The best film about J.R.R. Tolkien is still The Fellowship of the Ring. I use the word “about” because Fellowship gets at the purest elements of his legendarium and his soul. The Elves are still mysterious and dangerous, the world feels big and ancient, and the Shire gets a lot of screentime. I truly believe he would have genuinely liked that adaptation of his work and seen his own personality reflected in it. The sequels, prequels, and older animated films probably would not have jived with him as well.
The original Peter Jackson-helmed trilogy was generally excellent, but its indebtedness to John Howe’s aesthetic would have irked the Old Don. Howe’s paintings are fantastic, and their influence really pushed those films from simple fantasy fare into greatness. But visually, my guess is that Tolkien probably saw Middle Earth more like the Rankin Bass adaptation of The Hobbit. The dark organicism of Howe is brilliant in its own right, but it doesn’t really feel like Tolkien. The myths he created are textually rich and thick with content, but his imagery needed to be less precise in order to stimulate the imagination. Howe brings a kind of visual cohesion to the Jackson trilogy that books simply do not require.
But Fellowship also focuses most intensely on the theme of Fellowship. That alone probably makes it the most Tolkienish of the films, and that is part of what the latest film about Tolkien, titled simply Tolkien, also tries to get at. And if it had stuck with just that one theme, maybe the final product would’ve been narratively cohesive.
For fans of Tolkien, there is much to enjoy and like in this film. There are a spate of wonderful moments throughout, most of which are connected to Tolkien and his wife. As Edith Tolkien, Lily Collins is truly excellent, both strong and tender. She has enough chemistry with Nicholas Hoult (adult Tolkien) that their romance is convincing without feeling too Hollywood, which is very important because all the actors feel too sexy for this film. Collins, in particular, is gorgeous, but her ability to consistently act with grounded humanity counterbalances this. Since Edith was supposedly the inspiration for the three unions of Elves and Men, which are always about lowly men seeking after angelic Elvish ladies, Tolkien himself assuredly saw her this way.
Some critics have pointed out that the film is debaptized of Tolkien’s Christianity. This is mostly true. It’s also not a particularly good argument for the film’s badness. The same thing could be (and was) said of last year’s Wrinkle in Time, but that isn’t what made that film awful, and neither was its cloying attempt at intersectional storytelling. Those didn’t help, but it was just a bad film adaptation of a book that doesn’t lend itself to adaptation.
I’m not sure that Tolkien would’ve minded watching a story about his life that didn’t make much of his Christianity, as long as that story was entertaining and got at other important things about him. As I’ve already said, there are great moments in the film, moments that do get at what he was about – but those moments don’t hold together in a cohesive narrative.
Cradle to grave biopics always fail. I can’t think of a good one. The best biopics focus intensely on a key moment from a historical person’s life. Some excellent examples of this are Walk the Line, Chappaquiddick, Shadowlands, and Tombstone. Tombstone is particularly instructive because it can be compared with that other atrocious Wyatt Earp film from the early 1990s, simply titled Wyatt Earp. Tombstone succeeds for many reasons, just as Earp fails for many reasons, but the biggest difference between them is that one focused on a story within Earp’s life and the other focused on Earp’s life. Three hours is simply not enough time to tell a life story in any way that approaches meaningful, but two hours is a perfect amount of time to tell the story surrounding the shootout at the OK Corral.
In some ways this adaptive problem is the central point of Citizen Kane. Of course, in the end, Rosebud turns out to be a sled and a symbol of lost innocence, but really it represents the total inability of any piece of art to encapsulate a human life. That is why the last image in Kane is the words, “No Trespassing.” Human life can’t be encapsulated; we are simply too complicated. One section of a person’s life is all that the medium of film can sustain. Kane may be the best cradle to grave biopic ever because it isn’t real, unless satirizing William Randolph Hearst counts.
Tolkien doesn’t completely fall prey to this adaptation fallacy. It isn’t a cradle to grave attempt. But it does not focus its story on any one thing. It’s a string of vignettes. Instead of being called simply Tolkien, it should have been subtitled Scenes From His Life. If you’re a fan of Tolkien, it is certainly worth watching these scenes eventually – on Netflix or something. But this is by no means a definitive cinematic statement of the man, though I’m not sure anyone really wants to see that film anyway. It is Tolkien’s stories that we love, not the story of Tolkien. He was an interesting man, but also quite boring as a subject of intense study. That’s a compliment to him. Happy people are boring people, and most of Tolkien’s adult life was happy.
C.S. Lewis’ biopic films are far more interesting because Lewis was a sadder person. Although they both served, WWI simply doesn’t attach itself to Lewis the same way it does to Tolkien. It is almost like WWI is necessary for Tolkien’s humanity in a way that Lewis simply does not need.
The WWI scenes are, at least visually, the most interesting this film has to offer. But the execution of those scenes also presents the biggest problem with the film, because this film is trying to interpret Tolkien’s work as fundamentally Freudian. I mean this in a very imprecise way. They aren’t saying his writing was sexual or something silly like that, but that his writing wasn’t an act of creation based around the utilization of older creative influences. The film is trying to present the creation of Middle Earth, Hobbits, etc. as environmental in origin, rather than purposeful.
A film like Alien is intentionally Freudian in a very different way. That film’s reliance upon H.R. Giger’s psychosexual surrealism creates an unparalleled emotional anxiety throughout. That use of Freud is explicitly grounded in how fragile sexuality becomes when the normal constraints are taken away. But the vast majority of modern art criticism still interprets almost everything through a kind of diluted pop Freudian lens. Almost nothing is as explicitly sexual as Alien, yet somehow sexual repression makes it into almost every analysis of anything, especially media that sexual libertines do not like.
But there’s another Freudianism, the imprecise one referred to above, that’s even more ubiquitous. This says that character is determined, not developed. Decisions are not as important as biological processes and environment. This applies to both ethics and creative media like film or novels. Trump has laid this embarrassingly bare within the leftist media. Instead of just condemning the bad or stupid things Trump does, there is a consistent tendency to explain his actions psychologically. Sometimes people are just A-holes. Sometimes an action is just a choice. Everything humans do is influenced by environment and biology. Philosophers have always known this, but almost every culture has taken as axiomatic that choices matter as well.
Contemporary Freudian hermeneutics, though, are completely reliant upon merely materialistic processes to explain everything. This is why the concept of sin or malformation was almost entirely replaced by addiction. The most profound Christian philosophy has used addiction and mental illness to inform our understanding of sin, but not to replace it. A contemporary worldview is often shocked by the fact that most historians do not believe Hitler was insane. Today, evil is equated with insanity. Thomas Harris has brilliantly deconstructed this through the character of Hannibal Lecter.
Lecter is an artistic homicide who kills for the sake of killing, but the Freudian or materialistic interpretation says that any “bad output” from a human comes from a “bad input.” We know this because the real Lecters that are found among us all the time face constant psychological scrutiny. Some thinkers are truly naive enough to believe that something like an evil gene exists, and that once we identify it, the goal will be to create a pill that is capable of curing it.
Along these lines, novels, paintings, etc. are consistently seen as something like an inevitable output from an artist’s various inputs. This removes the inherent dignity and worth of art. Ethically, it becomes no different from a bowel movement. Instead of Georgia O’Keefe’s corpus being seen as a beautiful and objective examination of color and shape, it’s just a soul dump.
This is the worst way that the film has debaptized J.R.R. Tolkien. It is one thing to not mention his Catholicism very much, it is quite another to give a materialistic interpretation of his life and especially his work. That would have infuriated him. The implication is that his work ended up being a frustrated allegory for his life, and he hated allegory. But more than that, he deeply believed that humans were participatory actors in the divine work of creation, that writing and creating myths was an outflowing of God’s image in man. The materialist expects that man will create art because it is inevitable that man will do and be all the things that he will do and be. Everything is inevitable for the materialist.
In my undergrad art appreciation class, our teacher asked us why humans create art. My response was that if we really are made in God’s image, then it should be expected – not that everyone must or will create art, but anyone potentially could. We are children of heaven and not merely earth. Whatever the true nature of the muses may be, God has given them permission to speak with us.
I may be overreading my Freudian analysis into the film, but when the smoky towers of industrialized London immediately bring to mind Barad-dûr, it’s hard to ignore. When flamethrowers and tanks are literally transformed into dragons, it is hard to find another explanation.
Of course, not every environmental response must be seen as purely Freudian. There is no way to get around the fact that Tolkien was responding to his experiences in WWI. The “Great War” was horrible, with far-reaching effects. Frodo’s reason for boarding the White Ships and leaving the Shire behind sounds too much like PTSD to be shrugged off as a mere artistic flourish. But there is a big difference between affectation and determination. And maybe all the filmmakers intended was the former, but the visual interpretations often felt like the latter.
This film did give me a romantic glimpse into part of Tolkien’s story that I really knew nothing about. For that alone, I’m glad it exists. I just wish the rest of its parts were better knit together.