Movie Review: “Tolkien”

Raise your hand if you’re a Lord of the Rings Kid. Y’all raisin’ em? Good–I figured I had a few of you in my audience! Yes, guys and gals, we are the Lord of the Rings Kids, the millennials who grew up watching Peter Jackson’s iconic films*, playing with action figures of Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, spending bagoodles of money on even more figures at Target, devouring the original novels* (multiple times), and impressing everyone else with our burgeoning Elvish vocabularies. We are awesome, and we are blessed, because our imaginations were truly well-fed and well-formed between the years of 2001 and 2003.

But here’s the question: do we, as Lord of the Rings Kids, take these stories–and the man who wrote them–for granted?

J. R. R. Tolkien pictured in Oxford, 1972. (@ Google Images)

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) was a creative genius. Not only did he write an entire mythology, he invented multiple languages for that mythology. Not only that, but these languages are so well-developed, you can hold entire conversations in them. This is common knowledge at this point, of course; we’ve all eavesdropped on Aragorn and Arwen’s sweet nothings, and we all know the password for Moria’s front door. But I think we’ve forgotten, through the curse of familiarity, just how unusual this is…and how absolutely wild you’d have to be about languages in order to undertake such a project.

(@ Google Images)

Thankfully, the new biopic Tolkien* chips away at our forgetfulness until we’re wide-awake all over again. Watch Tolkien and you’ll find yourself laughing in breathless amazement at the way this beloved author’s mind and heart worked in sync…and the way he found inspiration in both his personal life and his passions.

If you’ve assumed this film follows the writing of his famous trilogy, think again. It actually follows his formative years: his impoverished boyhood, the friendships he formed at boarding school, his courtship with the beautiful Edith Bratt, and his life-changing experiences in World War I. Hints and whispers of The Lord of the Rings are everywhere, from Tolkien and Edith’s humorous brainstorming over the Elvish-sounding phrase “Cellar door” to his feverish whispers of “Hail Eärendil” in the trenches of the Somme. But not until the final scene, when he pens the famous opening lines of The Hobbit, does it all come together.

And that’s what so clever about this film: we expect it to be about The Lord of the Rings, but in reality it’s about everything that leads UP to Tolkien’s magnum opus.

Tolkien dreaming of a ferocious Dark-Lord in the trenches. (@ Google Images)

Nothing happens in a vacuum. I think I can speak for writers everywhere when I say that we don’t just come up with random ideas: we’re inspired by what we see around us, what we love, and what we experience and endure. Consider Tolkien’s own life. His is the story of:

  • an orphan whose mother, before she died, nourished him with tales of dragon-slayers
  • a nature-loving schoolboy who, with three of his schoolmates, formed a fellowship that would be broken only by death
  • an aspiring linguist who invented languages of his own…just for fun
  • a young soldier and the love of his life who defied social boundaries and the objections of their guardians until they finally got their happily-ever-after.

These features of Tolkien’s life all ended up in his life’s work, and are major plot points of the biopic. Black-clad riders galloping through the trenches of his feverish imagination were a fine touch of artistic license, of course…but it isn’t much of a stretch to assume that Tolkien found inspiration in the utter despair and darkness he experienced in World War I.

Tolkien and his three best friends, the Tea Club Barrovian Society–otherwise known as the TCBS.
(@ Google Images)

Unfortunately, the most influential element doesn’t get much focus in the biopic: Tolkien’s deeply personal, devoutly Catholic faith. This was the most common complaint I’d heard about the movie before seeing it, and I will readily admit it’s a valid criticism. Tolkien’s Christianity motivated his writing (something I’m keenly aware right now as I re-read The Silmarillion), yet in a glaring omission, the film barely touches on it.

Nevertheless, I do consider Tolkien* a worthwhile film. Not only is a fairly accurate portrayal of his first forty years or so, but it’s simply beautiful. Tolkien took great delight in the beauty of the earth and the power of stories, and the filmmakers went to great lengths to show this. Yes, they did him a disservice by giving his faith little to no credit. But his story and his character are, for the most part, left intact…and for us Lord of the Rings Kids, it’s a lovely glimpse into the life of our most beloved storyteller.

(@ Google Images)


10 thoughts on “Movie Review: “Tolkien”

  1. Great post, Maribeth! ❤

    I've been thinking about Tolkien a lot lately and musing about *why* his stories, as such, do NOT strike a chord with me or appeal to me. (and also struggling with accepting that I'm still a valid fantasy lover nonetheless . . . ah, well . . .) But Tolkien, the man, inspires me hugely, in spite of all that; because he loved writing so much and found a way to make the fantasy figures inside his mind come to life, against all odds. I love that.

    So I definitely want to watch this movie 😀


    1. Of course you’re still a valid fantasy lover!! I’m a strong believer in not feeling guilty over whether or not one enjoys certain books or movies. It doesn’t happen very often, but sometimes I’ll read a book or watch a movie that everyone else seems to love, and I’m just like…”Nah, not my thing.” But just out of curiosity, do you think you’re starting to put your finger on what doesn’t resonate with you in Tolkien’s works? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts (don’t worry, I won’t try to convince you–I’m really am just an inquisitive peep 😉 )


      1. Thank you, friend!! ❤ That means a lot to me!

        Hoo, boy . . . Well, I've narrowed it down to a couple of major things. The One Ring concept from LotR has a lot of negative repercussions for my specific mental health issues, so that's a big one. But I also have realized that I really prefer magical realism (stories about magic ON our regular Earth) to stories about completely separate fantasy worlds, so that's another biggie, since Tolkien's entire genius was about CREATING NEW WORLDS.

        (I also am not a huge "quest story" person, for whatever reason?)

        I wrote about it all here because I needed to sort out my thoughts, haha!!!


  2. I read the Humprey Carpenter bio in anticipation of this film, but then it seemed to get a lackluster response, so I didn’t watch it, maybe sometimes. I adore the bio. I’m not the LotR enthusiast I was as a teen (I’m not naturally drawn to epics over more developed, small scale stories), but Tolkien’s genius is fascination. His magnum opus is really the Silmarillion though, he just was a perfectionist and never finished it (also I think it was rejected over and over too from what I remember), the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, were extras which he seemed to come up with easier because they weren’t his soul’s work.


  3. I LOVED THIS MOVIEEEEE! So glad you enjoyed it too!

    My dad and sister tended not to enjoy it as much as I did for the reason being that the movie focused on Tolkien pre-Hobbit (with the movie literally ending at him writing the Hobbit), and they wanted more of Tolkien’s life *during* the Hobbit. But honestly, I feel like learning about Tolkien’s life BEFORE he wrote any of his Middle Earth really helped me understand what *inspired* him to get there. I loved this film so much, and I’m so glad you did, too.

    Though I have to agree that I wish the film touched more on his faith. That was almost nonexistent. And when it was mentioned, it portrayed it as a bad thing because of how it almost separated him and his wife. Ah, Hollywood…will you ever learn to include every decent fact?

    Great post!


    Emily 🙂


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