Tolkien (Movie Review)
A De-Christianized Celebration of a Great Christian Writer
About the Film
J. R. R. Tolkien is one of the most beloved and cherished authors in history. The Lord of the Rings has been cited as the best-selling book in the English language (when counted as a single volume, as Tolkien himself intended). Tolkien tells the story of his early life and explores the events that may have inspired his later writings.
To be perfectly clear of my own biases: I currently have a Tolkien calendar in my office, a large map of Middle-Earth in my library, and an entire bookshelf dedicated to him and his friends, and already this year I have reread The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit, and Humphry Carpenter’s definitive biography on the Inklings. Tolkien is my literary hero. As such, I approached this film with equal parts excitement and trepidation. In the end, both feelings were validated. I loved much this film but with one significant caveat.
On the Surface—(Profanity, Sexual content, violence, etc.).
There are a couple minor profanities. There is also a brief scene where a character shows his friends two paintings of semi-nude women. Throughout the film there are scenes depicting war and violence.
Beneath the Surface— (Themes, philosophical messages, worldview, etc.)
- Historical Accuracy
The first question most people ask of a biopic is whether it is historically accurate. The answer is mostly yes. The film is largely faithful to the events, although many of the details have been Hollywood-ized. Historical chronology is shuffled for increased dramatic effect, and details of Tolkien and Edith Bratt’s romance is adjusted to make a more traditional Hollywood love story.
Important to note is that Tolkien is clearly hagiographical. This is not a biopic that searches the closet for skeletons. The film is an almost ethereal celebration of the beloved author, with only soft hints toward his flaws and struggles. Since his death, he has become an almost saint-like figure to many people and the film treats him like one. This might disappoint some viewers, but I was glad for it. Sometimes it’s best to allow our heroes to remain heroes.
The biggest question I had was how the film would handle Tolkien’s devout Catholicism. The answer is—it doesn’t. Tolkien’s religion, which was such a formative and central aspect of his entire life, is almost entirely pushed to the side. Father Francis (the priest who becomes Tolkien’s guardian after the death of his mother) provides the only link to that spiritual aspect of Tolkien’s life. Unfortunately, Tolkien is the latest victim of Hollywood’s cold feet about Christianity (similar to how the recent movie adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time was stripped of Madeleine L’Engle’s theological underpinnings)
In Tolkien, the famed author’s inspirations are exclusively “earthly.” Tolkien is motivated and inspired by historical events rather than by personal beliefs or ideologies. Absent are any allusions to his powerful convictions and philosophies of sub-creation and mythopoeia. The film suggests that Tolkien’s motivation was a desire to change the world through his Art; rather than a desire to create art as a means of worship to the God who created the world itself. The film delights in finding inspirations at almost every turn—Ringwraiths roam the battlefield, dragons join the Nazi attack during the Battle of Somme, and Tolkien’s tea club of schoolboy artists becomes a “fellowship.” Everything in Tolkien’s life is fodder to foreshadow his later writings—just not his religious faith. This was not unexpected, but is no less disappointing.
Tolkien is a competently crafted film, although I suspect that a person’s enjoyment of it will depend largely on their feelings toward Tolkien himself. To those indifferent to the author, they may find the film a bore or be turned off by the angelic reverence he is treated with. As someone who adores and feels indebted to Tolkien, I greatly enjoyed the movie. I’m disappointed that Hollywood continues to shy away from acknowledging the importance of religion in many of the classic artists and stories. At the same time, I own several biographies that provide a more historically accurate account of his life and my own knowledge of his religious conviction and worldview allowed me to fill in the narrative gaps. All I desired from the film was the chance to spend two hours with one of my heroes, and in this, the film delivered.