Alas, poor Tolkien the movie. The adjective “tepid” most accurately describes the critical response to this biopic, reverently directed by Dome Karukoski, which explores the early years of the author of The Hobbit (1937), the Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954–1955), and countless other works of medievalist fantasy. The idea behind Tolkien is that nearly every key theme in these novels had its origins in some episode of the young John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s life, first at the prestigious King Edward’s boys’ school in Birmingham (where, as the gifted son of a cultivated but impoverished widow, he had a scholarship), then at Oxford University (another scholarship), and above all, in the trenches of the Somme, where he was posted as a second lieutenant in 1916 and had ample opportunity to experience all the horrors of World War I before succumbing to trench fever carried by the lice that infested the cramped and filthy bunkers.
Thus, Tolkien, presented as a series of flashbacks playing inside the brain of the fever-stricken junior officer, trades heavily in one-on-one correspondence. Green and lovely Sarehole, the village in Worcestershire where Tolkien spent his early childhood, was, of course, the Shire. Extreme poverty after his father’s death in 1896 forced the family to move to smoke-blackened Birmingham—yes, Mordor. As a student at King Edward’s, young Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult), a prodigy already displaying a phenomenal gift for languages real and invented, bonds with three other high-spirited, arty youths (quartet of hobbits, anyone?), all of whom patriotically enlist when war breaks out. The Somme trenches, where two of those three are killed by German fire, are more Mordor. Stumbling through no man’s land on a quest (hmmm) for former schoolmate Geoffrey (Anthony Boyle), the delirious Tolkien experiences an early twentieth century Mount Doom: orcs and Ringwraiths in the form of gas-masked Hun, a fire-breathing dragon in a swirl of gunsmoke. All that’s missing is the Eye of Sauron. And yes, Tolkien has an adjutant named…Sam. When, toward the movie’s end, a thirty-something Tolkien, now a professor of Anglo-Saxon at his beloved Oxford, announces out of the blue to his children that he intends to write a book about a “fellowship,” I started to laugh. Or, as dismayed Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers put it, “Oh, brother.” The real-life Tolkien, who loathed trite allegory, would have cringed.
Travers is scarcely the only critic to have decried screenwriters David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford’s effort to turn the young Tolkien into a human-size Frodo. The Tolkien estate refused to have anything to do with this project. Several critics have noted that Tolkien omits all reference to Tolkien’s Catholic faith, so intense and meaningful to him even as a young man that he persuaded his wife-to-be, Edith (a very elven Lily Collins in the movie), to convert—reluctantly—to Catholicism before the two married. Catholicism in Tolkien consists solely of Tolkien’s officious if well-meaning legal guardian, Father Francis (Colm Meaney), a meddlesome priest who orders Tolkien to break up with the distracting Edith, at least until he reaches maturity. But the absence of any role in this film for Tolkien’s religiosity is more a symptom than a cause.
Tolkien tries its best to pay due respect to its protagonist’s gifts as a linguist and scholar of arcane medieval languages—a daunting task for a work in a fundamentally kinetic medium. We see young Tolkien in the classroom at King Edward’s astounding his classmates by reciting lines from Chaucer by heart after they have stolen his copy of the Canterbury Tales as a prank. Elsewhere, Gleeson and Beresford have him quote Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poetry from memory. At Oxford, he finds a mentor and father figure in the towering Germanic philologist Joseph Wright—although naturally the screenwriters can’t resist reminding us that Wright, played by a white-bearded Derek Jacobi, bears a striking resemblance to another white-bearded wizard whose name begins with a “G.” Lily Collins’s Edith—musically talented in her own right but a penniless orphan—dispenses the wisdom of Galadriel to her sweetheart. Elsewhere, she skirts perilously close to hectoring Virginia Woolf-style feminism, complaining about her lack of a room, or rather, a life of her own in a male-dominated intellectual world. But, mercifully, Gleeson and Beresford back off from this tiresome trope.
The problem with Tolkien isn’t that it depicts its subject incorporating his own experiences into his fiction; all writers do that. It’s that the film’s connect-the-dots literalism obscures and diminishes the daunting richness of creativity behind Tolkien’s construction of his Middle Earth fantasies. Long before he wrote The Hobbit in the mid-1930s, he had made his mark as one of the leading medievalists of the twentieth century. Oxford professor wasn’t just his day job. In 1929, Tolkein published his discovery—relied upon by scholars to this day—that a large array of seemingly unconnected medieval English religious texts dating from the early thirteenth century shared a common literary language with roots in the Anglo-Saxon English that was supposed to have been obliterated by the Norman Conquest. It was a language of Worcestershire in the West Midlands where Tolkien had spent his early childhood—so that the “men of the West” who resist Sauron in his Ring novels have a special allusive meaning. Starting in the 1920s, he also produced definitive critical editions and translations of numerous English literary works of the Middle Ages (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the best-known), an endeavor that continued through the early 1960s when he was a best-selling author who didn’t need to make his living as a scholar.
In 1936, the year before the publication of The Hobbit, Tolkien delivered a lecture (later published as an essay) on Beowulf that completely changed the direction of scholarship on that masterpiece of Anglo-Saxon narrative poetry. Until Tolkien’s lecture, scholars had admired Beowulf’s stirring imagery but found its subject matter—the hero’s slaying the giant Grendel and his giantess mother and a much later battle to the death with a gold-stealing dragon—primitive and childish compared to, say, that of the Iliad. Tolkien argued that, on the contrary, Beowulf deals with the most tragic paradox of human existence: that even the most heroic and virtuous of human beings will ultimately be defeated, just like everyone else. The ageing Beowulf manages to kill the dragon, but is mortally wounded, and the poem ends with the sight of his barrow tomb high above the sea. The theme of Beowulf, Tolkien wrote, is that “man, each man and all men and all their works shall die.” The Ring trilogy has a happy ending, but Tolkien assures us that its world of so many eons ago is already passing away.
Furthermore, as the vast universe of Tolkien fans know, The Hobbit and its “fellowship” were not the beginning of his embarkation into fantasy as the movie implies. He had begun constructing the Middle Earth “legendarium,” as he called it, years before, as he was convalescing from the Battle of the Somme. It was a vast compendium of stories and poems, lengthy histories and elaborate geographies and genealogies, some finished, some not, on which he continued to work throughout his lifetime and which never saw the light of publication until after his death. The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings were in fact comparatively small pieces of flotsam and jetsam washed up from the ocean of Tolkein’s imagination. His fervent Catholicism suffused the legendarium, but with exquisite subtlety; he hated allegory. He told a reporter during the 1960s that his aim had been to construct “myths” for the English, who, unlike the Welsh or the Irish or the Norse, had no pre-Christian mythology that survived into written memory.
I can’t blame Kurokoski and his screenwriters for missing all of this. The stock in trade of authors is virtual reality, not real reality, and the lives of most, except for a few flashy adulterers, are unspeakably dull. They spend their days…writing—sitting at their desks or propped up in bed like Proust or standing and pacing like Philip Roth. J.R.R. Tolkien’s life, after the loss of his parents in childhood and the nightmare of the Somme, was no exception. Now, there is a movie that could have been made: about four young friends, talented, idealistic, and inseparable, who went off to a war that was supposed to end all wars but actually ended forty million lives and all civilization as Europe knew it. Two of the four died in the trenches before their talents could mature, one survived to become a boys’ school headmaster and give his name to a son of the fourth, and one went on to become perhaps the greatest fantasy writer who ever lived. It would not have been a movie you could call Tolkien. It would have been, however, a movie about the fickleness of human destiny that Tolkien would have understood very well.
Charlotte Allen has a Ph.D. in medieval studies from the Catholic University of America. She has written frequently for the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and First Things. You can follow her on Twitter @MeanCharlotte