J.R.R. Tolkien is, without a doubt, the most influential fantasy author of all time. With works like The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Silmarilion, he created vast, monumentally imaginative worlds, populated by unique species and cultures, and containing languages of his own creation. While director Dome Karukoski delivers a serviceable film in Tolkien, it’s too rote and devoid of spirit for a man of such towering creative talent as John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.
Those coming to Tolkien expecting some kind of behind-the-scenes dramatization of the titular author as he created The Hobbit or the LOTR trilogy will be sorely disappointed, as the film is focused almost exclusively on exploring the subject’s youth — from his childhood struggles as an orphan to his college-aged pursuits of language and love. At a new school, Tolkien meets three boys who share his passion for art and culture — Rob Gilson, Geoffrey Bache Smith and Christopher Wiseman — who become his longtime friends and artistic confidants. Tolkien and his friends, who refer to themselves as the T.C.B.S. (Tea Club and Barrovian Society), yearn to express themselves through art, poetry and language, attempting to rise above the buttoned-up, stodgy society in which they live. Young men in tweed seeking to free themselves from the shackles of conformity — in both spirit and tone, Tolkien is not too far off from 1989’s Dead Poets Society, but there’s no one as interesting as Robin Williams’ John Keating. Nicholas Hoult is convincing as Tolkien, as he embodies the earnest love for language and expression one would expect in this author — and his friends are fine enough, but there’s no breakout performance, no one to truly leave an impression of “Damn, that really is a hell of a character!” Along with the boys’ club, Tolkien meets a kindred spirit in Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), who also seeks a life of art and freedom of expression not embraced in Edwardian England. The only thing that Tolkien loves more than language is Bratt, and Hoult and Collins offer a convincing relationship.
Much of Tolkien is revealed in flashback sequences, as the “present-day” subject traverses corpse-ridden trenches, seeking his friend Geoffrey. This is where some of the film’s most stunning visuals appear. Tolkien’s experiences in World War I informed his work, and the battlefield scenes make allusions to imagery in The Lord of the Rings: black shapes are reminiscent of the nightmarish Ringwraiths, while piles of bodies might allude to the Dead Marshes. In one scene, Tolkien imagines a fire-breathing dragon on the battlefield, which is revealed to actually be flamethrowers being shot into the trenches. There are plenty of other allusions to Tolkien’s books made throughout the film, sometimes in ways that might come off as too much like fan service, as if every moment in the author’s life were directly connected to some character or moment in his stories. Tolkien doesn’t meet a Professor Gandalf or anything so obvious, but some of the references are a little on the nose.
Tolkien was a curious character and doesn’t seem like the type who would have embraced treacly, Hallmark Channel sentimentality, but Karukoski’s film is rife with such moments. There are some interesting discussions about language peppered throughout, but Tolkien is more concerned with hitting cliche biopic beats than it is with seriously exploring any of those ideas, or touching upon Tolkien’s Catholicism or conservatism. Surely, some liberties must be taken to boil down a famous person’s life into a two-hour story with a satisfying arc, but Tolkien feels too narrow, too banal, undeserving of its subject matter. Tolkien’s works weren’t devoid of themes of love and friendship, which this film is so focused on, but they were certainly more complex and imaginative.
Tolkien has great set design, solid acting and stunning cinematography. It offers insight into the genesis of Tolkien’s stories and will likely be of interest to casual fans. But it’s fairly standard biopic fare that unfortunately only skims the surface in examining the man and what led him to create such massively influential works of fiction. Those seeking some deep-dive exploration into Tolkien and his process will likely get more out of a standard biography or documentary. As it stands, Tolkien is a merely adequate celebration of the author and the power of art.
John Brhel (@johnbrhel) is an author and pop culture writer from upstate New York. He is the co-author of several books of horror/paranormal fiction, including Corpse Cold: New American Folklore and Resurrection High, and the co-founder of independent book publisher Cemetery Gates Media. He enjoys burritos and has seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom way too many times.