I live on the edge of the continent, on a small island in the North Atlantic. This “lonely island” I call home is more like Hobbiton than the majestic and magical sanctuary of Tol Eressëa of J.R.R. Tolkien’s early mythology. Prince Edward Island is a tiny, secluded place, Canada’s garden province, an idyllic place of beauty rooted in agriculture, fishing, and hospitality. As Islanders, we have our own ways, and we don’t have much to do with the big folk of industry and political power outside our borders. Our premier and opposition leader recently shared a hearty hug on the morning after an election. We are just not like other places.
The downside to living in a land still invested in bygone days is that we rarely get great concerts or non-blockbuster films. Entertainment for us is about folksy stage plays, comedy, humble artisanship, and singer-songwriters that fill small halls and big kitchens with concerts and ceilidhs throughout the year. And there is, of course, Anne of Green Gables—a fabled world that you can still see echoed in our little land.
So when the new Tolkien biopic was coming to theatre, I knew that I would need a road trip to another province to see it. My niece’s play—actually a rewriting of Anne of Green Gables from Marilla’s perspective—gave me the chance to wrap a Tolkien screening together with a great family visit in the next province over.
I wrote last week that I was choosing to be hopeful about the film—despite a rising tide of angry reviews and Tolkienist anxiety. Tolkien readers can be exacting, as I talk about in a guest blog for the Forefront Festival, a kind of Christian arts collective. The blog post should drop later this week, where I talk about some of the tensions involved in making a film like Tolkien. Part of my anxiety in getting read to see Tolkien is not just my own desire for greater fidelity in adaptation—at least greater than we’ve seen in some adaptation of work by Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Madeleine L’Engle—but some degree of fear about fan responses if I were to give a positive review.
That weird tension is interesting, but as I said last week, I decided to go and be open to loving the film—even knowing that it would be imperfect or even troubling at times. I love the Lord of the Rings films, and I watch them about as often as I read the books (now with my son). I love the worlds that Tolkien made and want more of them—and more of him. So I chose to leave behind my skepticism and a desire for precision and go as a fan, grateful for the chance to experience Tolkien’s story.
As C.S. Lewis would put it in An Experiment in Criticism, I chose to “surrender” to the text, to receive as a lover or worshipper the story that the makers of Tolkien want to tell me.
Honestly, I was both relieved and impressed. In many ways, this is a beautifully crafted film. There are gaps everywhere, and the film could have benefitted from an extra $20m in CGI work, particularly in the battlefield scenes and a couple of panoramic shots. But, overall, the set design is lovely, the actors are compelling, the photography is excellent, the score invites empathy as a companion to the writing, and the storytelling is inviting. Nicholas Hoult is strong as a twenty-something John Ronald, and Lily Collins is absolutely gorgeous as Edith Bratt, whose role in shaping Tolkien does not go unnoticed. It is not just Hollywood good looks, though. There is elegance in this film in the way it brings the period and the pathos together. Anthony Boyle is heartbreakingly beautiful as Geoffrey B. Smith, one of Tolkien’s closest confederates within the T.C.B.S. His shy, slightly quizzical face moves flawlessly to haunting loss on the battlefield.
There is no end to things I could critique in this film—or in almost any film that takes a risk. I would like to come back on Wednesday and talk about love and faith within the context of the film. But as I think about the reaction to the film by fans, I wonder if some fans are making a category mistake when they are walking into the theatre. I have written this for my Forefront guest blog:
“I love biopics, where in the warp and weft of great filmmaking, a director weaves together the threads of a person’s biography into a work of fiction that is true in ways deeper than chronology and census registry.”
We are in a great age of biopics, with Bohemian Rhapsody just behind us as it follows a tradition of great superstar pictures, like Walk the Line, The Doors, I’m Not There, Man on the Moon, Amadeus, and Ray. Rocketman is joining theme soon, a picture about Elton John that unapologetically breaks into a musical with the courage of La La Land (which is sort of a biography of a dream). Award-winning biopics like A Beautiful Mind, The Social Network, Malcolm X, The Pianist, The Imitation Game, and The King’s Speech have each walked that subtle line between biographical details and the deeper story of the person’s life behind the curriculum vitae. When it is done well, that deeper story gives mythic quality to the characters life, and for those that know their chronologies well, they can recognize the artful changes as enhancing the story of a life worth sharing.
I wonder, though, if some Tolkien fans are going into Tolkien expecting a documentary rather than a new story told. If they are, they will be deeply disappointed. I don’t know if a film could ever do what John Garth does in his gold-standard history, Tolkien and the Great War (2003). Maybe a documentary series could deepen that work, and I think there is work being done on a documentary for Joseph Laconte’s A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War (2015). But Tolkien is not this kind of picture; it is a myth retold, the legend of a mythmaker shaped by love, friendship, and the way that the war broke his world.
And as such, I was deeply moved. I wish there was more humour, more of Tolkien’s artistry, and more about language. But for what we have, I found it a tremendously compelling film. I wept—not for loss of the Professor, or even for his losses in war. I wept because Tolkien was able to open for me an even greater window into the deep beauty of Tolkien’s mythology.
So, for me, Tolkien was worth the drive to another province. I am glad I left my hole in the ground where I keep my desk and books. Though my lone isle has its own awkward and pubescent kind of relationship with the modern world, I still want to keep a hobbit-like innocence and love of simple things. It is with this in mind that I think of Tolkien with great gratitude and childlike wonder.
And with the biopic Tolkien, I am a fan who has received more of what he loves: the life and myths of J.R.R. Tolkien.
I stand in defiance, then, against* those who build such strong walls of protection around Tolkien’s work that only the most brilliant linguist or exacting chronologist are admitted in. I know that I am not of much account to many, and I will never win some. Still, Tolkien is well worth a watch for those who love Tolkien as his worlds.
*Note: This was my first draft: “I stand in defiance, then, against Tolkien-haters….” It was pointed out that this was inflammatory, and unnecessarily so. I agree now, but want to admit my first indiscretion rather than hush it up.