Tolkien, Myth, and Reality

Last night I had the opportunity to catch an early showing of the new Tolkien biopic.  I’d known about the showing for a while, but wasn’t sure I would make the early showing, even though it had a 30-minute interview with Stephen Colbert and the cast/director of the movie screening afterwards.  But go I did (the latest I’d ever gotten to a “Tolkien” premiere in my life), and I stayed for the whole thing.  And while the movie is far from perfect, it is interesting on a couple of levels.  Here’s the final trailer:

The most interesting thing about the movie was watching the story of Tolkien’s life from this end, after years of watching movies based on his writings.  Sure, the director intentionally added a number of touches that made the leap from what he experienced in World War I with what he wrote about later, but that was almost unnecessary.  You see the soldiers being gassed and you think “the black breath of the riders.”  You see Tolkien waking up in the infirmary and you think  “Rivendell.”  So you don’t really need an imagined dragon or hooded figures on horses to make the leap to his great works.

Tolkien focuses on the professor’s early life, particularly with his boarding school/university friendships and how they lead into the Great War.  You get a lot of time with Edith, who will become his wife.  The through-line is a series of moments set during the Somme that involve his attempts at finding one of his close friends.  It cuts and moves rather quickly, which can be a bit frustrating.  But the acting and the scenery more than make up for the choppy pacing.

Stephen Colbert was a great interview host.  He asked good questions of Nicholas Holt and Lilly Collins (JRRT and Edith) and Dome Karukoski (the director).  It was clear that Karukoski had a deep knowledge of Tolkien’s world.  There  was a good deal of talk about “how Tolkien saved me from a bad childhood,” which was interesting.  But it also seemed to personalize the movie in a way that forced a certain interpretation on the events of the story.  I was glad when Colbert asked the faith question, as Tolkien’s Christian faith was mostly left out of the story.  Even though the explanation was decent, it felt like there was something more to explore there.

Tolkien won’t set the box office records on fire, particularly in the summer season of blockbusters.  And that’s okay.  The movie good: wonderfully acted and nicely filmed.  But the connective tissue that could have made it a great film just isn’t there.  There are a handful of beautiful scenes, though, that will make the movie worth a purchase and the scenes worth sharing with others.  Tolkien drops in most theaters this weekend.

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