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.
The party continues! We’re still celebrating 20 years of TheOneRing.net (check out the message boards for all the fun and games), and yesterday we received another lovely video message. This comes all the way from New Zealand; check out what Richard Taylor had to say. (You may want to be sitting down before you watch this one…) Thanks so much, Richard!
Welcome to The Great Hall of Poets, our regular monthly feature showcasing the talent of Middle-earth fans. Each month we will feature a small selection of the poems submitted, but we hope you will read all of the poems that we have received here in our Great Hall of Poets.
So come and join us by the hearth and enjoy!
If you have a Tolkien/Middle-earth inspired poem you’d like to share, then send it to email@example.com One poem per person may be submitted each month. Please make sure to proofread your work before sending it in. TheOneRing.net is not responsible for poems posting with spelling or grammatical errors.
‘Radagast the Brown’
by D. McG
I have no time for Elvish folk with their starstruck Elven ways. Their monuments to their ancient lands And fading glory days.
Nor do I care too much for Dwarves
And their love for digging deep.
Seeking treasures far underground
And the secrets that they keep.
Men and Orcs seem much alike With their appetite for destruction. Hunting, farming, grabbing land Causing such a ruction!
Give me the company of the lovers of life.
No conflicts, no agenda to please.
Like the deer cavorting in open fields
Or the birds that sing in the trees.
Natures harvest provides the feast
Fruits so sweet and ripe
Along with the power to connect all things
Smoked within my pipe!
When our friends from within the Tolkien Community heard we’re having a special birthday they sent us these lovely messages as part of our celebrations. So Happy 20th Anniversary TORn! Here’s to many many more!
Kia Ora TORn,
Happy 20th Anniversary, well done on making this wonderful achievement! We have been involved with TORn through one of your founding members Erica Challis, from New Zealand since 2002. We have enjoyed the fantastic Premier movie parties that Red Carpet Tours has provided and TORn attended, along with the stars from the films. Looking forward to future calibrations and hopefully a great Lotr TV series for all the fans. Congratulations again on 20 years! Best regards, Julie James and the team at Red Carpet Tours.
Happy 20th Birthday to TheOneRing.net from The Brisbane Tolkien Fellowship. We hope you continue to have another successful 20 years at least sharing the news of all things Middle-earth.
Dear Friends at TheOneRing,
Congratulations on reaching the ripe old age of 20 ; ) Thank you for all the support and love you’ve given us all.
When I took the job of playing Ori in The Hobbit, I didn’t think I’d collect so many chums. Like the cast, you too are part of my extended dysfunctional Tolkien family!
Have a great celebration – drink, be merry… and avoid the green food! See you all soon. Adam x
A big happy 20th anniversary to TheOneRing.net ! All this time you have been delivering to us critical and wonderful news regarding the world of JRR Tolkien, from the books to the films to the Collectibles and everything in between. May 20 more years be forthcoming!
Cheers, Jerry Vanderstelt
Our good friend Donato Giancola also has given us a mathom to offer to you all! For the next ten days, you can get 50% (!!) off on all of Donato’s incredible art prints. Just use the coupon code TORN at checkout. Take a look at the wonderful prints on sale, here. Thanks so much, Donato!
I can’t believe it’s been 20 years already – it’s been an amazing community to have been a part of, and all good wishes to everyone involved, from everyone at Welly-moot!
Jack Machiela Welly-moot.com
We will be adding more messages to this post as and when we receive them, so do check back! Thanks to everyone who has sent greetings and anniversary messages!
June 1st, 6:00 p.m. Gaythorne Bowls and Sporting Club, Brisbane, Queensland.
Hobbits and Friends at Brisbane’s biggest and best Hobbit Party – “An Evening in
Middle-earth” hosted by The Brisbane Tolkien Fellowship.
will be the most memorable night of entertainment, humour, music, dancing and
fine foods for all your family and friends.
arrival at the venue enter into a decorated banquet hall of Middle-earth. Each
table will be decorated as a Middle-earth location. You and your party can
pre-nominate which table to sit at. Choose from one of the realms of Hobbits,
Elves, Dwarves, Men or Orcs.
the Evening have your photo taken at Bag End with Hobbits, Wizards, Dwarves and
Treasure Hoard will be on display, complete with a large Dragon Cake surrounded
by treasures which will later in the Evening be shared with all
our Hobbit Chef will prepare a wonderful buffet meal, including many dishes
especially cooked for a traditional Hobbit Feast. Leanne adds, “all you can
night’s music includes Middle-earth favourites, Hobbit music and dance music
after dinner and formalities.
is a Charity Event in support of The Pyjama Foundation, with donated prizes from
companies and individual donors from here and overseas. There will be raffles,
door prizes, numerous spot prizes, and costume prizes. During the night those in
costumes will be invited to parade before guests and a number of prizes will be
awarded to the finest and best costumes on display.
children 12 and under in attendance will receive a small gift from The Hobbit
And like that, it was over. March Madness is put to bed for another year; all that remains for us to do is announce our Grand Champion 2019.
We started back on March 19, with 64 locations facing off in four brackets: The Shire, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. Each round saw some fairly close fights, and some strange pairings (Lonely Mountain vs Misty Mountains! Bag End taking on Hobbiton!). In the very first round, what some say are Tolkien’s ‘two towers’ (Barad-dur and Isengard) faced off. The only battle which matched one found in the Professor’s books was in Round 2, when Fangorn Forest marched to Isengard. Alas, my personal favourite (the Green Dragon, naturally!) fell in Round 3.
Of our two finalists, both started off with pretty easy journeys through the rounds. Early on, Numenor gave Gondolin the biggest challenge, but even they could only take 40% against the elvish city. In the fourth round, however, Gondolin faced tougher competition, and just narrowly defeated the other very strong contender from the Silmarillion bracket, Valinor. And in the Final Four, Gondolin again had a hard time of it, securing victory by just 3% over the Lonely Mountain!
Rivendell, on the other hand, pretty much cruised through; even against Lothlorien, Elrond’s home in the valley was still able to take two thirds of the vote. Did that make Rivendell the favourite in the epic final?
The votes have been counted, and the margin between the two locations was just about 15%. Without further ado, we can reveal this year’s Middle-earth Map March Madness Grand Champion:
Yes, as the early rounds would seem to indicate, Rivendell was the firm favourite. They will be singing tra-la-la-lally there down in the valley to celebrate, no doubt!
Many thanks to all of you who played along, voted, and commented. We always enjoy seeing folks taking part in our version of March Madness, and reading what you have to say. Let us know what you thought of this year’s theme in the comments below, or on Facebook. We hope you’ll join the fun again next year!
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