Recommendation — Tolkien

A plain gold ring lying on a stone surface.
It is WAY to hard to find a good stock photo of a single plain gold ring…
Photo by Kseniia Lopyreva on

To clarify, when I say “Tolkien”, I mean the 2019 movie, not, say “everything Tolkien actually wrote” — though you can pick up pretty much any given one of his works and find something really, really good.

As for the movie, it’s probably somewhere above average as a movie.

It is, uh, less so as a biography.

Fundamentally, it’s a bad biography of the actual J.R.R. Tolkien (“John Ronald Reuel”; “Jonald” to his friends). But it’s actually a pretty compelling story about an author.

The theatrical poster for 2019's "Tolkien".
Tolkien: Searchlight Pictures. Via IMDB.

Let me put it this way: Tolkien had the approval of neither the Tolkien Estate or the Tolkien Society and didn’t have the rights to any of Tolkien’s published works — so, instead of mentioning any of his books by name, the characters just make a lot of vague allusions by dropping words like “rings” and “fellowship”.

Like, if the movie was a completely fictional account and they changed the Tolkien to, say, Johnny McWritesBooks, the film would have been pretty well received as a fairly emotional love story and commentary on the life of an artist.

The movie gets the broad strokes of Tolkien’s life right: orphaned at a young age, fostered by a priest, fell in love with a woman he wasn’t allowed to see until he was 21, had a core group of friends from school, saw most of those friends die during World War I, studied at Oxford, became Oxford professor.

Stole a bus.

A double-decker bus in London. Photo by Oleg Magni on
Probably not this one.
Photo by Oleg Magni on

However, the film does play pretty fast and loose with the specific details. To be fair, that is also true of most film versions of real people and events.

The most glaring issue, at least if you’re familiar with the course of the real Tolkien’s life and career, is that the film portrays him as writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in the trenches. He wrote The Hobbit as a bedtime story for his kids, and it wasn’t even part of the Middle-earth stories initially, and Lord of the Rings came about when his publisher asked for a sequel.

Famously, it was the stories that ultimately formed the core of The Silmarillion that Tolkien was writing first and continued to work one while a soldier and while convalescing after getting sick on the front.

And the World War I influence is pretty clear on this stories, to the point that the Balrogs are riding tanks in the earliest versions of the Fall of Gondolin.

Also, while most of the audience probably won’t care, the movie managed to make a lot of Catholic media rather indignant by completely neglecting Tolkien’s Catholicism.

Photo by Fede Roveda on

Sidebar: one of Tolkien’s major influences was an Anglo-Saxon Advent poem called the Christ I (that’s a one; it’s the first of the poems titled “Christ” in the Exeter Book).

The poem contains the line: “Hail Earendel, brightest angel over Middle Earth sent to Men”, which Tolkien evidently took and ran with, giving us the greatest of mariners who went on to slay the greatest dragon ever to exist with his magic space-boat and became Venus.

A sky full of stars above some snowy mountains. Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on
He’s up there somewhere…
Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on

Again, to be fair, it’s clear that the filmmakers are trying to make the most uncontroversial, conventionally appealing film possible, and in-depth discussions of religion are rarely conducive to that. Also, I’m not entirely sure how you’d portray on screen.

Of course, you could always have a couple scenes of him going to church, or something…

Anyway, like I said, it’s a good movie in general. It’s just not a good Tolkien biography. Which is probably a problem given that the movie is, you know, called Tolkien.

Now, if you know absolutely nothing about Tolkien’s life in, uh, real life, you’ll probably learn something about him, though not anything you couldn’t learn better or more accurately elsewhere.

The University of Oxford's Radcliffe Camera building. Photo by Lina Kivaka on
Again: no good pictures of rings, so here’s Oxford’s Radcliffe Camera…
Photo by Lina Kivaka on

And the thing is, the performances are all pretty solid, the dialogue is well-written, well-delivered and some of the vague allusions to Tolkien’s works that the film is legally not allowed to talk about directly are actually really funny (“Who needs six hours to tell a story about a ring?”).

You’d be better served actually learning something about the real Tolkien by watching this video:

Which has a recommendation of its own, by the way.

But if you want a fairly enjoyably way to spend a couple hours learning about a fictional character who resembles but is legally distinct from the real Tolkien, Tolkien the movie is a solid option.

Copyright 2021 J.B. Norman

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