If Middle Earth Means Something to You, Ignore the Reviews and Go Watch ‘Tolkien’!

‘Tolkien’ is visually, intellectually and emotionally satisfying! It’s part Dead Poet’s Society, part Saving Private Ryan, part Theory of Everything, with a mix of the Lord of the Rings!

Tolkien, a biopic about the late, great and most respected of modern fantasy authors, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, was released this weekend. Tolkien’s works have been popular starting with the 1937 publication of the Hobbit (where it became the Harry Potter of its day), through the counter-culture’s adoption of Tolkien in the 60’s through bootleg paperbacks of The Lord of the Rings (complete with graffiti of “Frodo Lives!” appearing on the New York subway), to the blockbuster movies by Peter Jackson that were released in the aftermath of 9/11. With another series being filmed by Amazon, it seems the world can’t seem to get enough of J.R.R. Tolkien! So, I, like many others, was a little surprised that there hasn’t been a biopic about Tolkien until now.

One of the posters for the new Tolkien biopic

I saw the movie on Thursday night, in screenings that started before its official release date (not sure if this is the new normal nowadays). I thoroughly enjoyed it on many levels — on the one hand it was a form of escape back to Edwardian England, kind of like watching the first few seasons of Downtown Abby. On the other hand, as a writer I was intrigued by the references to Tolkien’s experience at the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in one of the bloodiest wars of all time, WWI, which led to a generation of young men being snuffed out in their prime.

More than that, I was curious about the origins of some of the elements of the Middle Earth, and about the love of Tolkien’s life, Edith Bratt, about whom I knew very little, except this: When Tolkien was buried in the same grave some months after the death of Edith, and the headstone said: Beren and Luthien. I knew it was a reference to the mortal man who fell in love with an immortal elven princess in the mythology of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (published years later by his son Christopher as The Silmarillion).

What Tolkien’s Work Meant to Me

You see, Tolkien’s work was a pretty large part of my teenage years and continues to be to this day, so not only was I compelled to watch the film, I feel compelled me to write about what Tolkien’s work meant to me. If you just want to get to the movie review, you can skip ahead to the next section!

I first discovered The Hobbit when I was 11 or 12, at the Detroit Public Library. A few years later, in an attempt to read the longer, more complicated, The Lord of the Rings, my friends and I somehow managed to convince our English teacher that the Lord of the Rings was literature. He finally gave in and made The Fellowship of the Ring one of our “official” class reading assignments.

For me, Tolkien’s characters embodied both heroism and common sense, valor and stubbornness, long lost kingdoms and magical beings, but most importantly they provided a refuge. They took me away from whatever terrible things were being said about me by my classmates and my own insecurities of those days.

The first time I would really spend nights away from home was in high school, at speech and drama festivals around the state . Of course, my bit was based on — what else, The Hobbit! More specifically, the interactions between Gollum and Bilbo — Riddles in the Dark.

After all, what would you do if you were lost in dark caves a mile under the mountains and the dwarves, the wizard and everyone was gone?? I for one would be terrified and this imagery and Bilbo’s courage and levelheadedness never ceased to amaze me. For Bilbo, it was turning point in his life and his adventure and for me, it was something I could always go back to when things seemed scary or I seemed alone — what would Bilbo do??

One of my favorite covers of the Grey Pilgrim (Gandalf)

Tolkien’s work had such a huge impact on my teenage years that if I were to put it to music (uncharacteristically since i’m not very musical, btw), I might paraphrase Freddie Mercury and Queen in their tribute to their teenage years (Radio Ga Ga):

I’d sit alone, reading under a single light
My only friend through teenage nights
 And everything I had to know
 I learned it from Bilbo (and Frodo!)

OK I warned you I wasn’t very musical! But, to put it all in perspective, this wasn’t just a teenage habit. I still go back and re-read the Hobbit and LOTR when things are rough or I’m not sure what to do next in life.

Last year, I had my own brush with death, and ended up in the hospital where the doctors insisted my only chance was to get open heart surgery. I haven’t talked about it much publicly, but the aftermath of the surgery was the most challenging time in my life (and continues to be). The early days in the hospital after the surgery, and the early weeks at home were the worst.

You know what got me through? In addition to the support of family and loved ones, even when I still had tons of wires in me laying in the hospital bed, I started reading, from page 1 with the famous line that is actually exactly where the movie ends: “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” And for the next few hours I would be calm and courageous again. If Bilbo could make it out of miles of dark tunnels in the Misty Mountains all by himself (and out-riddle Gollum too!), and Frodo could make it through the dark ash covered hell-like land of Morder, I could make it through this!

Back to Middle Earth, circa Edwardian England: The Movie

But enough about what Tolkien’s work has meant to me … Let’s get back to the movie, which was the point of this piece.

First of all, the visuals in this movie are splendid. Go see it in a theater if you can. The pastoral scenes of Tolkien’s boyhood, before his mother passed away, seem like they are right out of the Shire. After his mother died, he and his brother were put up in an orphanage in Manchester, which is depicted as an industrial wasteland for the most part. The visuals pay homage not just to Peter Jackson’s movies, but to many aspects of Tolkien’s life and work. Tolkien had a love for nature and trees, and these come through loud and clear visually, contrasting these two parts of his childhood.

The scenes of the battlefield are not subtle. The horrors of that war and the courage to keep going and get through it clearly serve as an inspiration for Morder. But the film goes further; while Tolkien is suffering from trench fever, he has visions that may very well have inspired elements of middle earth. The director and cinematographer use special effects subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) to show how fire from flamethrowers could be coming from dragons, mirages of black riders on black horses, medieval fighting scenes, and even the dark tower, Barad-Dur out of the black smoke of the battlefield.

There are enough LOTR and Hobbit references for most Tolkien Uber-fans (though we always want more!), but even if you haven’t read the books, it’s a pretty good standalone movie about, well, love, and fellowship. These are the two big anchors of the movie, which is about Tolkien’s early life until he becomes a professor at Oxford . The movie nears its end when he starts telling his kids a story about a “little person” like them. “I’m not little!” exhorts his littlest son, Christopher, to which the proud father replies: “little in stature maybe, but big in spirit!” (which describes Bilbo and Frodo quite well in my opinion), and the last scene in the movie is when Tolkien writes in ink that famous first line of the Hobbit. (Aside: in real life, Tolkien supposedly scribbled this onto a blank page of a student’s term paper, but — quibbles, quibbles!).

The story really kicks into gear when young Tolkien arrives at King Edwards High School in Manchester (reminding his teacher that his name is pronounced “Tol-keen”, not “Tol-kin”, which cleared up a question I’ve had since my teenage years!). An awkward, orphaned boy who liked to read old books and had been home-schooled until then, Ronald (as he’s called) is brought into the fold of several well-to-do boys, and they start the TCBS, Tea Club and Barrovian Society. This ambitious group of teenagers pledge to “change the world” through art and literature and is one of the main through-lines of the film.

Tolkien and his pals in the TCBS — his first “fellowship”

This friendship was based on the real story of these boys with Ronald: Christopher Wiseman, Robert Gilson, and Geoffrey Smith. It continues well into University — two of them end up at Oxford and two at Cambridge — and to the war. This part of the movie was a bit like Dead Poet’s Society. I mean, who didn’t make pacts with their friends as teenagers, but not many of us went on to use it as the basis of a book like The Fellowship of the Ring! We might, the movie says, have the TCBS to thank for that.

The scenes of the war frame the entire movie, and the rest is presented as extended flashbacks. Two of Tolkien’s TCBS pals, including his close friend Geoffrey Smith, died during the Great War. Tolkien did in fact, just as he promised to do in the film, write the forward when Geoffrey’s mother posthumously published her son’s poems.

Nicholas Hoult as a young John Ronald and Lilly Collins as Edith Bratt, Tolkein’s elf-like love

While Nicholas Hoult is perfectly acceptable as Tolkien, the real standout performance is Lilly Collins as Edith. She is a fellow orphan who plays the piano and longs to talk about music, have intellectual discussion about art, and have an education like John Ronald. I thought there was great chemistry there and she certainly came across as his intellectual equal, framing several important aspects of his work — including the focus on the meaning of his “made up languages”, not to mention her interest in Wagner’s Ring series, which many have seen as a direct influence on LOTR.

The scene of Edith dancing in the trees while Ronald watched actually inspired him to write the now immortal tale Beren and Luthien (also called Tinuviel, the Nightingale), although in real life this happened after they were married and not before. I don’t know that much about Edith in real life, but if she was anything like Lily Collins portrays in the movie, I can see why he wrote the legend of Beren and Luthien.

In coming full circle, it turns out that Collins auditioned to play Tauriel in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit, though she lost out to Evangeline Lilly. Of course Tauriel didn’t exist, not even in the books, while Edith Bratt (later Edith Tolkien) most certainly did. My only quibble in their match is that while Collins could easily pass in my imagination as Luthien, Hoult is a little too well trimmed and good-looking to pass for Beren (or Aragorn), both of whom I imagined as rougher and well, less mannered. Nor does he look like an absent minded Oxford professor absorbed in his texts, but again, these are little quibbles in an otherwise heroic quest of a movie!

A young Tolkien with Oxford Professor Wright talking about … language! Maybe a little Gandalf origin story here?

Speaking of Tolkien the professor, the movie even manages to show and delve into Tolkien’s love of languages, which was a big part of his work. Tolkien always said that he made up the elvish language (his “nonsense language of the fairies”) first, and then came up with the stories and legends to fill it in. His love of epics and the interrelationship between stories, myths, and words/languages are part represented well in the film.

It’s my suspicion that one of the most interesting scenes in the film was probably fiction: Tolkien’s drunk night-time rant in his “made-up language” outside one of the old brick Oxford colleges, which caught the attention of Professor Wright (played by Derek Jacobi), who taught language and philology. Jacobi gives a short but scene stealing performance as Tolkien tries to get him to accept him as a student (and give the penniless orphan a scholarship!).

Sitting in the movie theater, all you have to do is make Jacobi’s white beard a bit longer and eyebrows bushier … and you have … Gandalf! In fact, looking at pictures of Wright online after I saw the movie, Jacobi may have actually underplayed the Gandalf look!

Conclusion: Go See It And Ignore the Reviews

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie and highly recommend it to all fans of Middle Earth. Which is why I was surprised to read the reviews (after seeing the movie, not before!) many of which weren’t flattering. Some common complaints:

  • The movie is guilty of falling into British Biopic tropes. Well duh. It’s a biopic about a British writer — perhaps the most famous British writer of the past 100 years! What did you expect?
  • It’s not as exciting as the Lord of the Rings. It’s bland. Again, it’s a biopic about a college professor who was a writer — what did you expect?
  • It doesn’t explore Tolkien’s Christianity as much as it should. This criticism seems to come from religious themed sites only. I thought i’d mention it because if this is the only thing to criticize in the movie, then that’s saying something! If this was a movie about C.S. Lewis (see note below about the Inklings), whose mission seemed to be to proselytize his faith as much as tell stories, then it might be more relevant. Would fans of LOTR the books or movies really take this as a reason not to see the movie? Probably not.
  • The Tolkien estate didn’t endorse the movie. Well, it turns out they didn’t see it before making this decision and it seems like a blanket “we don’t endorse biopics” rather than anything in the movie that they didn’t like. They also didn’t endorse Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, which didn’t stop them from being among the most popular (and well crafted) fantasy movies of all time.
  • The influences of the Lord of the Rings were a little too obvious (or the movie left out some influences!). This is to my mind perhaps the most interesting set of complaints. Then again, it is almost entirely a matter of personal taste. Left out entirely: Beowulf and the Norse sagas, which clearly had an influence on the Lord of the Rings, and many other influences on Tolkien’s work. Too obvious: Flame throwers being dragon flames, Edith and John acting backstage during the performance of Wagner’s Ring, and the sergeant who accompanied an ill Tolkien through the battlefield with the familiar name. Ok maybe the Sam thing was a bit much, but honestly, as a big fan of the books I wanted more LOTR references, not less!
  • Blah blah blah. Yup, you heard it right!

As difficult as it is to make a movie about a writer’s imagination, this film did a great job without taking too many liberties. In fact, I expected it to take more liberties with the truth. Bravo to Karukoski and the screenwriters David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford for sticking mostly to the established facts.

My one complaint is that it ended too soon — I wanted to know more about his life after he started writing and publishing the books — and his second “fellowship” — the Inklings, a group of writers at Oxford that included C.S. Lewis (of Chronicles of Narnia fame) and Charles Williams. But one movie can only do so much and you’d need to replace Hoult with an older actor for that one.

In a more positive review, modern science fiction/fantasy writer Neil Gaiman says about the film: “It’s actually done with intelligence and with grace — and that was a complete surprise to me, so hugely and unreservedly recommended!’

I agree with Neil!

If, like me, Middle Earth was more than just a trilogy of action movies that came out in 2001, if it holds some special meaning for you, then I recommend disregarding the reviewers and going to see this movie at the theaters at once! You may not see Frodo or Bilbo, but you certainly will learn a lot about their origins!

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