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If you aren’t passionate about J.R.R. Tolkien and the world he created in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, you might find Tolkien (rated PG-13 for language and war violence) a perfectly pleasant movie.
Set mostly in Edwardian England with brief forays to World War I–era France, the biopic is heavy on pleasingly musty academic atmospheres and lovely pastoral scenes. Picture the misty, cobbled lanes of Oxford leading alternately to overstuffed armchairs in cozy tea rooms and to glades of flowering cow parsley beneath deep forest canopies.
Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins are equally eye-pleasing as Tolkien and his wife-to-be, Edith. From his tweeds to her soft Gibson Girl chignons, they present a sort of platonic ideal of scholarly romance. Their performances, as well as those of Tolkien’s school chums who form the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (TCBS), a fellowship the boys form to pursue greatness in art and literature, are engaging enough.
But for Tolkien fans, it’s all likely to feel disappointingly generic. We see none of the fire and even less of the humor of the man who wrote Gandalf’s rebuke of Saruman or Bilbo’s jokes at his relatives’ expense.
The film’s failure to delve into Tolkien’s Christianity and the role it played in his imagination, especially in setting up the moral stakes of Middle Earth, is part and parcel of this lack of specificity. A life as singular as John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s shouldn’t feel as if it’s been crafted from outtakes of Dead Poets Society.
Worse is when the film rewrites history to accommodate our modern obsession with representation. In 2012 Christopher Tolkien complained that his father’s legacy was being “absorbed by the absurdity of our time.” Perhaps nothing better illustrates this than the filmmakers’ decision to subtly suggest that Tolkien’s close friend, poet Geoffrey Bache Smith, was in love with him.
Anthony Boyle, the actor who plays Smith, defended this unfounded interpretation in a recent interview, saying, “There’s no direct proof that he was in love with him, but if we don’t follow our nose when these clues are given to us then we’re writing these people out of history.” Those “clues” were apparently unearthed by co-screenwriter Stephen Beresford (best known for winning a “Queer Palm” at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival) from Smith’s battlefield letters to Tolkien. Here’s a representative passage:
My chief consolation is that if I am scuppered tonight there will still be left a member of the TCBS to voice what I dreamed and what we all agreed upon. … May God bless you my dear John Ronald and may you say things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them if such be my lot.
What a sad, emotionally impoverished culture we live in to read in a youthful friendship of shared literary ambition only something sexual. Not surprisingly, given the film’s arrogant bending of Tolkien’s life to check identity boxes that no historical evidence supports, the Tolkien family put out a statement saying it “did not approve of, authorise or participate in the making of this film,” and “do not endorse it or its content in any way.”
At the same time, some relatable facts seem to be too complex for this bland hagiography. Like certain hobbits, the prospect of war at first left Tolkien quaking, and he hesitated before volunteering. Writing to his son Michael, he said, “In those days chaps joined up, or were scorned publicly. It was a nasty cleft to be in for a young man with too much imagination and little physical courage.”
As a writer, of course, he understood the value of showing weakness or fear in even the most likable characters. It also allowed him to highlight the valor of those lower down the social ladder. As he later wrote, “My Sam Gamgee is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognised as so far superior to myself.” Unfortunately, Tolkien’s filmmakers don’t appear to have absorbed these lessons: Their protagonist is never shown to be less than valorous.
Thankfully, at least two more Tolkien biopics are reportedly in the works, one of which focuses on his friendship with C.S. Lewis. The most influential fantasy author of the 20th and 21st centuries may yet see his story told right.
—This is an expanded version of the review that appears in the May 25 print issue.