At my 25th-year high school reunion, Dr. Peter Gordon, my best friend from grade school, said, regarding the John Ronald Reuel Tolkien fans he encountered through the years: “They’d tell me they’d read all the books, and they knew Tolkien. And I’d think to myself, ‘You say you know Tolkien … but can you write the language?'”
See, a few of us in my class were massive “The Lord of the Rings” (or LOTR) devotees. By age 18, we’d read the entire trilogy, plus “The Hobbit,” in excess of 50 times. I crafted myself a fine rendition of Gandalf’s sword, Glamdring, in shop class. We learned how to write Tolkien’s “dwarvish” runes, and would use them to pass notes back and forth in class (which may or may not have included some test-cheating).
This was in the Allman Brothers and Jethro Tull 1970s. We didn’t have smartphones. We had muscled-up Camaros, VW buses, Led Zeppelin, handwritten notes in dwarvish, and Tolkien. Heck—Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin wrote Tolkien lyrics. Yes, I own the extended version of the LOTR set. Might be on my 20+ viewing.
Just Doesn’t Cut It
So imagine my disappointment in finding that this new J.R.R. Tolkien biopic is rather boring. It basically recounts the youth of Tolkien (played by Harry Gilby) from around 12, to his Oxford studies, World War I trench warfare, and finally, family life (played by Nicholas Hoult).
Tolkien’s father had died, and his mother (Laura Donnelly) was a woman of great courage, who instilled a sense of wonder in her son, and then died of diabetes. Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney) looks after the orphaned J.R.R. Tolkien, finally finding a home for him with the stodgy, wealthy Mrs. Faulkner (Pam Ferris).
Also living with (and playing piano for) Mrs. Faulkner is the fetching young Edith Bratt (Lily Collins). It’s an immediate soul-mate situation, and Lily Collins pretty much steals the entire movie with her loveliness, which manifests as a rare, curious mind, a flirtatious sense of adventure, and the ability to gently goad John Ronald to challenge himself and think bigger.
Ultimately, Father Morgan frowns upon their budding romance, since Tolkien is, after all, his charge, and he wants only the best for him, including for Tolkien to be accepted to Oxford. The anguish of John and Edith’s parting is the strongest thing in the movie. Conversely, so is their reuniting.
Four Friends, Four Hobbits
It should come as no surprise that young Tolkien has four friends who form a fellowship. Which means lots of Hogwarts-type goofing off (of the posh, British, rugby-playing sort), including drinking, dares to ask a pub waitress on a date, standing up to strict dads, a la the character of Cameron in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and so on.
A nice touch is of the alcohol-besotted Tolkien lying on the grass in an Oxford quad, spouting, per his passionate love of philology, his made-up poetry, in one of his made-up languages.
And the next day, a chance encounter with Oxford’s top linguistics professor (Derek Jacobi), who remarks he happened to hear some odd language in the middle of the night, floating up to his window, which contained traces of Finnish. Needless to say, John Ronald knows who he wants to study with.
Where Do the Ideas Come From?
Everybody’s seen Peter Jackson’s run of three “The Lord of the Rings” movies by now, followed by his three “Hobbit” movies, all of which kicked off in 2001. Lots of accolades and awards. Personally, I’ve never seen any other movie, before or since, that so accurately nailed the pictures I had in my mind from reading all those books.
I’ve heard others have had a similar experience. It seemed like a kind of zeitgeist thing, as if all those human imaginations, picturing all those scenes collectively for so many years, created a template so universal and powerful that it just broke the dam of Peter Jackson’s imagination and flooded his psyche. Tolkien geeks far and wide were hugely satisfied. You don’t get that unification of opinion so much in, say, “Star Wars” fandom.
And so it would have been satisfying to see more specific instances of the original sources from Tolkien’s life that inspired his powerful imagery. It’s admittedly a tall order, but just a WWI flamethrower being the source of the dragon Smaug in “The Hobbit,” and some other fire sources as conjuring up a shadowy Balrog (fire demon) are a bit too thin.
The corpse-strewn WWI battlefields, pock-marked with giant pools of blood, definitely conjure up the desolation and dread of the land of Mordor, though. But a real top-tier movie would have provided exciting CGI to accompany the real-life sources.
It comes down to the fact that literary biopics are about a man or woman who basically sits in one place his or her whole life and types or scribbles. Worlds come into being and pass away in their minds, but on the surface of it, their day-to-day lives provide little in terms of fodder for dramatic storytelling. And so, in the end, it’s all a bit too posh and stodgy and British (for American tastes, at least).
Hoult does a good job, and as mentioned, Lily Collins does a better job, and the legions of LOTR fans will definitely be seeing this and will thrill to the concept of witnessing the origin stories to all the mythological LOTR concepts. They won’t really find what they’re looking for.
What do I feel is the takeaway, as an LOTR fan? I don’t feel “Tolkien” enhanced my lifelong devotion to the books in any way.
What LOTR did for me, on the other hand, through the repeated readings, was prepare me for a study of spiritual enlightenment. Because that’s what “The Lord of the Rings” ultimately is: It’s the premier enlightenment tale of our time. A furry-footed hobbit walks an ancient path of enlightenment, whereby he sheds all his karma and leaves Middle Earth, via the Grey Havens, for the Elvish equivalent of a Buddha paradise.
You think you know Tolkien? Can you write the language?
Director: Dome Karukoski
Starring: Lily Collins, Nicholas Hoult, Colm Meaney, Pam Ferris, Derek Jacobi, Laura Donnelly, Craig Roberts, Anthony Boyle, Tom Glynn-Carney, Patrick Gibson
Running Time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Release Date: May 3
Rated: 2.5 stars out of 5