Sunday, May 12, 2019

Tolkien biopic

I've been watching trailers and reading reviews of the new Tolkien biopic. I don't plan to see the movie. So my observations are secondhand:

i) On the plus side, the biopic is apparently a respectful, even referential treatment, rather than a hatchet-job or conscious attempt to reinvent Tolkien. 

ii) The dilemma is that for the most part, scholars lead pedestrian, even boring lives, and it's hard to turn that into a gripping movie. The biopic tries to sidestep the dilemma by using flashbacks from his combat experience as well as boyish swordplay. But for the most part there's a chasm between Tolkien's imagination and his outward life. What was going on in the privacy of his head can't be transferred to the screen. Philology isn't the stuff of big screen drama.

While his experience on the battlefield probably colored LOTR, so did his love of Nordic/Teutonic mythology, Beowulf, and the medieval chivalric tradition. But how does a director show that?

iii) Reviewers have noted the conscious absence of Catholicism. I'm no fan of Catholicism, but it meant a lot to Tolkien. If the point of a biopic is to show what made him tick, then his religiosity must be given a prominent place. Otherwise, it's uninformative, and lacks biographical fidelity. In that regard, the biopic reminds me of Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven, which was a beautiful lyrical movie, but erased medieval Christianity and whitewashed Islam.

It's not that Karukoski is necessarily secularizing Tolkien by design. For one thing, the uncut film had a scene of last rites, but Karukoski cut that out when a focus group didn't resonant with that scene. However, it's an artistic mistake for a director to second-guess the audience reaction. A movie is more likely to be emotionally compelling if, in the first instance, it resonates with the director. 

I don't know enough about Karukoski to say, but there's the ironic possibility that even though he made a biopic, he's inspired by the novels rather than the novelist. He can't identify with Tolkien's traditional Catholicism. It just doesn't mean to him what it meant to Tolkien.  

iv) Then there's the interesting question of why the Inklings don't figure in the biopic. Perhaps, because Lewis was such an overwhelming figure in his own right, Karukoski didn't wish to risk displacing Tolkien by bringing Lewis into the story (not to mention Charles Williams). 

Lewis and Tolkien had some important things in common: both were polyglots, and WWI vets, steeped in literary mythology. Both men lost their mothers at an early age, and while Lewis wasn't orphaned, he was estranged from his father. Both men knew loneliness and the horror of war firsthand.

Incidentally, I suspect not a few Catholics elevate Tolkien to make him the Catholic alternative to Anglican C. S. Lewis.

v) I've read that Tolkien had an unhappy marriage for a number of years until his wife made the adjustment and later, when they retired to a resort community. That would be worth incorporating into the biopic, both for biographical accuracy as well as dramatic depth and interest. 

vi) It would be better to do a dramatic TV miniseries about Tolkien. That wouldn't be exciting, but it would be more balanced and faithful to his life and vision. 


  1. I wonder if the film includes:

    1. Tolkien's love for poetry. I recall C.S. Lewis's first literary aspiration was to be a poet. I wonder if Tolkien wasn't similar.

    2. Tolkien's love for the English countryside. Pastoral England. Another love shared by C.S. Lewis. I've read Tolkien explicitly saying he based the Shire off of rural England. I've also read Tolkien saying he was a hobbit in all but stature (e.g. he enjoyed the sight of farmlands, he enjoyed gardening, he enjoyed long and slow walks on rolling hills - unlike Lewis who walked at a faster clip, enjoyed smoking a pipe, disliked "machinery" even like the refrigerator (!), enjoyed unrefrigerated food).

    1. So now I know who Gandalf is based off, dragging the poor Bilbo off on un-quiet adventures!