Review: ‘Tolkien’ film both rewarding and frustrating
Appropriately, there are a lot of complex emotions and thoughts to unpack after watching the latest film to tackle Middle-earth, TOLKIEN.
Let’s get this out of the way: If you have more than a passing interest in J.R.R. Tolkien or his works, you should view the film. You should view it in theaters and you should view it without knowing too much of what is going to unfold — and I will do my best to withhold spoilers, but some are inevitable if I am going to offer fair commentary on the film.
Let’s also get this out of the way: The next person who says “It’s not a documentary,” to me or anyone else with criticisms of the film’s portrayal of Tolkien’s life can go straight to Angband. This quip attempts to dismiss completely valid, rational views of the film, most often the assumed position that someone is about to say film isn’t accurate. Feel free to disagree with criticism, but don’t insult the discussion with a patronizing deflection or insinuate that there were two choices: either documentary accuracy or giving up all hope of accuracy and accepting anything.
Watching TOLKIEN was a powerful emotional experience. As J.R.R. has done for so many, he has profoundly influenced my own life. His words touch us on a deep level. His works laid the foundation of so much else that came after, most definitely including the biggest fantasy property on the block at the moment, GAME OF THRONES on HBO, that is something of a reply to Tolkien from George R.R. Martin. STAR WARS would certainly not exist as we know it without Tolkien. Harry Potter, Dungeons & Dragons and so much else grew from the field he plowed. The Professor is a giant that looms above us all.
So when Nicholas Hoult and Harry Gilby combine to portray Tolkien as a child and as a young man, it was unexpectedly moving; just the simple act of putting Tolkien on screen was powerful. It is a reminder that the nearly mythical professor was scared, lonely, insecure, sad, frustrated, desperate, drunk, charming, combative and impulsive.
Not only does Tolkien live before our eyes but his best mates from his young years, the boys essential to him during his formative era, all live and walk and breathe before our very eyes. In fact the film makes all of them immortal in a way, a reality that I imagine would have tickled Tollers.
And all of this is entertaining and beautiful but …
Watching TOLKIEN was a frustrating, and in some moments, an agonizing experience and I don’t mean in the midst of the drama lost in the story and characters but rather outside the drama and about the drama. And yes, I do get it. Screenwriting is hard. Putting a powerful, emotionally relevant story on screen is hard. The story of J.R.R. Tolkien is hard. Story telling about an period with less data about the man is hard.
But Tolkien was a real life person. Some living now, knew him then, and he left behind letters and notes, video, audio recordings and war and school records. So when the film’s writers David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford, and director Dome Karukoski, chose to tell the story in a way that ignores those records and turns instead to fantasy, it is troubling at the least, distracting and frustrating.
SPOILER but (seriously, film spoiler ahead) the film chooses to depict Tolkien going for something of a walk in the midst of fierce fighting during the Battle of the Somme. He is obsessed, if not crazed, with the idea of finding his friend.
In reality 2nd Lt. Tolkien didn’t abandon his fellow soldiers and instead fulfilled his duty as a signaler for a battalion of infantry, sending instructions and trying to help communication in the chaos of fighting and dying across no man’s land.
Soon after he contracted trench fever — typically via lice — and was taken off the front. One of the most common symptoms of the ailment is leg pain — not quite the disease to inspire tench walking.
This isn’t a small shift in a man’s history, this is a massive, unneeded change about important characterization in the man and developments in the myth he created. There was already drama, conflict and characterization present in the actual history. If only the filmmakers had trusted the story of J.R.R. Tolkien instead of needing to make a fantasy story to replace it.
The film suggests Tolkien had a sort of fever dream during this walk and had visions of his future stories. Some will shrug this off, and he did start writing as he was away from the front, but a hallucinating Tolkien instead of a crafting Tolkien, especially when there was a set-up for it, is less effective. Yes, this can all be viewed as metaphorical, but it can also be viewed as a bad trip that became a good story.
Those aren’t the only inaccuracies; we are treated to a wildly different start of some important writing, that is definitely not an improvement (and from a filmmaking only viewpoint, it feels glued on at the end.) But it also avoids the opportunity to depict The Professor being the a professor. We are robbed of a very on-the-record Tolkien moment of inspiration that changed everything, only to have it replaced by a weakened moment, of problematic motivation.
I will resist the temptation, for spoiler’s sake, to say more and this essay isn’t the place to create a checklist of wrong history, but suffice it to say, some will.
To say that another way, just as big of a problem as being inaccurate about a real person’s story is that the inaccuracies — or straight up fantasy — robs us of getting to know the man, and the man is pretty interesting. The man didn’t need embellishing. And to be clear, I am not objecting to filling in some gaps and I credit the movie for doing that effectively in spots.
I object, as others will, to replacing the known record with storytelling fancy.
Others may legitimately raise concerns about structure or pacing, and while that isn’t something to be ignored, for me, those are forgivable.
None of this is to say there isn’t a fine story with a beautiful love-story in it. There is definitely that. And some dose of fancy or manufacturing of details is certainly inevitable and understandable. But manufacturing important things that contradict what is known is frustrating.
There is heart and abundant beauty present to be sure. In fact, there is a beautiful film here for you to catch in theaters, but it is too often a fantasy film about a real person as much as it is the story of that person.
Those knowing little about Tolkien will walk away “educated” and will perhaps find some emotional connection. Hopefully they will wish to learn more and pick up one of several great books about the man, which the director, a fan, has undoubtedly read. But this is TORn, not a collective that knows little about Tolkien.
Karukoski directed something beautiful. The acting is excellent. The lighting and shooting is beautiful. The music is wonderful. The tone is occasionally modern for a period piece but all of that is effective and emotional and there is much to praise.
But we aren’t going to get some other Tolkien biography anytime soon — this is it. We are rewarded with beauty and with pieces of Tokien and we are frustrated by the fantasy depiction of a man — and a story — that deserved greater purposeful fidelity.
Rewarding and frustrating.