Review: Tolkien is a Mediocre Biopic About a Great Author

A young Tolkien against a backdrop of ideas to later become The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. / IMDB

The new biopic Tolkien, starring Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins, hit theaters worldwide Friday, May 10 aiming to enlighten viewers on the early life of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, more commonly known as J.R.R. Tolkien.

J.R.R. Tolkien is the author of seminal pieces of fantasy literature, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Though most are familiar with the Peter Jackson film adaptations of Tolkien’s novels (which are amazing), it is important to acknowledge how the stories originated back in the early 20th century, and I was hoping Tolkien would do just that.

But this biopic chooses not to focus on the better-known aspects of Tolkien’s life and instead digs into his personal life prior to the creation of Middle Earth. Segments of the film follow Tolkien’s pursuit of his soon to be wife Edith, the lifelong friends he made at boarding school, and the impact and inspiration that came from serving in World War I to establish the foundations for the legendary stories to come.

Most moviegoers might not be bothered by the film’s portrayal of the author’s life, however fans of Tolkien, like myself, may walk out of the theater disappointed. The performances from the film’s two main stars are enjoyable and keep the movie entertaining, but the way certain references to Tolkien’s well-known books are embedded into the film is everything but subtle, tainting the film’s overall tone.

When young Tolkien and his friends form their T.C.B.S. society, for example, it is blatantly declared a “fellowship”, not a friendship, nodding to the title of Tolkien’s first novel in the The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, evoking a quiet chuckle for its conspicuous delivery. As the film progresses, the cheesy lines continue to outdo those before. Not to mention the stress put on ensuring we all know the correct pronunciation of Tolkien (toll-keen).

For all its faulty dialogue, the film was visually stunning and occasionally successful in its efforts to intertwine aspects of Middle Earth into Tolkien’s real world, capturing the beauty of the fictional universes Tolkien manifested throughout his novels. I also admired– though it was admittedly a far stretch– the incorporation of some The Lord of the Rings characters like the Nazgûl and what can be assumed to be Smaug into the scenes in which young Tolkien is traversing the trenches at the Battle of Somme. Visually, those scenes were some of the most stunning.

Most devout fans won’t learn anything new about Tolkien and his life pre- The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The film barely scratches the surface of the great life of this monumental writer, leaving more to be discovered by curious viewers willing to take the time and immerse themselves in Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

I don’t regret going to see the film, but it’s not worth watching again.

Instead, I’ll find satisfaction revisiting the novels and movies themselves, researching Tolkien on my own terms, and continuing my celebration of the author whose novels have greatly influenced my life. I advise you pick up a book and do the same.

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