MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
I have never read a biography of J.R.R. (Ronald) Tolkien, the British philologist and Oxford professor who would write The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but whenever I venture beyond those beloved classics and try to penetrate the language and world of later works (posthumously published) such as The Silmarillion, it is clear that Tolkien is in an intellectual world of an imagined culture beyond my comprehension.
Of course, for fantasy geeks, this attention to invented lands and mythologies elevates his works to a higher level. George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” cycle (adapted by HBO as Game of Thrones) is a logical extension of the groundwork that Tolkien established and the dozens of other fantasy worlds launched after him.
But how did it begin?
Tolkien is a film depicting his early years of childhood, adolescence and college, leading up to military service in World War I fighting in the Battle of the Somme and then, after returning home as a professor, setting pen to paper to write The Hobbit.
His life was not an easy one. Born in Africa, he traveled to England with his mother at the age of 3 for a family visit. His father died in Africa shortly thereafter, leaving Tolkien (Hoult) and his brother Hilary in England without a father. When his mother (Laura Donnelly) dies at the age of 34 from diabetes, the boys are cared for by Fr. Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney), a family friend. First placed in a boarding house, Ronald would meet Edith (Collins), another orphan, who would become a soulmate (and, many years later, his wife). After early conflicts with more privileged boys at school, Tolkien would use his wits to develop friendships with three other boys – Geoffrey (Anthony Boyle), Christopher (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Robert (Patrick Gibson) who would be classmates in college. In true nerd fashion, they develop a secret society called the TCBS (Tea Club, Barovian Society) and the battle cry of “Helheimr”!
The film moves backwards and forwards in time from an innocent childhood to the ravages of war and Tolkien’s search for a friend on the front lines. Everything is beautifully filmed and the cast does a fine job with their parts, but the script’s desire to link historical events to the world of Middle Earth fills the movie with more Easter eggs than the last evangelical church helicopter drop. The film is best when it shows Tolkien sharing his love of language with Edith and later with Dr. Joseph Wright (Derek Jacobi) at Oxford.
The one thing left out of the film is Tolkien’s devout Catholicism. His faith was strong enough to help persuade C.S. Lewis to embrace Christianity. I would love to see a sequel to Tolkien depicting his adult friendship with the other writers (including Lewis and Charles Williams) known as The Inklings, in which faith could become a major character. Alas, this film is a box office failure.
If you have any interest in J.R.R. Tolkien, you should see this film. Flaws and all, it is still rather lovely.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Four halos: A tastefully done and mildly satisfying biopic about the early years of a significant writer.
Two pitchforks: Schoolboys behaving badly, including drinking; extreme war violence.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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