It is difficult to estimate the impact that J.R.R. Tolkien’s works have had on pop-culture. His Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books have generated a fan base and following that has allowed a film franchise to spawn as well as fuel the publishing of the vaguest of Tolkien’s manuscripts relating to his Middle-Earth (the latest The Fall of Gondolin was published just last year nearly 40 years after his death). Amazon recently announced a nine-figure deal for the rights of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, and they plan to exploit it in TV form in the coming years. Through all the content and story, one would hardly have noticed that Tolkien himself had a remarkable life before he became a renowned author; this side of the phenomenon has now been told in Tolkien.
Tolkien looks at the early years of J.R.R. Tolkien’s (Nicholas Hoult) life in England. We see as he becomes an orphan early as a boy, but when moved to a new and elite school in Birmingham, he excels. There he meets three other boys, with whom he creates strong friendships with. As Tolkien grows up we see how he falls in love with Edith (Lilly Collins), how he attends and struggles to find his calling at Oxford, and finally how scarred and influenced he became in the trenches of World War I.
While the shadow of Middle-Earth seems to loom over the concept of a Tolkien film, writers David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford wisely choose to focus on Tolkien as a character and have his personal struggles fuel the conflict and core of the film. This certainly helps in giving Tolkien a soul of its own, and it gives a realistic dimension to his later creations of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. While there are nuggets and nods to his later books, they are simply Easter eggs for avid fans to pick up on, and don’t inform the main narrative of the feature. This also helps give Tolkien’s life a more layered portrayal, indicating that his whole existence wasn’t destined to culminate in his literary creations, but rather in the personal relationships he forms.
The film is centered around Tolkien’s dedication to his group of friends and his love for Edith, and this helps ground the story emotionally; something usually hard for biographical films. The constancy of these relationships also allows for effective character development to occur. However, there was too much content of Tolkien’s early life; to the point that the majority of scenes are short and fleeting, never fully getting the opportunity to dig down and play around with characters and dialogue. This lends the narrative a certain rushed feeling that director Dome Karukoski isn’t able to stabilize. The performances by Collins and Hoult are able to make imprints in their brief scenes, and the friendship between Tolkien and his friend Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle) is endearingly conceived, so that the film isn’t able to lose too much because of its rushed narrative.
In the end, Tolkien is a fine film not because of its informative elements regarding inspiration for the late author’s magnum opus (although there are those), but because of the emotional depth that is uncovered that lends a human aspect to the legendary name. “Someone else always has to carry on the story,” wrote Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings, and this film certainly honors those words, and may perhaps help continue to inspire the many young authors who were inspired by the great English writer.