In the wake of the a controversial final season of Game of Thrones we swap G.R.R. for J.R.R. – that is, J.R.R Tolkien, the renowned author of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and other novels set in the magical Middle Earth. But before hobbits and wizards there was an orphan from South Africa who tried to navigate life at the tumultuous start of the twentieth century.
Tolkien, a biopic directed by Dome Karukoski and starring Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins, follows J.R.R. Tolkien through his early years at school and then at Oxford before he enlisted to help the war effort in World War One. As a biopic, there is a lot of pressure to be historically accurate, which can sometimes weigh down the narrative flow of a film. However, Karukoski manages to keep the pace going so that the audience isn’t left in one place for too long. The few changes to the timeline of Tolkien’s life help with this – no one wants to see him apply for a programme to finish his degree before enlisting, so instead the film jumps from The War being announced to his last night before shipping out. Whilst I went into the film hoping for more attention to be given to the Inklings- the writing group Tolkien was a part of at Oxford which included other famous authors such as C.S. Lewis- I now realise that focussing on the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (T.C.B.S.) from his teenage years makes more narrative sense as it ties in more closely with WW1.
Hoult carries the movie in the titular role, as is often inevitable with biopics, he portrays Tolkien at his best and at his worst. Character is the essence of a biopic, and it is the area where the movie excels – the audience can feel the naïve enthusiasm of the T.C.B.S as easily as the utter hopelessness of soldiers on the front lines at Somme. A character I felt suffered was Edith, Tolkien’s sweetheart and eventual wife: aside from a few moments of personality, there is not much to the presentation of her character. As a result, her brief flickers of autonomy come across as gratuitous rather than empowering.
As a fair amount of screen time is given to Tolkien’s time at Somme, and with the film being released just after the centenary of WW1, it was vital that the film handle the the event respectfully, which it succeeds to do. Although only rated a 12A, Tolkien does not shy away from the horrors that the soldiers inevitably saw on the front lines. There are some quite graphic scenes of violence, but each one seems necessary and does not glamourise the conflict. Moreover, it pays homage to those who survived the conflict, either by falling ill like Tolkien himself, or developing conditions such as PTSD from their trauma like Christopher Wiseman (played by Tom Glynn-Carney), a member of the T.C.B.S and a close childhood friend of Tolkien’s.
However, the rather heavy handed visual references to Lord of the Rings was one aspect of the film’s engagement with WW1 that felt quite cheap. Throughout the final scene at the Somme, Tolkien sees black smoke that forms the Ring Wraiths and eventually the flaming visage of Sauron himself. I highly doubt that in the middle of the bloodshed Tolkien was thinking of antagonists for his series of fantasy novels. In isolation such effects might not have detracted from the overall impact of the narrative, but in the film the repeated references to the forces of Mordor undermine the actual horrors of WW1. The audience understands that this is about the man who wrote Lord of the Rings without needing obvious visual cues.
Subtler references to the series are far more effective in the film. For example, as Tolkien is beginning to show his passion for languages, there are pages of Dwarven runes on a pin-board in his bedroom. To anyone who is a fan of the novels, as people seeing the film probably are, this is a simple nod to the books that doesn’t detract from Tolkien’s personal story. There are other, perhaps less noticeable, references that still allow Tolkien to be the centre of attention: returning to the Somme, Tolkien’s relationship with Private Sam Hodges (played by Craig Roberts) mirrors that of Frodo and Samwise from the trilogy. Hodges helps Tolkien navigate the trenches whilst he is delirious from trench fever, echoing – or maybe foreshadowing – Sam helping Frodo through the Dead Marshes. For me, this less overt referencing of Tolkien’s work is more applicable to a biopic because the centre of the film should be Tolkien, not the novels.
Overall, the film is a good biopic that tell the life story of one of Britain’s most beloved writers compellingly and effectively. Despite a few over-the-top references to the books that made Tolkien’s name, Karukoski’s film shows the man behind the myths to be passionate, intelligent, and a believer in fellowship.