Review of Tolkien (2019)

Review of Tolkien (2019) May 2, 2019

I was delighted when I was offered the chance to attend an advance screening of the movie Tolkien. One of the first things I did was to try to secure at least one additional ticket so that I could bring along my friend and colleague Frank Felice. He is probably the biggest fan of J. R. R. Tolkien that I know (and as you can probably guess, I know a lot of Tolkien fans). He knows the details of Tolkien’s biography to an extent that simply awes me. And so he has had a fair amount of trepidation about this movie, as one might imagine. I will not list all of the examples of creative license that he identified, but will emphasize this: the movie is good, provided one is able to tolerate the kinds of dramatizations and alterations that are par for the course in biopics. To quote Frank, “I feel less curmudgeonly about this than I was about Lord of the Rings.” If you could forgive or at least tolerate what Peter Jackson did to the novels, or perhaps I should say if you can accept that such things, however sacrilegious, can at least help introduce new fans to the actual books and so can serve a useful purpose despite their flaws, then you will have no problems with this movie, which provides enough information that is accurate or at least true in broad outline that it will on the whole serve a useful function, leaving many people slightly better informed about Tolkien’s life than they would have been otherwise.

The efforts to work in swordfights as children, a lamp that cast fantastic shadows on the walls, and wraithlike motions in the smoke and gas of the WWI battlefields came across as heavy handed. Many people played such games as children or have fought in a war, but only Tolkien wrote the novels of Middle Earth, and so these experiences didn’t seem to offer anything in the way of explanatory power. Some liberties were apparently taken with the details of his academic experience – both the distractions (apparently he actually stole a bus, but didn’t suffer consequences, and his longstanding friends who called themselves the TCBS, short for Tea Club Barrovian Society, were not involved) and the accomplishments (how he connected with Professor Wright and began to pursue linguistics). However, provided one accepts such dramatic license, there is a story of intellectual journeys of students and authors that are deeply moving and ultimately true not in the sense that every detail transpired as depicted on-screen, but in the sense that it reflects in dramatized form something that is important and a part of the experience of many. The TCBS were a group of four students who each had a passion – visual art, poetry, literature, and music – that their parents or guardians ironically were able to appreciate in the abstract, and yet did not support them pursuing professionally. And in Tolkien’s case, finding his way to writing the stories of Middle Earth by way of discovering aptitude and passion for linguistics and getting into academia happened via a circuitous route that many will be able to relate to. Tolkien was for a long time an intellectual underachiever, not because he wasn’t capable, but because he hadn’t discovered the way to connect his studies with his passion in a manner that motivated him to apply himself. (He was also prone to distraction in a manner that the movie doesn’t entirely depict. Apparently he was rather less shy and reserved than the movie portrays).

Given my interest in religion, I was on the lookout throughout the film for such elements. They were there, but given the importance to Tolkien of his Catholic faith, there was much less about this than there could and probably should have been. He is shown as a young student in a new school not knowing the words to the hymn “Immortal, Invisible.” The role of a priest in his life from early on, due to the death of his father, is highlighted, and Father Francis Morgan continues to play a role throughout his life. He plays a role in discouraging his relationship with the fellow orphan and housemate who will eventually become his wife, Edith. He also delivers some important lines related to religion, saying that he finds that no modern words are useful in comforting those who’ve lost their children in the war. Instead, he quotes from the liturgy. There is, he says, comfort that can be found in language that offers distance, in ancient things.

The soundtrack by Thomas Newman worked well for the film.

There is a lot more that I could say in terms of the details. Very briefly, I will say that the movie continually flits back and forth between Tolkien in the midst of WWI and suffering from trench fever, and his earlier life, before ending with him as a professor, married and with children. His relationship with Edith is a major focus – it is a love story – and so too are his friendships, highlighted throughout but also in his statement towards the film’s end that he has begun working on a story that will be about many things, among which is fellowship or friendship.

Rather than say more, I will simply end by saying that the movie is definitely worth seeing. If you have no interest in fantasy literature of the sort that Tolkien wrote, but enjoy period dramas and biographical films, then you will enjoy this. The movie isn’t about The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, but about the author who eventually wrote them. It is a movie about facing hardships and struggling to succeed in a setting in which those around you are privileged. It is not a movie focused on faith and its importance in sustaining this particular author throughout his life (including but not limited to his activity as an author), but it certainly does highlight the role of the church and of clergy in providing practical support and mentorship. And of course, those who are fans of Tolkien’s books should watch the movie. Even the best-informed and most likely to be disgruntled about liberties taken are likely to find that it is as good as or better than other films in the biopic genre.

I recommend seeing it, and when you do, hope you’ll take the time to comment here and let me know what you thought of it – and whether it leads you to decide to do some reading, whether from in the genre of biography or of fantasy!

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  • John MacDonald

    I think I might have read the Lord of the Rings in high school, but I can’t remember. I’m pretty sure I read the Hobbit – but again, my memory fails me. One thing that confuses me about the Lord of the Rings movies is why it was so important to get the ring. Sauron had it in the prologue to the first movie, and he still lost that first battle and even got his hand chopped off!. So, clearly, having the ring wasn’t a guarantee of victory.

    • Marta Layton

      Sauron losing the ring was kind of a fluke thing. As I remember the story, Sauron had basically just killed Isildur’s dad when Isildur flailed out and happened to cut the ring off. A happy accident (if there ever is such a thing in Middle-earth). The problem was the Ring wasn’t just a tool, it was intimately connected to Sauron — only a slight exaggeration to say it was part of his soul.

      So when it was taken from him by force like that, Sauron lost the ability to tap into that part of his power, at least momentarily. That’s how he lost the war, or at least a big part of it: having the ring taken by force meant he couldn’t tap into the strength tied up in it. It would be akin to a general losing the radio signal that allowed him to tell his left flank to attack. The power’s still there, but in that moment he can’t use it.

      But as I remember it, Sauron wasn’t concerned about the Ring as a weapon per se. The problem was it corrupted anyone it came near, and it magnified their power and inclination to do evil. Basically, if the Ring came into the wrong person’s possession, it could create a kind of new dark lord who could challenge Sauron. That seems to be what Sauron’s afraid of here.

      (And thanks for giving me a reason to let my inner Tolkien geek out to play!)

  • Marta Layton

    I’m a pretty hardcore Tolkien fan (I wrote fanfic in that internet community for over a decade), but I’m no purist. I really do intend to see it, and am sorry I didn’t on the opening weekend when I’m sure my fellow fans would be out in full force – would have been good to have that communal experience if nothing else! Tolkien’s early adult years are so interesting and dramatic, I can easily see this being a good story if done well.

  • arcseconds

    The efforts to work in swordfights as children, a lamp that cast
    fantastic shadows on the walls, and wraithlike motions in the smoke and
    gas of the WWI battlefields came across as heavy handed. Many people
    played such games as children or have fought in a war, but only Tolkien
    wrote the novels of Middle Earth, and so these experiences didn’t seem
    to offer anything in the way of explanatory power.

    I don’t really know much about Tolkien’s biography, nor have I seen the film, but if he really did have swordfights as a child, that seems worth including in anything biographical. And if we don’t know whether or not he did, if you’re making a dramatization, why not?

    No, it’s not explanatory in and of itself, but in these kinds of scenes we see the figure they eventually become in the child. It’s also surely part of the causal story that imaginative play-acting sword-fights are connected with an interest in medieval combat and mythic battles or something later. If it’s not strictly speaking a cause in itself, it’s surely a symptom of some underlying cause.

    (Sure, there’s a possibility they’re entirely unconnected, but that seems a stretch to believe.)

    It also seems to me to be a strange criticism of a biopic that it has material in it that isn’t explanatory. If it was an academic article, or a particularly scholarly documentary, which purported to explain Tolkien, then the criticism would then be apt, but presumably the purpose of a biopic is, firstly, to entertain (it’s a narrative film, not a documentary) and secondly to give a feel for the person, the historical individual, and some idea about their life. Swordfighting as a kid surely does that.

    • arcseconds

      The lamp and the wraith-shapes in the mist on the battlefields does sound heavy-handed, I agree.

      I don’t think it’s going too far to suggest (and in a biopic, I wouldn’t object to including as though it were fact) that Tolkien’s experience in war did influence somehow his writing, but you could do better than this.

  • arcseconds

    The question of what would be explanatory is an interesting one. I could go into a philosophical digression about what counts as an explanation, but let’s short-cut that and say we’re looking for a difference-maker, the thing that makes Tolkien different from other, less successful writers, which seems to be where you’re going with your notion that things that happen to lots of people aren’t explanatory.

    As an aside, this can also be seen as an attempt to avoid the narrative fallacy, in the case of attempting to explain successful people’s success by appealing to things like early aptitude, inspiring teachers, foundational experiences, hard work, etc. Because lots of people have all of that, but are not as successful.

    (As an aside to the aside, don’t we kind of want biopics to commit the narrative fallacy? Insisting that they should not and stick to what’s explanatory seems like basically saying one doesn’t think biopics should exist: there should only be biographical documentaries in their place.)

    It seems to me that it’s very hard to actually work out what the difference-maker would be. Certainly a combination of factors, but working out what that is is surely hard.

    There’s also a matter of what we’re explaining. If it’s just the creating of a fantasy world and writing stories in it, well, that isn’t at all unique to Tolkien.

    The Brontes created a detailed fantasy world when they were children, and Robert E. Howard created a detailed world for his Conan stories, and I’m sure there must be many many others, perhaps many of whom no-one knows about because they never got published (maybe never even sought publication).

    (This has become completely commonplace since Tolkien, of course, partly as a result of his (direct) influence, but also to a large part as a result of Dungeons and Dragons.)

    And the explanation for this (prior to Tolkien setting the mold) is presumably not that interesting? Highly interested in history and myth, and creative enough to want to do it themselves? I wonder whether the real question here is not so much why anyone did this prior to Tolkien, but why given it’s an extremely popular activity post-Tolkien why more people didn’t do it earlier…

    So presumably what we really want to explain is how Tolkien ended up becoming such a literary phenomenon.

    I think a major factor was his managing to produce a popular children’s book. If he had not done that, he probably would never written LotR, and he would be an entirely obscure figure. The publication of The Hobbit seems to involve complete happenstance, and so, like a lot of success stories, the explanation seems to involve a significant amount of sheer luck. I don’t mean to suggest of course that Tolkien has an intrinsic property that means events occur in his favour which explains his success, but just that The Hobbit was picked up by Susan Dagnall and she encouraged him to publish it. Had she not seen it, not bothered to encourage him, etc. the whole phenomenon might not have occurred.

    Comparison with Howard might prove fruitful. Conan is kind of well-known, and would probably be moderately so in fantasy (or at least in fantasy history) even if it hadn’t been for the films. Why is Conan not as widely popular as LotR?

    We can’t just say “Tolkein’s a better writer”, as that itself needs to be analyzed.

    Plus I’m not sure it’s actually too much of an answer, as Tolkien is not really an across-the-board fantastic writer by literary standards. He has his moments, for sure, and he manages to keep up a kind of antique tone which is presumably part of the appeal. But his characters for the most part undergo no development (with a few important exceptions), many of them are kind of flat, the pacing is uneven at best, and they’re not exactly tightly plotted.

    • Now you’ve managed to connect this with a topic that has long fascinated me, namely what it means to explain the distinctive features of a literary work. For me, the focus of the question has been on the Gospels. But the issues are strikingly similar in many ways. Merely saying the Gospels had different authors doesn’t explain why one of the four canonical Gospels stands apart from the others. Does something in the biography of the author or experience of the audience (or both) “explain” the distinctiveness?

      Presumably the question of why I personally find this topic so fascinating is also of a similar sort… 😉

      • arcseconds

        I think we should be more willing to accept that there is no real explanation available for these sorts of things than we are.

        I don’t just mean that the facts may not be available because they’re now lost (although that, too), but also that the complete story might be so complex and so contingent that we’d never be able to assemble it even if we did somehow have access to all the material, and even if some omniscient being were to tell it to us, it just wouldn’t sound much like an explanation to us, it’d just be a big list of ‘stuff that happened’.

        The full details of a biological evolutionary story are like this. The Darwinian synthesis has it that the origins of evolutionary change, and this is essentially random. But ‘random’ really means ‘too complicated for us’ as much as anything else (e.g. a literal dice roll is a matter of Newtonian mechanics, but we simply don’t have enough information about it’s velocity and the motion of the roller’s arm, etc. to be able to calculate it).

        So e.g. a complete causal story of the evolution of a trait would involve cosmic rays hitting DNA in germ cells, transcription errors, shuffling of genes during meiosis, individual mate-selection events (themselves presumably extremely complex bits of neurological processing that we understand little of, even in simple creatures), random accidents that have little selection value (e.g. being hit by lightening or being crushed by giant rocks), as well as differential survival-and-breeding rates conferred by advantegous traits, yet it’s only the later that’s really accessible to evolutionary science.

        Also, we need to be careful not to commit the fundamental attribution error and try and attribute it entirely to intrinsic features of the author. Since the early years of radio there have been millions of smart people inclined to tinker with electronic gizmos, yet the microcomputer revolution happened in the 80s, the well-known systems are predominantly American (with a few British examples), and the two companies that continue to matter from these times both came from the west coast of the USA. In the face of this, the story that has to be told about Jobs and Gates simply can’t be entirely about how they’re so exceptional, as though there are microcomputing genes that only mutated into being in the 80s, or God said ‘let their be mircocomputers’ and sent Jobs, or something. It has to involve sufficiently powerful chips becoming available for cheaply enough, and presumably something about the advantage you get by being in an English-speaking country, particularly the USA (ready access to finance, maybe?).

        Not sure where that leaves you with the Gospel of John… I’m sure it would seem much less mysterious if we had ordinary sort of historical knowledge about the author and their community. I think the connection with Greek philosophy established in the prologue must be involved in its reception history, though, because this seems entirely absent from the other Gospels, and it had taken over Christianity (at least, the kind practised by its influential writers) a century or two later…

        • I don’t honestly know whether more extensive historical and/or biographical knowledge would make the product of an artist or author less mystifying. Nothing that I have learned about Kurt Atterberg in general, or about what was going on in his life and setting at the time he composed his Symphony No.2, provides me with information that makes me stop wondering how the exquisite opening and closing sections of the second movement, which I consider quite possibly the most beautiful and most perfectly orchestrated music I have ever heard, should have emerged from that human mind.