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The worst part of the Tolkien biopic is when it goes full fantasy

The little film about a big epic makes a cardinal mistake

Nicholas Hoult in the film TOLKIEN. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. Twentieth Century Fox

Tolkien, the Nicholas Hault-starring biopic about the life of the visionary author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, is a fine movie — but makes a few stumbles.

Dome Karukoski’s film presents the bones of J.R.R. Tolkien’s life in a way that fans who are only familiar with his fictional histories will find approachable and moving, with only a bit of chronological juggling for dramatic effect. Tolkien follows its subject from his parents’ early deaths, through his adolescence and education, his romance with his beloved wife Edith, and his first steps in writing The Hobbit as a story for his children.

[Ed. note: This piece will contain spoilers for Tolkien and also for ... the historical life of Jonathan Ronald Reuel Tolkien.]

David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford’s script has meaty themes to work with — the class disparity between Tolkien and his bosom school friends, he and Edith’s struggle for self-actualization as orphans dependent on charity, and the impending knowledge that all of these wonderful young people will soon be thrown in to the indifferent grinding maw of the War to End All Wars.

Tolkien made me somewhat unwillingly fall in love with its lead’s cadre of school chums, the self-styled Tea Club and Barrovian Society, despite their being largely interchangeable. Karukoski lays a strong foundation of their pubescent artistic pretensions, their youthful confidence of their own ability to change the world, and their courage for the sake of courageousness itself. A necessary thing, when you’re telling the true story of how, in Tolkien’s group of childhood friends, half were killed in the Battle of the Somme.

Which is very nearly my entire point.

Tolkien’s World War I scenes are its worst

The most moving moment in the film should be an extended sequence in which its titular character stumbles across the blasted waste of No Man’s Land, calling hoarsely for his dearest friend. It is the moment his adolescent sense of possibility is truly swallowed by senseless war.

Unfortunately, it’s this moment that the film becomes most clumsy. Our young Ronald is sick with trench fever — a trench lice-borne illness that eventually removed him from the front shortly before his battalion was virtually wiped out. Streaked with mud and grime, he hallucinates that shadowy wraiths are bent over his fallen allies, that black knights on horseback stalk the fields, that German flamethrowers are dragons or great horned monsters of darkness and flame.

From the Tolkien biopic Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

The unreality of all tossed me neatly out of my emotional investment like a barrel from an elf-king’s wine cellar. A very historical reality felt suddenly totally unreal, far more abstract and easy to distance myself from than an earlier bit with an actual pit of corpses. J.R.R. Tolkien literally hallucinating a balrog in the Somme felt a bit too close to the great Ordinary People vs. Creative People clickbait roast of 2016.

On a more specific and historic note, the sequence might also mislead the viewer into thinking that Tolkien’s experiences in World War I was a direct inspiration to his work, rather than an influence. The author himself expressed his distaste for any attempt to pin The Lord of the Rings to specific true events in very clear terms (although he usually did so while pushing back at those who insisted that his books were allegory for World War II).

“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations,” he wrote in the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, “and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. [...] I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

Nicholas Hoult as J.R.R. Tolkien in Tolkien, the film.
Nicholas Hoult as J.R.R. Tolkien in Tolkien
Twentieth Century Fox

A flaw, but not a fatal one

It’s all the more odd that Tolkien fumbles its depiction of trench warfare, when the rest of the film is quite deft at winking at the Lord of the Rings audience.

One of the earliest strong moments in the film follows Tolkien, his brother, and his widowed mother as they uproot themselves from the English countryside to a more urban area of England in order to find better financial prospects (one of the movie’s examples of a fudging of his life’s chronology). The cut from rolling green fields to dirty city streets topped with smokestacks isn’t reinforced by musical slant, dialogue, or even a character’s silent reaction — but the connection to Middle-earth’s association of industrialization with evil is clear.

For another highlight of Tolkien’s willingness to play with its core audience, one of Tolkien’s friends scoffs at another’s appreciation of Wagner, saying “It shouldn’t take six hours to tell a story about a magic ring!”

The best parts of Tolkien are these, when it concentrates on language, Tolkien’s skill with it, his fascination in reinventing it, and his academic pursuit of it. It connects him to his friends and his wife, it keeps him from falling out of the middle class status he has managed to cling to by his fingernails. In the end, it allows him to fulfill his teenage dreams of changing the world.

Any person who has lived a life changed by Tolkien’s work could do much worse than taking an afternoon for Tolkien, over-the-top over the top scenes be damned.