A review of Dome Karukoski’s 2019 biopic, Tolkien
“In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” So begins J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece of heroic fantasy, The Hobbit, first published in 1937 and continuing with the epic story of the Ring of Power in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Was Professor Tolkien referring in some way to himself? Perhaps. As a soldier serving in the British army during World War I, he spent a lot of time underground in the trenches, and it is well-known that his experiences in the Battle of the Somme inspired some of the bleakly iconic settings of Middle-Earth: the Dead Marshes and Mordor, especially. And his early childhood in the English countryside no doubt inspired The Shire, the idyllic homeland of the hobbits.
These inspirations of Tolkien’s imagination are amply and beautifully depicted in the 2019 biopic Tolkien, directed by Dome Karukoski and starring Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins.
The film begins with the Tolkien family in England, shortly before young Ronald (as J.R.R. is called) and his brother lose their mother to diabetes. Under the watchful guardianship of a priest who had been a close family friend, the Tolkien boys grow up in the home of a kindly woman who takes in orphans. There, Ronald meets Edith Bratt, with whom he becomes romantically attached, and in school he meets fellow students with whom he becomes close friends. His romance with Edith, his career as a student at Oxford University, and his “fellowship” with his pals from school all come to a screeching halt with the onset of the Great War, and young Tolkien’s creative, romantic soul is stretched to the breaking point.
In my opinion, the filmmakers made a major creative misstep: it seemed like they couldn’t decide what story they were trying to tell. Is Tolkien a coming-of-age war story? Is it a buddy movie? Is it a romance? The answer is that it tries to be all three and triply misses the mark. Tolkien’s military career was not very exciting: he became so ill with “trench fever” that he had to be sent home and the connections between Tolkien’s boyhood friendships and the fellowship depicted in his Legendarium seemed a bit forced. By contrast, his early life as an orphan and his on-again off-again relationship with Edith are the stuff that Dickensian melodramas and heart-string tugging romances are made of. This is what I think the filmmakers should have concentrated on.
I was also disappointed but not surprised by the dismissive and subtly negative treatment of Tolkien’s devout Catholic faith.
Still, as a huge devotee of all things Tolkien, I really enjoyed the movie. It was fun to catch glimpses of Middle-earth in sketches tacked to his bedroom wall and see his imagination come to life through clever animation, especially in the battlefield scenes.
The film’s niche appeal and sub-optimal creative choices led to its disappointing and brief theatrical run this past summer, but it has recently been released on DVD and would make a great addition to any fan’s video library.
Clare and her daughter Hannah discuss the movie on their podcast, Splanchnics: (Season 1, Episode 1)
The Hobbit Special commemorative edition, featuring a reproduction of the First Edition cover, which was painted by Tolkien himself.
The Lord of the Rings 3-volume boxed set with iconic illustrations by Alan Lee.
A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and A Great War by Joseph Laconte. A fascinating literary biography about how World War I shaped the lives, fortunes, and futures of two of the greatest British authors, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.
The Fellowship: the Literary Lives of the Inklings by Carol Zaleski and Philip Zaleski. This one is not just about Tolkien and Lewis–tons of interesting stuff about the other members of “the Inklings,” the informal Oxford University literary club of which of Tolkien and Lewis were the principal members.
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