J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings may seem like a purely nostalgic exercise, with elves and dwarves joining humans to fight orcs and a dragon in a pseudo-medieval fantasy universe. In its depiction of crushing total warfare, though, the epic three-book novel is distinctly a product of the 20th century. Its humble hobbit heroes aren’t fighting for clan or even for God (famously a point of tension with Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis). They understand that their struggle is existential: they’re trying to preserve their very way of life.
Dome Karukoski’s new biopic Tolkien neatly draws parallels between that theme and the author’s experiences in what was then called the Great War. As he wrote, an even greater war broke — but that’s left in the future as Tolkien concludes with the eponymous author penning the first sentence of The Hobbit, in a series of tight shots that will have fountain-pen ASMR aficionados in ecstasy.
Written by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford, the film has been preemptively dismissed by the author’s estate, which issued a statement clarifying that the biopic is completely unauthorized. What Tolkien’s heirs will make of the movie if and when they actually see it remains to be seen, but the film’s studio Fox Searchlight was certainly not lying when it said, “the filmmaking team has the utmost respect and admiration for Mr. Tolkien and his phenomenal contribution to literature.”
In the person of an almost distractingly handsome Nicholas Hoult, Tolkien walks through his own tumultuous life with a nearly Christ-like assurance. After losing both his parents, in preparatory school he falls in with three peers who (after the kind of perfunctory conflict that only ever leads to lifelong friendships in movies like this) embrace him as a member of their precocious fellowship.
Yes, I use that word very pointedly — and so, ultimately, does Tolkien himself, as choirs sing in Thomas Newman’s on-brand score. While the filmmakers restrain themselves from having the writer mutter “Shire” when he looks back on the rolling green fields of his youth, or “Mordor” when he peers out of a trench across the Western Front, it’s because they know we’ll do it for him.
Dark visions in smoke help to connect the dots in Karukoski’s showpiece scene, a phantasmagoric sequence in which Tolkien staggers through one of history’s most brutal battlefields searching for a lost poet friend (Anthony Boyle). He’s aided by a faithful companion named Sam (Craig Roberts), a fictional invention inspired by evidence the Lord of the Rings character by that name was inspired by Tolkien’s devoted fellow soldiers.
Tolkien is told as a series of flashbacks from the hellish Battle of the Somme, with the author already suffering from trench fever and his thoughts straying. That adds punctuation and texture to the telling, but it doesn’t do much credit to Tolkien’s actually distinguished service record. Aside from a couple of road-bumps, one involving Tolkien’s star-crossed love for the fellow foster child he ultimately wed (a luminous Lily Collins, Phil’s daughter), the author seems almost to waft through his own life, pulled forward by constant intimations of the masterpiece he’s destined to pen.
The film is nothing if not elegant, decorous to a fault. In this Golden Age of streaming prestige TV, movies in general suddenly seem almost cursory in their brevity, and biopics in particular feel jarring in their willingness to elide details. The Lord of the Rings spawned an intensely involved fandom long before Peter Jackson’s movies lifted the story to stratospheric pop-culture heights, and trufans will doubtless bristle at the highly sentimental, relatively superficial treatment the author’s story gets here.
Even so, and even if the movie is a little too mawkish to inspire real tears, Tolkien is a stylish effort that’s easy to watch. It may actually serve the estate better at a distance, since if it was an official biopic it would be criticized for airbrushing its hero to serve his heirs’ interests. Well, why not let the man have a little mythologizing? Even Lewis got his share, in Shadowlands.
If Tolkien is, in the end, only serviceable, the service it provides is nonetheless worthy. As the more outspoken corners of the Rings fandom obsess over the details of the author’s staggeringly precise fantasy world, Tolkien reminds us of a greater purpose of fiction: to help us find meaning and purpose in a world that can be capriciously cruel. Not to distract us from the world, but to help us engage with it more fully.
Enter for your chance to win a pair of tickets to Tolkien: Live from the Montclair Film Festival with Stephen Colbert, an event where you will be among the first to see the new feature film with an exclusive live simulcast Q&A with stars Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins; and director Dome Karukoski. The screening event will take place on Tuesday, May 7 at 6:30 p.m. at Emagine Willow Creek.