AUGUST 11, 2019
DOME KARUKOSKI’S Tolkien — the new film focused on the early life of the titular author — is not a biopic. Not really. Its chief interest is not J. R. R. Tolkien, his wife Edith, his friends in the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (TCBS), or his experiences on the Somme in World War I. Rather, the film concerns itself with the ways that these biographical details can be retrospectively construed as precursors to Tolkien’s masterwork, The Lord of the Rings, published some 40 years later. In this sense, the film is perhaps best understood as a prequel to The Lord of the Rings — that is, to the novels themselves, as well as their film adaptations, rather than to the stories contained within them. Consequently, it is riddled with many of the problems that so often manifest in prequels: implausibly direct connections between past and present; too easily dismissed sources of disruption, which might otherwise suggest alternative outcomes; and a need for every element to be in some way allusive to the familiar, comforting material we already know. The film won’t tell you much about John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, the man. In its insistence, however, on casting the author’s life solely in the context of his best-known work, the film sheds considerable light on the ways that contemporary audiences approach and imagine J. R. R. Tolkien, the brand.
Tolkien begins with the image of the Somme — the infamous World War I battlefield that saw the first use of tanks in warfare and resulted in over one million casualties. The Somme carries a special imaginative potency within Great War literature, due to its presence, often as a climactic backdrop, in many influential war memoirs; centering it so early reads, in part, as a sort of shibboleth on the part of the filmmakers. Tolkien’s version is interrupted by the appearance of a black-garbed rider, a not-quite-Ringwraith that represents the first intrusion of The Lord of the Rings into its author’s story. The battle, imbricated with images and motifs from Tolkien’s trilogy, frames and contextualizes the film’s narrative. Through a series of extended flashbacks, occasionally returning to the action on the Somme, we are shown the events of Tolkien’s early life, leading up to the war. Tolkien portrays the author’s childhood in Birmingham, and his mother’s death, which resulted in the assumption of his guardianship by Father Francis Morgan. Most of the narrative is devoted to his teenage years: his friendships with Christopher Wiseman, Rob Gilson, and G. B. Smith, their formation of the TCBS, and his relationship with Edith Bratt, whom he later married. The film periodically returns to the Somme, emphasizing the battle as the determinative, singular endpoint of the story’s disparate threads.
If the Somme provides much of the film’s narrative cohesion, its thematic cohesion is largely supplied by its all-but-constant allusions to The Lord of the Rings. This practice appears most overtly in the Somme scenes themselves: black riders and white knights clash on the battlefield; dragons emerge out of flamethrower spray; wraiths materialize in artillery blasts; Tolkien is even followed about by a loyal young batman named “Sam.” The film eventually downplays this explicit use of fantastical imagery, revealing the Somme scenes to have been a fever dream experience while Tolkien is in recovery. Outside of such narrative conceits, however, the influence remains unmistakable. For example, an early scene, which features a young Tolkien hiding from his playmates, evokes the four hobbits hiding below a log to escape a hunting Ringwraith. Towering, industrialized Birmingham recalls Isengard. The Exeter campus is filmed much like Rivendell in Peter Jackson’s film trilogy — constantly passing between archways and under foliage. Even the title font matches that of the earlier films, complete with a telltale glint on the o in “Tolkien.” But perhaps the most persistent is the score, which is unfailingly reminiscent of Howard Shore’s composition for Jackson’s films. Tolkien constantly reminds its viewers that its primary context is The Lord of the Rings.
However, these connections should not be mistaken for mere allusions. The film goes to great lengths to portray its events and characters as meaningful influences on The Lord of the Rings. The result is a film made poorer by the shadow of its overwhelming companion. Any suggestions of a larger, independent reality or story of its own are sublimated into prequelizing The Lord of the Rings. For example, Tolkien portrays the Tea Club and Barrovian Society as a group of remarkably talented young men whose ambitions are grounded as much in their conflicts as their friendships, but it ultimately homogenizes them so much that, once G. B. Smith and Rob Gilson die on the Somme, Chris Wiseman never appears again. The boys come and go as a monolith, concretizing the film’s insistence on regularly describing them as “a fellowship,” casting them explicitly and exclusively as the inspiration for the titular Fellowship of the Ring. The film’s most interesting moments occur when this unanimity is disrupted. Gilson and Tolkien clash over the difference in their class statuses. Wiseman and Tolkien grow apart after the war. Only referenced in the epilogue, the gulf seems to have been historically caused in part by their conflicting means of coping with the deaths of their friends — a significant context that is absent from the film. These moments are quickly smoothed over, however, in the interest of creating the TCBS as a single, uncomplicated tragedy. One is tempted to suggest that Tolkien would benefit considerably from having the fortitude to not be about The Lord of the Rings at all — a ridiculous suggestion that was, of course, never possible.
With Edith Bratt, the filmmakers admirably rise to the occasion; their take is one of the most challenging and provocative elements of the movie. The film is obliged to construct its young Edith almost out of whole cloth, as so little is available concerning her early life. (We have broad details of her relationship with J. R. R., mostly from his perspective, but little about her personally.) Bratt is depicted as justifiably resentful of Tolkien’s prospects. Both are orphans; both reside at the same boardinghouse, owned by Mrs. Faulkner; both are clever and insightful. But because of his gender, Tolkien has a means of escape by way of a potential Oxford scholarship — a goal that drives him for much of the first act. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Edith rebukes him for his comfort with his privileged status. In contrast, Edith says, she is “a companion” to Mrs. Faulkner. Her lot is to sit politely and make conversation, to play music when asked, and to otherwise provide company. Collins’s delivery, laden with fear, recalls Eowyn’s terror at the prospect of “a cage […] to stay behind bars until use and old age accept them.” This moment is perhaps the most poignant echo of The Lord of the Rings in the film, precisely because it opens, rather than forecloses, potential understandings of Edith’s character. But the narrative suspends this possibility: the ultimate consequence of Edith’s alienation is to motivate the composition of The Lord of the Rings, when, exasperated with Tolkien’s dithering, she declares, “I wish you would decide what you want out of [your writing], or let it go entirely.” Edith’s interiority is yielded up to the narrative requirement that all roads lead to Middle-earth.
So extreme is the film’s dedication to connecting Tolkien’s early life and war service with The Lord of the Rings that it excises the most concrete connection between the two in the interest of simplifying their relationship. Famously (and perhaps apocryphally to some degree), the earliest drafts of The Book of Lost Tales — the texts that would become The Silmarillion — were completed during Tolkien’s service on the Western Front. Writing to his son, Michael, in 1944, he describes writing “in grimy canteens, at lectures in cold fogs, in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire.” It’s unclear exactly how much he managed to complete during the war, but little of substance survives. What is certain is that, in the months immediately following, while recovering from trench fever in a field hospital, Tolkien began the first version of his life’s work. This stage of composition has been meticulously documented in his son, Christopher Tolkien’s, series, The History of Middle-earth, but is entirely absent from Tolkien. The film portrays Tolkien’s convalescence without any reference to this early stage of composition. A neophyte viewer would leave under the impression that he suffered 15 years of writer’s block lasting until the composition of The Hobbit. The omission is baffling at first glance, but entirely in keeping with the film’s strategy: it streamlines the connection between this period and The Lord of the Rings by concealing the (quite complex) intervening process. And yet, by doing so, it eliminates the single most compelling evidence for the argument it seeks to make — that the period it portrays is essential to understanding Tolkien’s work.
Ironically, then, Tolkien is perhaps the perfect biography of a figure who, for many, is understood only as the author of a single, overwhelming work. It represents, as well as anything I can imagine, our collective inability to conceive of J. R. R. Tolkien and his work outside of the context of The Lord of the Rings. The effect is not limited to Tolkien himself, but through his influence, extends to popular fantasy literature fandom and scholarship. Brian Attebery has described modern fantasy as that “set of texts that in some way or another resemble” Tolkien’s trilogy. Even now, authors in the genre tend to be seen as either imitating or rebelling against the conventions he established. Tolkien offers compelling evidence that this phenomenon works backward as well as forward. The dominance of The Lord of the Rings is an irresistible gravity that warps its origins, as well as its descendants. One wonders whether the film represents a missed opportunity to disrupt such teleological formulations. Had Tolkien been more willing to commit to its unsettling moments, could it have meaningfully interrogated the popular conception of the author’s early life, perhaps finding in it a more complex story than this fairy tale of inspiration? Would it, in other words, have found the means to show us something new about the relationship between Tolkien’s work and its time? “J. R. R. Tolkien, author of the Great War” has a tantalizing ring to it. Tolkien illustrates what makes such a framework so challenging.