Most people like to read a well-written story. The question is, how do you make the writing of that story interesting? That's the challenge facing the makers of this film, an attempted biopic of the author of The Lord of the Rings. It's a challenge that confronts the project right out of the starting gate, and director Dome Karukoski was given a daunting task when he signed on. His job was to take the life of one of the most well known and revered authors around the globe, and try to make an interesting story out of his life. Whether he succeeded or not is the big question.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, on the 3rd of January, 1892. His existence started in South Africa, yet in a way he never really lived there. The first impact the region left on him was the ill-effects of the climate on his health. Because his mother was worried for his safety, father Arthur Tolkien had his wife Mabel and her two sons, John and Hilary, packed off to England to live with her relatives in and near the county of Sarehole, in Birmingham England. Arthur never saw any of them again.
In short order, Tolkien's father was taken away by Rheumatic Fever,
leaving Mabel as a single mother with two boys to raise on her own. For
a time, she was able to rely on the kindness of her her family the
Suffielfs. However, this was an age when the phrase "Bog-Trotter" was
still used as a derogatory term for the Irish in general, and Irish
Catholics in particular. There has to be an interesting psychological
study to be made about the mental hold that prejudice can have even over
an entire family when one of their own is seen as "stepping out of
line". In any case, Mabel's personal decisions left her estranged from
her own family, or perhaps the alienation was always there and it just
got turned on her. Either way, Mabel Tolkien was soon on her own; for a
time at least.
Help and support soon came in the form of Fr. Francis Morgan, who was able to provide room and board for Mabel and her children. He was also able to see to it that Ronald and Hilary were both able to have an actual education. Part of this education consisted in reading, and from an early age John Ronald took an avid interest in the nature of words, their meanings, and the history in back of each and every one of them. It wasn't long before Fr. Morgan was able to get Tolkien to learn and understand other languages. For reasons that were never all that clear to him, even as an old college professor, the words of the Finnish anthology of Norse Myths, The Kalevala, always had the same imaginative effect on him. It seems to have won the de facto place of being the author's favorite book.
In addition to the Norse Legends, there was the usual list of suspects for children in the Edwardian Age, such as Robert Louis Stevenson and James Fenimore Cooper, along with Merlin and King Arthur. The curious part is that, while it left an impact, nothing seems to have happened with Tolkien's own imagination during these early years. He didn't start writing his first set of poems until well after his mother's passing, when he was beginning to make an approach toward Oxford University. In that time, he had also met Edith Bratt, another orphan like himself, and the two began as sweethearts and ended as man and wife.
It was only on the cusp of war that Tolkien's imagination shook itself awake. It was sometime in 1910 when Tolkien was studying and old poem titled Crist, by the Medieval poet Cynewulf. All he did was read over a simple number of lines. A rough translation, mixing both Modern and Old English is provided by Douglas A. Anderson in his Annotated Hobbit, and goes more or less as follows: "Hail Earendel, brightest of angels over middle earth, sent unto men (4)". It seems to have been the moment that started it all.
In addition to a grounding in both the study of words, and a fairly decent familiarity with the fantasies of the Victorian Era, the final ingredient that shaped Tolkien and his writings was the friends he made while a student at Oxford, and what happened to them. It was during this time, as an undergraduate, that Tolkien made the acquaintance of Christopher Wiseman, Geoffrey Bache Smith, and Robert Gilson. They met each other in a gradual fashion, as most friendships tend to develop, yet it surprisingly wasn't long before each individual began to think of themselves as members of a club. The name they gave to themselves was the Tea Club - Barrovian Society. They would often meet together in one of Oxford's college libraries to to discuss art, the contemporary scene, and sometimes read and critique the writings or poems that some of them had made.
This seemed to be one of the most favorite moments of Tolkien's life. Part of it may have had to do with the fact that he was able to form a slow engagement with Edith that looked like it might turn out to be serious. It was also during this time that Tolkien's imagination began to show signs of life. He'd begun to write snatches of verse or poetry, and a lot of it centered around embellishments of the Norse myths that the writer adored as a child. The interesting part was how the fragments of verse soon began to show signs of coming together to form a series of greater narrative wholes. References to the same set of locations and characters, Earendel, Gondolin, Numenor, would continue to crop up. As Tolkien was to write years later in The Hobbit: "It was a turning point in his career, but he did not know it (115)".
It has to be stressed that while Tolkien was ultimately the sole author in these efforts, it is possible that none of this would have amounted to much if he never had a group of peers who served as an attentive audience for his efforts. This is where Gilson, Wiseman, and Smith all proved pivotal to Tolkien's development as an artist. They were each willing to listen to his efforts, sometimes even the teeth of fundamental disagreements with Tolkien's ideas or his aims, and offer the most helpful criticism they could in order to help their scribbling young friend to produce the best possible art. It was here in this academic milieu that the earliest concept of Middle Earth began to take shape. Then a man nobody had ever heard of assassinated the Archduke Ferdinand, one thing led to another, and Tolkien and his friends found themselves drafted into the Great War. "And so it goes".
That war really seems to be have been the final ingredient to Tolkien's inspiration. It was also a neat check on whatever hubris a callous young undergrad can muster in the prime of his youth. The war was not just a crisis for the world, but also for Tolkien on a personal level. While Tolkien, like millions of other vets from that time, suffered his fair share of trauma, the greater challenge World War I presented was that it forced him to rethink the way he wrote. It left behind a question that was to preoccupy the author for the rest of his life. What does it mean for Romanticism to come of age?
In order to understand the above phrase, it's important to realize just how much of a change was effected by the War. It was in a very real sense a cutoff point. Before 1914 there was still the lingering presence of the Victorian Age in Tolkien's lifetime. This was an interesting set of opposites involving the pastoral, rural side of English life set against the burgeoning Industrial life of the cities. The greatest irony from the current vantage point is just how quaint that opposition now seems in a post-industrial world. At the time, however, the War seemed like the total triumph of the Machine Age. It was felt that a decisive victory was made by the old plowing away the new. In a real sense, England's Victorian ethos did vanish vanish with the onset of hostilities. When the smoke cleared the world Tolkien knew growing up was gone, and so were all but one of his friends.
The new world that greeted him, along with other survivors, was traumatized and uncertain. The Roaring 20s were perhaps the ultimate response to all this. That decade saw the throwing away of all previous conventions, and this was noticed in the field of the arts, where you had the advent of styles like Modernism in literature, and Impressionism in painting. T.S. Eliot was able to provide a sense of the disillusion of the times with his publication of a cycle of poems titled The Waste Land.
For Tolkien, the question seemed to revolve, in part, around whether there was still a place for the sort of Victorian Romanticism he grew up on as a child. He fervently believed it was possible to have an affirmative answer to this question. The trick, he realized, was that in a world that had been forced to grow up under the shadow of war, the fantasy itself had to take a different approach. This method of attack would be very similar to that of Eliot's Modernism. It would take a jaundiced view on the traditional, jingoistic ideas of heroism that were presented in works of authors like Rudyard Kipling. This can be seen in the way Thorin Oakenshield is always somehow fundamentally unprepared for the hardships and necessary sacrifices of his own quest, or in the personal weaknesses of figures like Theoden and Denethor. At the same time, while Tolkien would disassemble this false identity of what a hero is supposed to be, he never once abandoned heroism itself.
I think Tolkien's definition of Romanticism come of age is best represented in the parting words Thorin gives to Bilbo near the end of The Hobbit: "There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world (348)". This is not to say that sometimes it may be necessary step up and defend the things that need to be fought for. It is simply that Tolkien always wanted his readers to know the real value of the things that define and make someone a real hero. That is how you show that Romanticism has an actual place in the affairs of life. It's a very subtle thematic element, yet I think it is this, more than all the grand spectacle, that has made the work of J.R.R. Tolkien resonate with so many readers to this very day.
A Half-Hearted Puppet Show.
Perhaps it is too much to ask of any filmmaker to get everything right about the life of a favorite author, especially one so beloved as Tolkien. I just wish the film had shown signs that it's heart was in the right place, and was giving its all, whatever the limitations. That would have been the sort of movie where I could come away saying, it's not great, but it's definitely something to see. Instead I'm left wondering just how much the people who made this flick were ever really interested in the subject matter.
The opening moments are confusing in a way that could put most audiences off-kilter. That's a bad strategy when put in it's proper context. It's understandable that the filmmakers wanted to grab their audiences attention and hold them. This is an alright goal in itself. The problem is the way the film introduces itself just makes it clear that the director was desperate to keep the viewers engaged, regardless of the content of the story being shown up on the screen. The trouble is you can see the desperation up there as well, and all that serves to just put a barrier between the two parties necessary for a story to get off the ground. That's the wrong foot to start on if you want to entertain.
The additional of a fictional "bat man" character just serves to compound the desperation that the story finds itself in. It becomes obvious soon enough that the filmmakers don't trust general audiences to know enough about who Tolkien is, or what he wrote to be familiar enough to take any kind of real interest in the movie's subject matter. Let's set aside for a moment the most logical charge that the filmmakers don't really know their audiences, and so are just plain out of touch.
Instead, let's find out what happens when we decide to take the makers at their word. Suppose the remarkable possibility that most people really never have known all that much about Tolkien, or The Lord of the Rings, except perhaps for the general background info that some guy named Jackson made a series of films that did real well sometime back. What then? The irony is that if such is the case, then it almost becomes a mistake to try and make this film in the first place. If pre-awareness of Tolkien is so limited that only a handful of geeks and nerds will ever know much about the man and his books at any given time, then that very fact would mean that even trying to get general audiences interested in a biopic of the man who invented Hobbits is doomed to fail before it even got off the ground. So why bother. The trouble with this line of thinking is that it just leaves the possibility that the studios were desperate for money as the most likely outcome. If that were the case, then the whole enterprise sounds like a ship of fools.
There are scenes that show Tolkien as a child always hanging just a bit back from the games and hi-jinks the other kids who would otherwise be his peers and contemporaries. This is at least some effort to highlight that fact that Tolkien did often appear as something of a loner throughout his life. This stems from an unsettled home life where his mother often had to move around a lot due to her financial circumstances. Still, it seems like the director is just having a hard time making these scenes come together right. It's difficult to put a finger on what's missing, yet it's like a tune that you know just sounds off-key in some way.
Also, I could be wrong, but does it make sense for Tolkien to have missing father issues, when in the strictest sense, Arthur Tolkien was never around long enough for his son to even get much of a general idea of who he was? Wouldn't that leave more of a blank slate? Wouldn't the natural tendency be more of a sense of freedom without knowing quite where to start or go on to? That should be the note that a film portrayal of Tolkien as a child could have. Instead, the director has gone with the choice to have things play out on a strange, solemn note that makes everything come out flat and one-dimensional.
This Tolkien acts as if something bad has already happened to him, and everything that happens afterward is robbed of it's narrative impact as a result. In addition, there was a surprising resiliency to Tolkien in real life. It's one of the qualities that is able to draw so many people to not just his books, but to his life story. In contrast, the movie version tends to come off as a blank chess pawn that shows little to no emotional range except for the minimum of whatever is necessary from one scene to the next. This is another tactic that just serves to wall the viewer off from the character.
In addition it lends a passive note to the character that just makes it all the more harder to care about what happens to him. This is a mistake that even greats like Charles Dickens could be guilty of. The trouble with a character like Oliver Twist and this version of Tolkien is that the author has chosen to render them as ciphers. To be fair, this may not have had to be any kind of problem if they've found a narrative through-line that was sufficient to hold everyone's interest in the events of the story. While Dickens could sometimes succeed in the endeavor, the director and writer of the biopic seem to not know what to do with their material. In moments like these, it's easy to wish that everybody had just gone back to square one and start from scratch.
The choice to go with ciphers instead of characters also means that this flattening out effects the other characters around the main protagonist. Through it all, it's like watching a set of mannequins going through a series of automated paces for a certain amount of run time. The result is more like an over-priced store window display, rather than a story. It doesn't help that the narrative has been given such a fast pace that we never hold on any scene long enough to become invested. This means that when we do reach importance moments where the pacing is a given a pause, it means nothing as there has been no time to make a connection with an ostensibly real group of people. This is most evident when it comes to treating the material that was nearest and dear to Tolkien's heart.
The scenes where his mother reads to him from the Legend of Sigurd are a stale and boring affair, when it's precisely here that the film should have come alive. Maybe it would have helped if these moments had feature a more mixed media where, after Mum says it's time to begin, we have a transition to a richly illustrated mythic landscape where we are shown Sigurd battling the dragon Fafnir. Sadly, the audience has to make do with just the briefest flashes of heroes on horseback in a random countryside, scrunched in between scenes of the actors having to pantomime everything. The whole thing looks as if the editor decided to pick up some unused footage from a Led Zeppelin concert off the cutting room floor.
This is a limitation that the filmmakers seem aware of when they give Tolkien's mother a speech where she draws attention to how their predicament resembles that of characters from old Victorian novels. Again, this is an old narrative device that could have worked if they had taken their time with the characters and fleshed them out more. Then the speech would have had a nice familiar ring that, far from drawing us out of the story, would have instead served to bring us further up and further in. It's a real pity everyone seems to be in too much of a hurry. Also, is it just me, or are they going a bit too broad with the industrial hell-scapes of Birmingham, when a more sedate and gray-bleak Dickensian tone would have done perhaps a bit more to suggest the nature of the character's plight?
The worst comes when we get to the parts everyone is most familiar with, the writings and creation of Middle Earth, and its most famous inhabitants. Sadly, even this is unable to escape the flat and unemotional aesthetic that the film has saddled itself with. When Tolkien tries to share his art with his family, it is yet another dramatic high point that comes off as just a few more samples of rote information. Everything is part of a list that is being checked off one narrative beat at a time. This is the wrong approach to take with something as big as the creation of Tolkien's mythology.
It would be nice if I could find at least one element out of this entire
film that could be considered worthy of at least some kind of praise.
Sadly, the overall rote-by-numbers approach suggests that the makers
just didn't care all that much about the heart and soul of the
material. For them, Tolkien was less a creative personality whose life
and working methods could tell us a lot of about human creativity.
Instead, for the suits behind this film, the author and his works are
best often thought of as more like brand names than works of art with
something like a genuine personality behind it all. It is a
disappointing cash grab, nothing more. The biggest concern here seems
to have been how to make a quick buck.
There is perhaps an irony of sorts at work here. It's difficult to imagine a way of translating all of this onto the big screen in a way that would please everyone. Perhaps that's sort of the point. People tend to invest in books such as LOTR on such a personal level that it can never satisfy anyone when it becomes concrete on any kind of screen. If that is the case, then the best advice I can offer is either to stick with the books and leave it at that, or else, to each their own.
When it comes to trying to tell of the creation of these famous works, I can't help thinking the documentary approach is the right way to go. John Garth has written a non-fiction study of Tolkien's experiences, entitled Tolkien and the Great War. The author combines an admirable sense of historical detail with a gripping narrative voice that is able to keep the reader turning the pages in order to see what happens. The most important aspect is that Garth relates the development of Middle Earth, and how Tolkien's combat experience played into it in an almost seamless fashion. There has been at least one 30 minute study of this period in Tolkien's life. One hopes that this snippet could be expanded to feature length, with greater detail given to the shaping of Tolkien's secondary world.