Release date: May 10, 2019
Writers are notoriously difficult to translate onto the silver screen. Unlike actors, musicians, or even painters, the creative action of writing all takes place in the author’s head. There is little to no visual flair when it comes to writing a book. There’s nothing dramatic about watching someone hunched over a typewriter or scribbling away with a quill pen, taking breaks only to curse, smoke, take a walk, or stare blankly into empty space. It’s just not interesting to look at, which is why biopics with a literary subject tend to be rare and hard to do.
In my opinion, the 2019 biopic Tolkien succeeds at its task of introducing the beginnings of a legendary author and his seminal work. However, it is more akin to a mythic origin story than a strict documentary. With something as amorphous as writing and an author as legendary and revered as J.R.R. Tolkien, an interpretation is about as much as one can expect. I was fortunate enough to enjoy this one.
To provide some context, let’s look at two other literary biopics that manage to introduce their subjects to their audience in an engaging manner while capturing the essence of their respective authors. Genius and The Whole Wide World succeeded for two main reasons: 1) they narrowed their focus to a specific angle of or time period in the writers’ lives, and 2) they focused on the human relationships and the impact that had on both the writer and their work. The latter especially is where the real drama and visual flair comes from.
The Whole Wide World (1996) is filmed from the point of view of Novalyne Price, a school teacher who meets pulp fiction author Robert E. Howard only a few years before his untimely death. Everything we learn about him we see through her eyes. He’s already a prolific writer, but we only see a little bit of his actual writing process. We learn more about who he is through his growing friendship and eventual courtship of Novalyne, his interactions with other characters, and the glimpses we catch of his relationship with his mother.
Genius (2016) is about the tumultuous professional and personal relationship between editor Maxwell Perkins and author Thomas Wolfe from roughly 1928 to 1938. Wolfe is in love with words and his pure artistic vision while Perkins wants to refine and distill those words into something that will sell so people will actually read them. It’s this antagonistic kind of friendship through the love of words and literature that forms the core of the film rather than the writing process itself.
Tolkien mixes the romance of The Whole Wide World with the competitive camaraderie of Genius. Like these two other author biopics, it doesn’t (and really can’t) tell all of J.R.R. Tolkien’s history or follow the creation of Middle-Earth from explicit origins to direct culmination. It’s too much territory to cover in two hours and tracing the origins of stories is not a straightforward matter. Instead, Tolkien focuses on the author’s formative years and influences, from the love of ancient Anglo-Saxon stories he received from his mother, to his supportive artistic fellowship with his school friends in the T.C.B.S. (Tea Club, Barrovian Society), to his life-long fairy-tale romance with fellow orphan Edith Bratt. The film shows how those relationships influenced and shaped Tolkien, how those themes of heroism, fellowship, and love seeped into his stories, facilitated by his love for and talent with languages. We see glimpses of the things that are prototypes for what would eventually become part of Lord of the Rings, like his idyllic home in Sarehole, England which is reminiscent of the Shire, the hellish landscape of the World War I trenches that may have formed the basis of Mordor, and the fever-induced hallucinations of shadows and fire as early forms of the Nazgûl and Balrogs. None of it is a direct correlation, however, and the film is not trying to say, “This is the exact event or image that led to this specific element in Tolkien’s work.” Writing and the inspiration for it is a lot more complicated and Tolkien offers just one possible interpretation of where those inspirations came from.
Religion is noticeably absent from the film except for a few minor mentions, and some fans of Tolkien have pointed out this as a huge oversight. I agree that this is a major omission, but can also see how that influence would play out in a more obvious or prominent way in a biopic that involved C.S. Lewis, whom Tolkien did not meet until 1926. Since that time frame was outside the scope of this film, I think that, rightly or wrongly, the filmmakers decided it was better to focus on the physical influences in Tolkien’s early life rather than the metaphysical ones. It still feels weird, but I think the film manages to move forward a give a decent account of itself without religion playing a major role.
Ultimately, I feel like Tolkien offers a good starting point for conversations about the author and his work, a stepping-stone to more in-depth resources that tell a more complete and nuanced story. It’s a good introduction to newcomers, a beautiful homage for casual fans, and a sweet (if incomplete) offering to the die-hards (many of whom remain unconvinced that this was the best that could be done for their favorite author.) Will it please everyone? Of course not. The ratings on Rotten Tomatoes suggest that overall audiences enjoyed Tolkien, while the critics were less than impressed. But I think it’s a moving, well-crafted film that accomplished what it set out to do: to share the formative years of a beloved literary figure in an emotionally engaging way with audiences both new and old.