The numbers don’t lie for J.R.R. Tolkien’s influence on literature. Number 3 and 6 on the best-selling books of all time totaling 250 million sold. Fun fact, before The Hobbit, the word “fantasy” wasn’t even used to describe works similar to Tolkien’s, “fairy tale” was a more fitting description in those days. A man of such stature to have not only reinvented an entire genre but fight for his country in a war defining battle is a man who should be held in the highest esteem. Initially, when I heard that the Tolkien estate had not approved of this film, I was a little cautious, if I were in the filmmaker’s position, these are people I want to get on my side. However, I threw caution to the wind and based my judgment on what I think is the main aim of any biopic, leave having left wiser about the film’s chosen figure and with Tolkien, I like how the filmmakers have tried to reflect the spirit of Tolkien’s work, but there is also a feeling that they may have bitten off more than they can chew.
The way I see it although you can easily get an understanding of the spirit of Tolkien’s works by simply reading his novels, I appreciate the methods director Dome Karukoski has taken to display it onto the big screen. One method used is the placement of his characters or fantastical elements into the scenes to show off how the inspiration to said elements were born. The entire runtime of Tolkien, the film is looking through his eyes, Karukoski wants you to see the events of the film through Tolkien’s literary perspective which means showing a firebreathing dragon for the flamethrowers of WW1 or the operas of Richard Wagner that feature a familiar sounding ring. For some of you this will be the highlight of the film, for me I felt it complimented Tolkien’s perspective for maximum enjoyment, it more complex than just understanding a reference made.
I feel the need to clarify that Tolkien does not tell you the plain, simple story of his time writing The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings. It instead looks at his early education years right up to his military service in WW1, with the film intercutting between each phase. But, through each phase, the reoccurrence of fellowship of explored. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the relationships between Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult), his friends of the T.C.B.S (Tea Club, Barrovian society) and his ultimate muse Edith Bratt (Lily Collins) unfold and grow. You see the strengthening of their bond unfold from being young, optimistic boys where the world is their oyster to men dispersing to fight for their country, rooting itself into the very emotional foundations of the film.
As well as exploring Tolkien’s literary perspective, the film seems certain in giving us a lesson in Tolkien’s love of language and phonaesthetics. We get a taste of this when Tolkien and Edith are discussing the beauty of the word “cellar door” with the scene serving the purpose of getting to know how Tolkien can build worlds. In a way, the film is about Tolkien’s relationship with language, the pleasantness of putting sounds together which is a big part of fantasy today.
I have to reiterate again that people who walk into this film expecting a story of Tolkien writing The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings are going to be vastly disappointed, however, there are other disappointments that don’t especially go hand in hand which what the film is trying to achieve. The mood shifts are too sudden, especially when we flash forward to his time at The Somme where we the audience have to adjust from character-focused scenes to images and sounds of gunfire and trench warfare.
It may be just me, but throughout the film, there is a lingering aura of scenes being melancholy. It’s really hard to shake off, even the happiest and joyful scenes of Tolkien’s brilliance or relationships just to name a few, there is a hint of sadness around it. Should we be feeling sad? Admittedly, the film can seem rather uneventful, but we should feel elated when we witness his brilliance and passion in action.
Tolkien boasts how it has gotten its three key targets perfectly, they are creativity, friendship, and love. You can certainly tick them off your checklist, but whether these targets are met with distinction is up to you. For me, it feels more of a passing grade than an outstanding result. Whether it can satisfy the lovers of Tolkien’s work is not really for me to say. The film is packed with ambition, it was clear when we dived into language, but traditional biopic values eventually put an end to the ambition. Nevertheless, Tolkien is not a complete waste of time, just one that should have been that extra bit special for a special author.