I don’t know if it is rumour or just the coolness of the social media age, but über Tolkien fan Stephen Colbert has been sent a copy of John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth. I can’t verify the veracity of such a claim, but it is a timely legend to emerge. The new Tolkien biopic is released this week, and I am rereading Garth’s book before I catch the film this weekend.
I already talked here about how I have some tentative hope about the film. Recognizing its limitations, and knowing that there are dozens of high-profile nasty reviews already out on the beat, I still want to hope. I know there is the kind of fan that will be disturbed by inaccuracies and misinterpretations of the man, I prefer to be a different kind of fan. Yes, I admit that there are real flaws with Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth films, particularly in his beautiful but overwrought Hobbit trilogy. But I love the Lord of the Rings films, and I watch them about as often as I read the books. I love the worlds that Tolkien made and want more of them, whether they are the weather-beaten additions in the Middle-earth history or the fragmented recoveries in film and orchestral interpretation.
I just choose to be that kind of fan. I have not left behind my deep skepticism, but I am pleased to see how some people view Tolkien and how they present him in art. I also tend to love beautifully made biopics. So if people make a beautiful but flawed picture, I think I will be okay. I am not an expert in Tolkien’s biography, but I feel a pretty solid sense of the man, an image in my mind of his character, his habits, his dreams, and some of the hurts and tensions in his life. Over the last few years, I have winced at each step of this Tolkien biopic journey.
But now I am ready for the film.
Unfortunately, I can’t see it yet. Not only is there no chance for any of the preview screens near me, they aren’t even showing the film in my province! I have to travel to another province (like a state or prefecture) in order to catch Tolkien on the silver screen. So as I am left in a holding pattern, I decided to reread John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War. I’m actually listening to it, which works as I’m trying to finish up the last footnotes on a PhD, so sitting to read is a luxury. This week Garth’s great voice is my gardening and walking partner.
And it is quite the book. It has already received awards and accolades and good reviews, and Signum University has featured it by shaping a whole class around it, but I want to reassert the sheer good quality of the text. The research depth and erudition are essential for a character like Tolkien, whose fans are exacting (as we will see in the response to the biopic–which will run from rueful distaste to downright offence). The book is filled with dozens of discovered facts, unearthed documents, newly made connections, and precious details from this formative period in Tolkien’s life. In research, Garth sets the gold standard for historiography–and there are, frankly, a lot of great WWI books.
Beyond the great research and the careful historical eye, Garth has created a book that eminently readable. Really, this book is just lovely to read. I miss sitting in a comfortable chair with pencil in hand, but even in the audio edition the lyric facility of Garth’s text beautifully matches the poetic voice that Tolkien is developing in his teens and early twenties. Garth’s prose has gravitas, and yet is light and accessible. If it were fiction, the narrative arc might be more compelling and certainly more tightly connected to thematic points. But even there, the characters are richly drawn when set against the muddy terror of WWI.
John Garth has done other things, including thinking about the “wager” that began Tolkien and Lewis’ public writing career, and a really nice piece about the TCBS, the “immortal four.” His work continues, and I can only hope that he was somehow behind this film–either in consultation or in having his book as a source for research.
Will the film work? I don’t know. The trailer, below, looks okay. Strong production does not make for a well-researched biography, but I do like a well-made film. What the teaser suggested and what this new trailer confirms for me, is that the film is largely about Tolkien’s imaginative formation in the context of friendship (the TCBS), war, and love. I’m open to this kind of story, and the cast looks compelling as a magicized version of real people–though I’m not sure they can pull of the interweaving of fantasy and nonfiction well.
We’ll have to see. If you are hungry for more Tolkien posts, see my collection here. I’ve attached a trailer, as well as a short doc called “Tolkien’s Great War,” which is well done. You can see my review of a Tolkien fan film, Tolkien’s Road, here.