Best attempts to translate a classic fantasy from page to the big screen can be fraught with fiery danger. But attempting to render the author’s own story is even riskier. Producers’ most ingenious endeavors can “stand on the edge of a knife.”

Across previous months, we have joined the ranks of Tolkien fans and scholars round the globe in great anticipation and trepidation. Fortunately, the TOLKIEN movie does not disappoint, at least not entirely. Be warned. The film conveys raw realism in the sights and sounds, the bravery and the bloodbath of The Great War. This TOLKIEN film is not for the faint of heart, and so it reveals why in the years to come, Tolkien’s adventures and quests call forth for greater courage. There are bold choices to be made. Tolkien’s heart-and-soul character themes of valor over fear, good over evil, generosity over greed, and light over darkness all had their seeds in the ugly trenches of WWI as well as the scholarly halls and lush green fields of his early years. The film captures such backstory in remarkable ways.

Upon our early screening, we see a bucket of quite beautiful features but also two shadowy pitfalls.

The oh-so-beautiful and captivating

First, the film’s overall rendering is gorgeous and artsy in nature and texture. On this point, let’s be clear. The TOLKIEN biopic was not crafted for quick consumption by casual fandom. No cheap thrills or eye candy here. Viewers are forced to think and feel on deeper levels. This is truly tremendous! The new film delivers an emotionally stirring, poignant backstory to the beloved Professor’s developmental years. On so many levels, the film successfully portrays a brilliant interplay of sights, sounds, themes, and personages. This big screen story masterfully spotlights the vital influences and influencers that made Tolkien such a virtuoso of story for the rest of his life.

Second, its characterization is compelling. Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins portray Ronald and Edith with vibrant believability and tenderness. Viewers cannot help but buy in with empathy and anticipation. No doubt the biopic takes some serious, albeit necessary, liberties in portraying their growing romance. (How could anyone really know exactly how the original Beren and Lúthien flirted or what exactly they whispered to one another as young lovers.) This facet is no doubt some reason for pause by the Tolkien Estate. (But think about it. Which of us would really feel enthusiastic about outsiders attempting to portray the early love story between our long-gone parents of grandparents?) We are treated to a Ronald and Edith who are seriously likeable and salty-sweet all at the same time. Romantic chemistry is conveyed in a manner that is captivating, even innocently, playfully sensual, but in a holy way. One of the film’s foundational themes is the power of committed love, both whom to love and how to love with ferocious sincerity. Tolkien’s growing affection and commitment with Edith supply a front-and-center example of such deeply faithful love.

Third, its staging details are wonderful! The movie’s musical score is beautifully moving. (Nice work, Thomas Newman!) Costumes are on point, period-precise. Such attention to detail helps readers truly feel the fabric and textures of the time period. Cinematography is masterful, delivered via a warm color palette, accentuated by bold and thoughtful movement. You can’t help but bask in the gold-tone vibrancy.

Fourth, passionate students of Tolkien will love the avid attention to the professor’s pervasive symbolism. Flickering spark (watch for it from start to finish!), dragon flame, gloomy shadow, dark riders, golden rings, trees, vivid green, treasure, stars, pipes, and horses—these and many other classic symbols are winsomely woven throughout the film. They dance on walls and waltz through Tolkien’s own wrestling psyche. At times the film’s portrayal of rich symbolism is blatant, while other times it’s oh-so-subtle. Wise and playful viewers will give very careful attention from start to finish. Pretend you are working out riddles with Gollum. The writers and producers layer the images and even “hide” them for playful surprise and punctuated meaning.

The fifth thing we love, love, love is the central theme. The film delivers way more than a love story. Yes, a core theme is indeed sacrificial love, but the even stronger, next-level theme is the love of devoted friends. It’s a Sam and Frodo kind of love that does not disappoint. This is principally delivered through the story’s careful retelling of Tolkien’s oh-so-close brotherhood with Christopher Wiseman, Robert Gilson, and Geoffrey Smith. The emergence of their foursome fellowship—the famous TCBS—and then their treacherous war experiences provide a powerful backdrop and enlightened understanding for the prominent role of the Company in Tolkien’s eventual tales of Middle-earth. The film’s revelations in this relational arena are marvelously on point with Tolkien’s own Letters and subsequent analysis by Tolkien scholarship. Having a life Fellowship truly matters.

One more absolute slam-dunk success for the movie is portrayal of the prominence of language in the Professor’s development. Tolkien’s growing love of language and his emerging philological bent are woven throughout the film. One especially powerful scene occurs as the struggling student Tolkien meets and then takes a walk amid trees with Professor Wright. Wright challenged young Tolkien: “A word without meaning is what? Merely a sound.” Wright’s wisdom echoes similar strong sentiment shared by Edith in an earlier scene and helps reveal Tolkien’s passionate pursuit of language. He was forever motivated to convey words that deeply, truly mattered on multiple levels.

The shadowy pitfalls

There are two serious cringe-factors for us. (Go ahead. Admit it. You’d be disappointed if we didn’t have at least a little snobby pushback.) But we are very serious. These bothered us, and we think they will bother serious Tolkien enthusiasts.

First, the back and forth interplay of war scenes with Tolkien’s own flashbacks to his younger years delivers a very unique storyline. This felt compelling, at first. However, there are points where such a device becomes tedious and over-used. As a result, the plot feels mildly sluggish at some junctures. We scratch our heads. How does a film that sets out to tell the tale of the Master of Suspense and Plot end up somewhat less than suspenseful?

But there is a deeper and bloodier pitfall of this film. Committed Tolkien historians will complain—and we concur—that the film lacks serious attention to Tolkien’s religious influencers. Father Francis appears briefly and the Church is given slight mention. However, the film does not begin to give ample space for how Christ, the biblical story, the Church, and Christian thought played a foundational role in the forming of Tolkien and his life’s work. Tolkien’s own Letters as well as his great Essay reveal what a remarkable influence his faith had on his work as a sub-creator. His love of words, rich images, and haunting characters sprang up from his deeply committed Christian faith. This is at best mildly portrayed in the film.

Leveling this charge, we long to be fair (while not spoiling anything). There is a bold symbol of all-out love and gracious sacrifice embedded at a pivotal point. It’s subtle, quick, but stunning! Again, watch very carefully. Let’s have some fun. When you watch the movie, if you successfully find it, let us know in the comments bar—without spoiling it or giving it away please! 

There’s one final facet that we do indeed love as the Eucatastrophe team. The film masterfully portrays Tolkien’s own eucatastrophe. Here’s a young man who experiences deep, deep loss, romantic rejection, economic depression, and the all-out dark shadow. Yet he looks up and experiences the good turn, his own transformational good news amid the catastrophe that truly changes his entire future. Masterfully, the movie captures moments where Tolkien himself dares to see that star and experience the joyful turn, to embrace bright hope, love, and courage. And think of it. Because of young Tolkien’s eucatastrophe, we have the capacity to encounter ultimate gracious good in our own stories today.

As you might imagine, we believe Ilúvatar’s original Silmarillion elves would give this film at least 4 stars, maybe even their 4.5-star endorsement on such good grounds. Portrayal of Tolkien’s own eucatastrophe proves powerful.

Go watch TOLKIEN. Watch carefully and thoughtfully. Then take some friends and go see it again. Then go for a coffee or a pint to discuss what you saw. Solve the riddle. Discover that gracious, sacrificial love and the faithful friendship of passionate fellowship. Enjoy!     

Best attempts to translate a classic fantasy from page to the big screen can be fraught with fiery danger. But attempting to render the author’s own story is even riskier. Producers’ most ingenious endeavors can “stand on the edge of a knife.”

Across previous months, we have joined the ranks of Tolkien fans and scholars round the globe in great anticipation and trepidation. Fortunately, the TOLKIEN movie does not disappoint, at least not entirely. Be warned. The film conveys raw realism in the sights and sounds, the bravery and the bloodbath of The Great War. This TOLKIEN film is not for the faint of heart, and so it reveals why in the years to come, Tolkien’s adventures and quests call forth for greater courage. There are bold choices to be made. Tolkien’s heart-and-soul character themes of valor over fear, good over evil, generosity over greed, and light over darkness all had their seeds in the ugly trenches of WWI as well as the scholarly halls and lush green fields of his early years. The film captures such backstory in remarkable ways.

Upon our early screening, we see a bucket of quite beautiful features but also two shadowy pitfalls.

The oh-so-beautiful and captivating

First, the film’s overall rendering is gorgeous and artsy in nature and texture. On this point, let’s be clear. The TOLKIEN biopic was not crafted for quick consumption by casual fandom. No cheap thrills or eye candy here. Viewers are forced to think and feel on deeper levels. This is truly tremendous! The new film delivers an emotionally stirring, poignant backstory to the beloved Professor’s developmental years. On so many levels, the film successfully portrays a brilliant interplay of sights, sounds, themes, and personages. This big screen story masterfully spotlights the vital influences and influencers that made Tolkien such a virtuoso of story for the rest of his life.