I really enjoyed the movie Tolkien but found some of it to be odd. I get that biographical movies have to truncate, elide, and simplify, but they should be true to their subject. Overall this was a very enjoyable film, and Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins were great as Tolkien and Edith. A fine performance from Adam Bregman as Geoffrey Bache Smith, too.
Spoilers after the jump…
Tolkien’s childhood was pretty well done, and the transition from the idyllic Sare Hole Mill to industrial Birmingham was suitably jarring. We also get to see his mother Mabel introducing him to the story of Sigurd from Norse mythology in a beautiful, magical scene with a zoetrope.
Mabel’s death was glossed over rather fast, and the boarding of the young John Ronald and Hilary at the boarding house was well done, but I am not quite sure why a lady who lives in such an amazing Arts and Crafts house needs to take in boarders!
His meeting with Rob Gilson: I don’t remember from John Garth’s book that they initially disliked each other and were made to do everything together as a punishment (but why invent that?)
When the group decide what to call the TCBS, they mention the word “Brotherhood”, but there is no mention that they were partly inspired by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Which is odd, given the Arts and Crafts set design.
Barrow’s Stores, scene of the TCBS’s meetings, was a wonderful Edwardian interior, also with Arts and Crafts elements. I did wonder if it was more opulent than the original, too.
I loved the bit where Tolkien recites a who passage of Chaucer from memory. I can just imagine him doing that.
His meeting with, and growing intimacy with, Edith Bratt was very well done. Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins had a great on-screen chemistry, and Edith is sassy and feisty and intelligent. It’s also clear that she’s frustrated with her lot in life, especially when she tells him off for leaving her first meeting with the TCBS early, just when she and Christopher Wiseman were chatting about Wagner. This scene was very well done, and I silently applauded her.
I loved the bit where they sneak into the costume corridor of the theatre to listen to Wagner’s Ring Cycle. I don’t know if it’s true but it was very romantic.
I’m pretty sure the meeting of the TCBS in Oxford didn’t take place in a bus that they had hijacked, or result in a telling off for Smith and Tolkien. His scholarship was in danger after the first year because he wasn’t really interested in classics. He didn’t sing drunkenly in Quenya (or Sindarin) in a college courtyard and wake up Joseph Wright, either; though he was a less-than-exemplary student in his first year at Oxford. So this is more elision than total inaccuracy. But it was a good shorthand for what really happened, and it was funny and touching.
However, Wright did save his degree by accepting him to study philology in the English department. Nice performance from Derek Jacobi as Wright, too. I loved the bit where they’re walking in the grounds of Magdalen College talking about the meaning of the word ‘oak’.
A slightly odder elision was that Tolkien didn’t enlist to fight in the First World War straight away, partly because he didn’t want to fight the Germans because of his German ancestry, and partly because he wanted to finish his degree first, whereas the film implied that he enlisted almost immediately. I liked the way that he was talking with Wright, almost oblivious to the quad full of young men excited about war breaking out. It made me think how many of them would be dead or wounded in the coming battles.
And I was under the impression that he went to ask Edith to break off her engagement to the other guy as soon as he got her letter (though the scene in Folkestone was very well scripted and played).
If I was going to show how the ideas in The Lord of the Rings are partially grounded in his war experience, I would show a battlefield scene like the Meres of the Dead Faces (which he specifically stated were based on his experience); I’d show tanks (which John Garth shows are referenced in his account of the Fall of Gondolin; and I would show his friendship with his batman (which they did show, but not in much depth; though the batman was called Sam so it was fairly obvious).
What they showed instead was phantasmagorical faces and other hallucinogenic figures in the smoke and gas at the front. This was a bit laboured, really.
One aspect of the film that was very interesting was his friendship with Geoffrey Bache Smith. It was implied, but never explicitly stated, that Smith might have been gay (passing references to the Greek ideal of male friendships; his comments about love and how noble it is to love unrequitedly; his mother’s implication that her love of poetry had had an unstated effect on him; Tolkien’s reply that he was ‘gentle’). This was very well done and subtly scripted and acted. I guess we will never know. I think the comment about unrequited love was actually a quote from one of his letters. Certainly his last letter (which in the film, is handed to Tolkien by Father Francis in the hospital) was read out more or less verbatim from the real one.
I was surprised that they didn’t make very much of the scene where Edith dances for Tolkien under a tree, among the hemlocks (his general term for umbelliferae or cow parsley). This inspired the scene where Luthien Tinúviel dances for Beren (in the Silmarillion), and the names Beren and Luthien are inscribed on Tolkien and Edith’s gravestone, so this was obviously of deep significance to them.
One criticism from Joseph Loconte, a biographer of Tolkien, is that “there is no hint that Tolkien possessed a faith of his own, or that it was a source of strength and comfort during the tragedy of the war.” (This quote was shared by David Llewellyn Dodds in the comments on Brenton Dickieson’s post; I can’t find the source). I agree; it’s mentioned that he’s a Catholic but there’s no sign of his devotion in that direction, which was real and heartfelt; in part because he believed that his mother had died for her faith. Loconte’s review of the film is worth reading in full. To be fair, it’s very hard to represent someone’s inner life in a film, because it is a visual format and we only see externals. I can’t think of very many films that do this well.
So whilst this was a beautifully made, well researched, and highly enjoyable film, there were some inaccuracies as well as the inevitable elisions. I would definitely advise reading John Garth’s excellent book, Tolkien and the Great War: the Threshold of Middle Earth, as well as Tolkien’s collected letters and a more general biography, if you want to know more about Tolkien.
I did notice a smattering of modern idioms creeping in from time to time (and one Americanism, “I got sick” which no-one in England would say). But it’s a difficult balance to strike. I was pleased to hear someone using the word “duffer” in the first part of the film, though; a mild epithet which ought to be revived.
I would still give the film 4 out of 5 for its visual brilliance, the very well written script, excellent acting, and the fact that it included discussions of philology and language and linguistics. Mostly I was carried along by the excellent pacing and script and acting and directing and costumes. I would definitely recommend going to see it.
Also check out Brenton Dickieson’s post about his preparations for going to see the movie, and his post after going to see the movie: My Defiant Appreciation of the Biopic Tolkien.