In the new movie Tolkien, war is murder—and sometimes Mordor. Clouds of mustard gas billowing into the trenches of the Somme become the smoke of dragon fire; German soldiers setting men alight with flamethrowers transform into the dragon itself. A young James Ronald Reuel Tolkien staggers across the dark, treeless ruin of no man's land as Frodo would one day stagger toward Mount Doom. As the men around him scream and gurgle, Tolkien sees a dark rider on a black horse sweeping across the battlefield, pausing to skewer the already dying.
Early reviews of Tolkien criticize these moments, the bridges for Lord of the Rings fans that stretch between Middle-earth and the life and mind of the man who built it. To these critics, the illusional allusions are tacky and overdone, a CGI dragon being, it seems, inherently reductive of Tolkien's artistry. Perhaps—but expecting perfect realism from the febrile mind of a man lying in a small pond of other people's blood also seems unrealistic. Who would want to stare down human cruelty when you can delusionally transpose it onto fictional beasts?
Dome Karukoski, the biopic's director, says he tried to hew to Tolkien's own reading of his work. The author felt he owed his landscapes—the Dead Marshes, the Black Gate of Mordor—to the Somme. In death, Tolkien was even more explicit about the connection between his art and life: His and his wife's tombstones are inscribed with the names of two of his fictional characters.
In that light, most of Karukoski's references in Tolkien feel ungratuitously atmospheric, from Shire-evoking shots of the green English countryside to moments where Tolkien's future wife, played by Lily Collins, looks particularly Arwen-esque standing beneath gnarled trees. As for the more explicit sequences, Karukoski says they're not meant to suggest that World War I + flamethrower = the desolation of Smaug. "He's a young man still finding his voice and confronting his own imagination," Karukoski says. "He's building his world at this time. Nothing is finished."
In the half-century since Tolkien's death, all the thoughts anyone seems to have about him are certainties about who he was, what he means, and, most of all, what his legacy deserves. As Tolkien the man has decomposed under that high-concept headstone, he's accrued such weight and extratextual significance that rendering him concrete at all invites hate. The Tolkien family and estate, who were not involved in the making of the movie, released a statement saying that they do not "approve" of Tolkien and "do not endorse it or its content in any way." Before the movie even hit theatres, Karukoski and Nicholas Hoult, who plays Tolkien, felt the need to emphasize that they were fans and that the movie is "respectful."
What respectfulness means, in this context, is entirely subjective. To Karukoski, it's something like empathy and emulation. When describing how he came to be involved with the project, he waxes mythological. "There's a sense of destiny. When I was 12, I was also a miserable, bullied outsider without a father," Karukoski says. "Then I read Lord of the Rings, and those stories became my friends. They shaped me as a storyteller. I recognize the young Tolkien." To others—like some of those dissatisfied critics—respect might have meant matching Tolkien's intellectual rigor, or humanizing him by exploring his relationships, or striving for perfect historical accuracy. Only one thing was certain: Nobody invested in Tolkien as a person was ever going to be completely satisfied.
Tolkien itself offers a way to understand that. In the film, Tolkien's guardian, Father Francis, says: "There's comfort in distance, in ancient things." The notion is central to Tolkien's work, but it also explains why biopics are so often dismissed as tawdry, reductive, and disrespectful. In contemporizing Tolkien, you lose a bit of the flattering, comforting cloud of mythology. Stripped of glamor, Tolkien just looks like a relatively ordinary British man who goes to war and marries the girl next door.
For me, the trouble with Tolkien is less Tolkien and more Tolkien. As a movie, it's sort of like watching a British Dead Poets Society that slowly turns into All Quiet on the Western Front, with hallucinatory knights and dragons. It's conventional and can be quite fun when it's not trying to be highbrow, which seems right for Tolkien. His work endures because it's a familiar blockbuster—the greatest hits of every story told throughout recorded European history, fused into an allegory so sweeping that it's found a home in the imaginations of fans for more than 80 years.
But without Middle-earth, Tolkien doesn't really matter—not to me, anyway. It could be that I'm not the film's intended audience, though I've been a LotR fan since I was 9. The only other people at my screening were three men in their sixties. They guffawed through schoolboy sequences that left me cold and bored.
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I identified with Tolkien when his mind turned fantastical. I enjoyed the interplay between fiction and reality, between fantasy and dissociation. Those are the bits that made sense—looking at a ruined world and, instead of coming away nihilist, seeing that moment reflected in the great metaphorical wheels of history and myth. Tolkien's legacy is his books and everything that came after: Harry Potter, World of Warcraft, Game of Thrones, Led Zeppelin. The man himself, along with the male-dominated times that made him, should stay a footnote.
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