS, not the blockbuster entertainment associated with Tolkien’s name. It’s worth seeking out if your idea of a magical realm of yore is Edwardian England.

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