Tolkien, director Dome Kurukoski’s self-proclaimed “labor of love” about the famed author, showcases J.R.R. Tolkien's formative years and life events leading up to the creation of The Hobbit. It follows Tolkien’s most influential relationships—his band of boyhood best friends and his budding relationship with future wife Edith Bratt—his penchant for language, and his dark experiences of World War I. Fans and non-fans alike will appreciate witnessing the myriad of influences and experiences that in his fantasy works, he truly brings to life.
The film opens with Tolkien during the Battle of Somme in France in World War I. With his loyal lieutenant at his side, Tolkien begins a quest to find his best friend, Geoffrey Bach Smith, in the trenches of Somme as he fears that he may be dead. This storyline progresses as the film intermittently flashes backwards to Tolkien’s childhood, which progresses in parallel.
Here are four things to expect, and not to expect, from this brand-new biopic:
1. Tolkien's religion is not a major player.
Unfortunately, one influence that you will not see very much of is Tolkien’s Christian faith. In real life, Tolkien was a devoted Catholic, and was very explicit about that aspect being a part of his writing. In a 1953 letter he reveals "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work… For the religious element is absorbed into the story and symbolism.” The movie, however, is not in any way explicit about the priority that Tolkien’s faith was to him. His relationship with Father Morgan was more of a guardian-to-ward relationship rather than that of a spiritual mentor, and movie-Tolkien sneers at Father Morgan pointing out to him that Edith wasn’t a Catholic—a fact that real-life Tolkien would come to insist on changing.
In an interview about how the film doesn't have the Tolkien family's endorsement, the director states that the creators weren't intentionally trying to downplay religion. More so, because religion is so internal, it was difficult for them to show. The audience can still look for scenes which evoke Christian themes, however, along with many other clues to Tolkien's later work.
2. Look for inspirations of his future writing.
Tolkien hints at many different inspirations for Tolkien's stories throughout the film. Fans familiar with the The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion etc. will enjoy paying attention to every little detail as the plot unfolds. For instance, one scene in which Edith dances for Tolkien as he lays down in an enchanting forest looks a lot like the scene in which the lovers of Beren and Lúthien meet. And as Edith describes her favorite opera, The Ring Cycle by Richard Wagner, her description of the golden ring that can rule the world will sound extremely familiar.
From visuals pointing to Mordor from scenes of the Battle of Somme, to closely-bonded relationships between specific characters like those of Lord of the Rings, to even details like small drawings of future creatures from Tolkien’s notebooks—this is the type of film you will want to rewatch just to catch them. The creators of the film even included elements of Tolkien’s affinity for trees and phonaesthetics, showing themselves to be true admirers of Tolkien’s craft and life’s work.
One thing fans may be disappointed by, though, is a lack of Tolkien's inner processes. The responsibility of connecting the dots between his life and his work falls squarely on the viewers, as a look inside Tolkien's mind through dialogue, voiceover, or otherwise is totally missing. That is not to say that audience members who have not read Tolkien will not appreciate the movie; rather that many of the deeper implications will go unnoticed.
3. The film's structure is reminiscent of Tolkien's writing style.
...which is to say, thematically all over the place. There are many noble themes expressed through the characters: friendship, kindness, bravery, adventure, treasure, and love (etc., etc.). Like Tolkien's writing, the film seems to care more about the journey than the destination. Tolkien liked to draw writers into the world he created: the characters' cultures, languages, and their quests. He was not so concerned with what the readers would take out of his world. The film is much like that.
The film does do an excellent job of summarizing major events of Tolkien's life in many ways very faithful to their actual happenings. Major plot points include the formation of his close group of friends at King Edward's (the self-proclaimed Tea Club, Barrovian Society or T.C.B.S); his stay at Duchess Road under the care of Mrs. Faulkner; his relationship with Edith and its being forbidden by his guardian, Father Morgan; and his education at Oxford leading up to the war.
However, this biopic is much less about the circumstances of Tolkien’s life than it is how those events influenced him, inspired him, and all of the passions he carried with him.
If you are expecting to leave the theater with a single impression or take-away message, you'll have a hard time picking just one.
4. Overall, the feel of Tolkien is very pleasant.
Who doesn't love listening to British accents for two hours? Each of the characters play their part extremely convincingly, to the point you'll be jealous to not be a member of the dashing T.C.B.S yourself. The cinematography is beautiful, the period costume is darling, and the dialogue is quippy and clever.
The cause of Tolkien's PG-13 rating is its violent war scenes. There are parts that are very graphic and bloody. However, as far as inappropriate content goes, the film keeps it pretty clean, minus a couple kissing scenes and a few risqué paintings done by T.C.B.S member Robert Gilson. Apart from its flashforwards to WWI, the remainder of the film could certainly be categorized as 'family friendly.'
Kurukoski directs an aesthetic, moving, and authentic story that will not only appeal to fans and non-fans of Tolkien's work, but will even likely convert them.
Fox Searchlight’s Tolkien opens in theaters on May 10, starring Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins, and directed by Dome Kurukoski.
Photo Credit: ©Los Angeles Times