Film Review: Tolkien

SEI_65458579When I was nine I read The Hobbit, and then I read it again. Now I’m reading it with my son, and loving revisiting the magical world the book creates. Tolkien’ fantasy works have become a part of national (international) consciousness, his questing creatures representative of all sorts of other moral dilemmas, and though I’ve only read all of Lord of the Rings once, and heard it on the radio once, these experiences have stayed with me. (I haven’t seen the films and don’t particularly want to!) What has always really drawn me to Tolkien is his work in Anglo-Saxon, though, and one of my treasured possessions is a first edition of Tolkien’s Gawain, which my father gave me before I went to university to read English. I’ve also recently read a book on the Inklings by Humphrey Carpenter, which, in terms of its careful consideration of how Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams and their circle lived and, particularly, thought, talked and influenced each other, was excellent. What I particularly applaud about the book was it’s care not to draw facile conclusions about any parallels between the men’s lives and their writing.

So, to the Tolkien film – not endorsed by the family, I notice, perhaps because of concerns about just such simplification about influence. I don’t watch many films so tend to find the clunky ways of pointing out a character’s ‘difference’ slightly annoying (the unusual name, in this case, among other things) but overall I enjoyed the film, though of course I have some reservations. The attempts to link Tolkien’s life experiences (as an orphan and a studious outsider; in the trenches; his school circle of friends) to his work is not unreasonable, though perhaps done with a heavy hand. It’s difficult not to enjoy the school-boy high jinks as Tolkien and his friends from King Edward’s, Birmingham, discuss how they will change the world over afternoon tea (very Dead Poets Society). The usual filmic cues indicate who will not survive the coming war which looms in the mind of the viewer, and the fairly straightforward narrative is interspersed with flashbacks to Tolkien’s experiences in the trenches. However, it seems rather clumsy for the scenes of war to become scenes of fantasy battle which later appear in his fiction.

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I did enjoy the depiction of Tolkien at Oxford, though, with his made-up languages and careful study of Old English, Icelandic and Germanic. His proficiency in philology is nicely done, not too heavy-handed but sufficiently well to appeal to people like me who have actually studied these apparently rather arcane areas. Nicholas Hoult’s portrayal of Tolkien is appealing, which makes one feel that this is what the man himself must have been like. Period detail is good, and Edith (Lily Collins) has a fairly insignificant part which is played with enthusiasm. Yet the film is full of cliches, of schoolboy friendship, quests for glory, war and trench life, and so on. And the whole point of the film seems to be to make the early part of Tolkien’s life ‘relevant’ to his later work; his early years tend to be neglected in favour of the Inklings and his fiction, but to draw direct links (battles, war, quests, brotherhood, glory) like this is unimaginative, and it is sad that imagination should be lacking in a film about the possessor of such a rich imagination.

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