Tolkien and the Stories Behind the Stories
Directed by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford
Fox Searchlight Pictures and Chernin Entertainment
May 10, 2019
Biopics of writers often seem to reach for a one-to-one relationship between the writers’ lives and their most famous works. In these things, the cliché question of “Where do you get your ideas?” must have a fixed and concrete answer. “I make them up. Out of my head,” Neil Gaiman’s famous answer, never seems to satisfy audiences.
Stretched to the breaking point, we get Shakespeare in Love (which granted isn’t a biopic but is still very concerned with the question of “where do you get your ideas”), where Will picks up specific lines of dialog on the streets around him. The irony is that if Shakespeare’s work sounds so fresh and revolutionary compared to his contemporaries, it may be because he really was listening to the way people talk, especially common people, and writing it down, which no one had really done before. Sometimes those connections exist.
So what does one do with fantasy writers, who are writing about magic and dragons and the ends of worlds? How do you make that connection between their lives and what shows up in their books? In Tolkien, we have one possible answer: World War I. There’s more to it than that, of course. Almost too much for one film to cover. Tolkien has three different story threads, I think, hung on the frame of Ronald’s early difficult life—he was orphaned at a young age, with few resources to help him along, and then just when he gets things figured out, he goes to war.
First is the story of his schoolboy fellowship, the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, the vow they make to change the world with their art, and how the vow is tragically undermined by the First World War. Two of the four TCBS members are killed. Tolkien is the only survivor able to carry out that vow, and we are meant to understand that he does so spectacularly. He bears the weight of an entire generation of budding artists and scholars destroyed by the war. It’s a familiar story, the last idyllic generation of English schoolboys and its destruction. Tolkien comes out of this experience with a unique voice.
There’s a whole genre of stories of English schoolboys and Oxford and the idealized scholarly life—the camaraderie, the coming of age, the pure intellectualism. Tolkien’s story seems ready-made for this milieu. (Would you believe I was right in the middle of reading Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night, which is all about Oxford in the thirties but from the women’s side, when I saw this? I love serendipitous pairings.) I mistrust stories that paint this world in such an idealized light. It’s the filter of nostalgia that makes them so appealing. I think there’s this idea that many of us American middle-class geeks have that we all would have been so much smarter if we’d been forced to learn Latin while we were in single-digit ages. This is a bad assumption. Entire contexts and subtexts get ignored. Never forget that the Mirror Universe version of this story is Lord of the Flies. Tolkien gives us the shiny version.
Second is the story of language. I admit this was my favorite part and what I’d have liked to see/hear more of. There are recitations of Chaucer, Anglo-Saxon, German, discussions of language and what it means, the whole philosophy behind Tolkien’s invented languages and the idea that he wrote the novels so his languages would have someplace to live. This was the part of the story that felt fresh and insightful. But then, I’m the kind of person who goes to YouTube to listen to Beowulf and reconstructions of ancient Sumerian.
And the third story, the romance between Ronald and Edith. These stories need their romances or they’d have no women in them at all, right? Sometimes I’d almost rather have no women at all then have them presented only as muses, mothers, and obstacles. (Tolkien’s mother Mabel homeschooled him and his brother before her early death and seems to have been a huge influence on him, which the film touches on briefly. She must have been brilliant. I want a movie about her.) Many will disagree with me and see, as the film wants us to, Ronald and Edith’s story as that of Beren and Lúthien, exactly as we are meant to see the Somme as Mordor. Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins are lovely and the story is heartfelt. I may be alone in wishing we had more of Hoult reciting Middle English instead of the rote romance. Perhaps a bit of Gawain and the Green Knight? Never mind, it’s probably just me.
And on that note, this film will not be all things to all people. If you’re looking to get a glimpse of the famous Inklings, to be a fly on the wall of the Eagle and Child, you’ll be disappointed. Most of the story alternates between the trenches of the Somme and Tolkien’s formative years as a student in Birmingham and Oxford. Young Tolkien is enthralled by old myths and epic stories, languages, and the worlds contained in them, and those myths seem to take on life in the horrors of the battlefield. Boy Tolkien’s prospects seem limited, even given his obvious genius, and are complicated when he falls in love with the equally poor Edith. Chance meetings and fast friendships with equally starry-eyed boys propel him on his way to Oxford, romance, and the war. In the end, he takes the dreams of all his friends on himself.
This is the kind of film where you rush to Wikipedia after to look up the biographies for the truth. Answer: The film takes liberties, particularly with Ronald and Edith. For example, they married before he left for France, while the film gives us a heartbreaking parting right after they declare their love for one another. (Reportedly, Tolkien’s family will have nothing to do with the film and did not authorize it.) This is clearly story, not biography. So what about the story?
It’s missing some things. Ronald’s younger brother Hilary vanishes through most of the movie and pops up again right at the end without a word. Two boys, orphaned young—there must have been more to their relationship than that.
We’re also missing a scene with the last of the TCBS boys after the war. So much is made of their fellowship, of Ronald’s reliance on the fellowship of the scholars around him. Only he and Christopher Wiseman, a musician and composer, survive the war, and the film could have made much of the different ways they moved on, the damage it did to their ideals, and so forth. Instead, Christopher is only mentioned again in a throwaway line of dialog and a bit in the end titles that says he and Ronald remained friends but that it was never the same. The film really should have shown us that. In one of my favorite scenes toward the end, Ronald meets his dead friend Geoffrey Smith’s mother at the tea shop where they used to gather and dream, in order to convince her to publish Smith’s poetry posthumously. (Which she did. Tolkien wrote the forward to the book.) I get the sense here that Ronald has successfully survived and processed his wartime experience by taking up the TCBS quest to produce and promote as much art as he can. Christopher is less than an afterthought here, and I think it’s the film’s biggest misstep. Especially given that Christopher Tolkien is named for him, as we’re told in the end titles.
I am thinking of the ways this film could not exist, and would not need to, without Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films from nearly twenty years ago. (Yes, that long. Take a moment to catch your breath.) This film draws a great deal on their imagery and framing, as well as the haunting soundtrack with dreamlike vocal interludes (it’s a nice soundtrack, I think). During the scenes where Lt. Tolkien and his faithful private Sam are stumbling through the trenches of the Somme, Ronald wracked with a fever that causes fantastical visions and Sam constantly urging him to rest, we are meant to think of the two Hobbits in Mordor. When Tolkien sits at his desk, dips his pen in an inkwell, and neatly calligraphs the famous first line of The Hobbit on a wide cream page, we are meant to think of Bilbo. When the four school friends are drinking and causing trouble, is it not very much like Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin? Kids who grew up with the Lord of the Rings movies are adults now and buying their own movie tickets and perhaps know very little about the man who wrote those stories except for his name: Tolkien. This movie is for them, I think.
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