Review by Jim Wert
DragonCon High Fantasy
Tolkien Enthusiast

Still pondering my reflections on the Tolkien movie.

My bottom line is this is a worthy effort worth any Tolkien fan investing in a ticket to go see. Yes, it’s fictionalized, yes there are portrayals which will bother some of us more inclined toward historical accuracy, yes there are structural issues with the film that will risk pulling a new- or non-Tolkien fan out of the thread and momentum of the film. But there are beautiful moments and themes, and it’s wonderful to see this part of Tolkien’s life — one that many have very little exposure to — portrayed with loving respect on the big screen. And while I don’t agree with all of his choices, the director, Dome Karukoski, is a clear and well-studied fan. It’s his labor of love, even if all don’t love that labor. Respect.

Some of the main things I liked:

Language – its beauty and meaning.
It’s a dominating theme, and true to Tolkien the philologist. His remarkable facility (and GRR Martin’s confession of his own lack of depth in the same area) were clearly portrayed. Some really great scenes both at King Edward’s School, and at Oxford have some real fun with this theme. And. . . you have to admit, it’s remarkable to put “fun” and “philology” in the same sentence.

The Power and Importance of Art.
This was a driver of the original “Tea Club and Barrovian Society,” and it was nice to see this idea integrated well.

The incorporation of Silmarillion Easter eggs.
Neither will be a universal cup of tea (Barrovian or otherwise), but for those who have lingered long in Tolkien’s pre-Hobbit and LotR installment, you will be rewarded with many subtle and intentional allusions.

Some wonderful, gentle humor.
I particularly enjoyed one Wagner reference which I’ll just lay out there.

The soundtrack.
It’s not Howard Shore, but that’s an unfair bar. But I found myself enjoying this aspect of the film more than I had anticipated.

Check out our recently-recorded discussion with Jim (audio and video).

Some of the things, well, not so much:

Historical compression and fictionalization.
I get that this is a biopic, and that “life to film” projects have many of the same challenges as “book to film” ones do. (See, for example, Shadowlands, which deprives CS Lewis and Joy Davidman of an entire son.) Tolkien wrote to Edith immediately on his 21st birthday (Jan. 3, 1913), literally the first possible moment given his obedience to his guardian priest to break off contact to focus on his studies. The two were engaged before the month was out. They were married a couple of months before Tolkien boarded a ship to France and the WW1 front lines. Tolkien commented in his letters: “Parting from my wife then … it was like a death.” I think that’s pretty good stuff, as far as biographies go, and believe it would have been at least as powerful as the alternate universe history that we see on film, and which, in candor, seemed a bit more of a cliched approach.

The timeline jumps between WW1 scenes and pre-war life.
I get that this approach was intentional, and serves the purpose of painting bolder relief between early life influences and the crucible of trench warfare as influences on Tolkien the Artist. But the transitions were jarring at times, and could be disruptive for those less familiar with Tolkien’s life and literary output.

The essential absence of how Tolkien’s faith and Catholicism played such a significant role in his life and work.
His mother was rejected by her family because of her conversion to Catholicism, fueling more than just sadness and a personal sense of responsibility given how limited resources played a role in addressing her illness (diabetes) — Tolkien talks about her in martyr-like ways in his letters. Tolkien insisted that Edith convert to Catholicism upon their engagement, a jarring announcement that got her booted from her lodgings with a family friend at the time. There are subtle Catholic/Christian influences noticeable throughout Tolkien’s works (see his 1952 letter to Robert Murray: “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.” All of this was essentially dropped. Actually, given that Murray letter quote, I suspect that Tolkien wouldn’t have minded much, though he probably would also have been mortified at his life being portrayed in a movie to begin with.

Again, I’m a thumbs up overall! Solid cast, serviceable romance, some really exceptional and memorable scenes, and wonderful to see young JRRT brought to life!

A special thanks to Jim for this review. See more from Jim on Facebook and Twitter!

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