Rave Reviews by Jean E. Eustance February 2020
I watched the DVD of the movie Tolkien which is available through the Pine Bush Area Public Library. Doing a movie of a writer’s life can be problematic. As someone else said, if you film a writer writing, all you see is someone staring at a piece of paper in a typewriter. For a writer, the action takes place firmly between the ears. There isn’t much to see, and movies depend on what you can see.
I have read the authorized biography, and also some other books about J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and their friends. I found this film to be set before the times of the things I knew about, and I found it hard to slog through. It is set in his youth. It ends just as he is writing the first line of The Hobbit. I wanted to see him write wonderful things, and instead the film is about the time before all that. The movie is hard to understand and it’s dull.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s life there were three things. The first and greatest of these was the Story. He was a writer and he had stories to tell. He himself said, “This tale grew in the telling.” If you look at The Lord of the Rings you see it runs over 1000 pages. It took him years to finish and he drove his publishers mad, because he was a world-class procrastinator.
The second was his never-ending group of men friends. In boyhood, he had several friends who with him formed a group called the T.C.B.S. This is important in the movie Tolkien. They stuck together, even into the carnage of World War I, where two of the young men were killed. In later life, he had the Inklings who were his friends at Oxford, and they read their unpublished writings to each other every week. They concentrated on what was giving them problems right at that moment. These people turned out to be important writers, including C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. And Tolkien, of course, Tolkien.
The third thing in his life was Edith Bratt, who married him. In the movie, she is important. In the biographies and the commentaries about Tolkien, she comes in a poor third.
These three remain: Faith, Hope and Love. (First Corinthians, Chapter 13.) In Tolkien’s world it was Friendship, Edith and Story, and the greatest of these was Story.
The movie Tolkien is set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s early life before he wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Some of the movie is about when his mother took the two boys (John Ronald Reuel and his younger brother Hilary) from the English countryside to the industrial mess of the city of Birmingham. For the young J.R.R. it was like being torn from The Shire and stuck in Mordor.
After that, he went to a school called King Edward’s. In the movie, there was a bit of a scrum during a rugby match, and the headmaster punished a boy called R.Q. Gilson, and J.R.R. Tolkien by decreeing that they must do everything together. This would either make them hate each other forever, or make them into friends. The other boy happened to be the son of the headmaster, so it was a surprise to me that he would be punished. But those two, and two others became firm friends. They went to war, and two died, and Christopher Wiseman and J.R.R. Tolkien lived. Tolkien later named his third son Christopher.
I wish we could see how J.R.R. Tolkien came up with his ideas of The Shire and Mordor and Sauron. In the World War I scenes, there is a tower going up in flames, and when a bomb bursts, the red blast grows eyes and a snout and becomes a dragon. There are images of what could be the Nazgul mounted on their dreadful horses. There isn’t as much foreshadowing of Middle-earth and The War of the Rings as I would like to see. As said, the action really takes place between a writer’s ears.
I enjoyed seeing Colm Meany play Father Francis. I did not recognize his voice, but finally thought that the shape of that man’s head looked familiar. Sure enough, it was him. (He was in Star Trek’s Deep Space Nine.) Another fascinating actor was Derek Jacobi playing Professor Wright who helped J.R.R. get into the correct place in Oxford University.
In this movie, Tolkien meets his true love, Edith Bratt, and is separated from her by his guardian, Father Francis. There is much made of the love affair and how she influenced him. There is a scene with Edith dancing for him, in the forest. J.R.R. cast her as Luthien Tinuviel, the immortal elf maiden, and himself as the mortal man, Beren. This shows up first in The Fellowship of the Ring, when Strider is reciting a long poem about doomed love. The full story is found in The Silmarillion.
If you have read much about J.R.R. Tolkien and his wife Edith you would see how he neglected his family when he taught at Oxford. Some of this was for the sake of writing his books, and some so he could go talk to his men friends about writing. There is a brief scene in the movie about how he would not eat with his family because he was in his room, writing.
We see a little about him neglecting his family while writing, but nothing about neglecting them for the sake of the Inklings in Oxford. In real life, he was reading his work to the Inklings but it was not shown in the movie. The emphasis here is on his earlier life, and the T.C.B.S. group.
In fact, the film ends just where it should be finally getting interesting: Tolkien sits down and writes by hand, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” And that is where the film ends. I was disappointed. I wanted to watch him create Middle-earth.
He put his wife on a pedestal and left her there. Tolkien had his own life in Oxford, and did not always pay attention to Edith, or come home and help out around the house. He had better things to do. In his books, likewise, the women are put on pedestals and abandoned there. The books are filled with men, active men, and very few women. In this movie, that is not obvious. Edith seems more influential than she appears in books about Tolkien. There is more of a love story with a satisfying feel to it, in the movie Tolkien, than you will find in the books about him.
But maybe how the real story ends is what matters. In England, if you go to the graveyard where they are buried, you will find her name carved on the gravestone, and then “Luthien” and under Tolkien’s name is carved “Beren.”
Maybe it’s true. Maybe these three remain: Faith, Hope and Love. But the greatest of these is Love.