The filmmakers have admitted the new Tolkien movie uses some poetic license to capture a glimpse of the now-famous author of The Lord of the Rings. But did they use too much license and make him into something other than what he was? This a difficult question—one which I will attempt to answer as I give an account of the movie and my changing impressions of it as I have mused over it the past week.
When I first began to see the trailers for the movie, Tolkien, I was encouraged. I have been a fan of JRR Tolkien since I was a teen and have read many of his biographies, including the original “authorized” version by Humphrey Carpenter, and the more recent Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth. And I have done a significant amount of writing about him and his works on the internet. I am no Tolkien scholar, by any means, but I do love hanging around true scholars on the internet, and occasionally at events where they are present. So, I dare to say I do know a thing or two about the man.
A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
This past week, I was given the opportunity to view the film before the general public was able to see it in the United States. My first reaction was an overwhelming disappointment. What had they done to my Tolkien?
In “The Monsters and the Critics,” his essay about Beowulf, the old Anglo-Saxon poem which students of Old English are usually required to read (alas, I have not studied early forms of English myself), Tolkien criticizes many of the scholars of his day for the way they had treated the poem. He says they have used it to dissect the the language, but did not appreciate the poem itself.
“Beowulf has been used as a quarry of fact and fancy far more assiduously than it has been studied as a work of art,” he wrote.
Tolkien describes a tower which has been torn down to study the stones, which were of ancient origin. After pushing over the tower, they criticize “what a muddle” it is, not able to understand why the builder would have made such “a nonsensical tower.” They did not understand “from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.”
This illustration from Tolkien provides a bit of a glimpse of how I felt about the movie when I first viewed it. I felt they had torn down the tower of his life to examine some noteworthy anecdotes, but had missed the whole purpose of the tower itself. They had missed the complete picture of who Tolkien was.
Or was it I who was missing something?
In an interview with IndieWire published last week, director Dome Karukoski made a statement which, after seeing the movie, I took as rather arrogant:
“We did very, very thorough research, we understand these characters, and the emotional truth of them is very true. To dig out the emotional truth of the characters, you have to try to not hide certain evidence and when you work with an estate what happens is that that kind of gets suffocated. You’re not allowed to do certain things so that the audience can feel an emotion from it.”
Having covered all things Tolkien for many years, I am well aware how stifling the Tolkien Estate can be. However, I was rather perturbed at the notion that Karukoski believed he understood “the evidence” better than Tolkien’s family.
In the meantime, reviews of the movie were appearing on the internet from sources I trust and admire. Most of them (with a couple exceptions) were saying very positive things about the movie. Had I missed something? At that point I didn’t think I had. But, as I often do when I have the chance, I queued up the movie twice more. I was convinced I wouldn’t change my mind. I just couldn’t see my way clear to like the movie. A second viewing didn’t persuade me.
But as they say, the third time is often the charm.
As I watched the film this last time, I began to fall in love with the characters. Were they the characters I had learned about in my reading about Tolkien’s life? Maybe not exactly. There are still some things that bother me in what they did. But I think I’ll keep this review pretty much spoiler-free and maybe examine some of the specifics at a later date. Like when the DVD comes out.
I will say that part of my bewilderment with the film was due to the fact that my vision of who he is is based on a whole life. This biopic depicts the very early part of his life. His writings then were much darker; his later writings were much less so. Even as he wrote The Lord of the Rings as a civilian during World War II, there were glimpses of hope. The filmmakers do only give his Christianity a passing glance. They do not deal with it in a personal way. But, perhaps this is fitting, as his faith probably hadn’t yet become very robust at that point.
A week ago I wouldn’t have recommended this movie. Today I do. It it well worth your time whether you know Tolkien’s background or not. And they do give enough (correct) information to be helpful. Just remember, biopics almost never stick to the facts – most documentaries don’t even do that anymore… if they ever did.