“Why do they keep making movies about writers?” a movie-obsessed acquaintance asked last week. It was a question I had never considered, really. There have been plenty of movies about writers over the years—because writers can make fabulous protagonists. Stephen King has created a cottage industry of fictional stories about writers, like “The Shining,” “Misery” and “Secret Window.” What my friend was referring to are the biopics of real-life authors. It seems like actors are chomping at the bit to play their favorite cunning linguists, portraying legendary writers like Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson and Shakespeare, to name but a few.
The truth is, a biopic centered around real-life fiction authors always end up taking a similar creative journey. Mostly what you discover is the famous writer found inspiration for his most famous work (or works) through real-life events. That’s about it. You might get some kernels of knowledge peppered throughout, but the main crux of these movies always seems to try and connect the real-life events to the inspirational fiction they created.
That’s pretty much all that “Tolkien,” the new origin story of famed “Lord of the Rings” author J.R.R. Tolkien. The framework for this movie is ridiculously simple. We meet young master Tolkien during the most tragic moments of his childhood. Without a father, in need of assistance from the church, young J.R.R. (Harry Gilby), his brother and his mother are forced to move to a new town. A kind man of the cloth helps the bright young lads get into a good school and give them tools to build a better life for themselves. The plan is surreptitiously decimated when Tolkien loses his mother and is forced to live in a boy’s home.
Tolkien’s mother was a massive influence in his life, inspiring him with stories of swords and sorcery. Her absence forms a vacuum, one he fills when he befriends three boys in school with similar ambitions—a “fellowship,” if you will. It was the “fellowship” that inspired “The Lord of the Rings.”
The story of Tolkien’s boyhood is intercut with moments from his young adulthood. Post-pubescent Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) is trying to find his way as a bright, extremely good-looking poor man in elitist turn-of-the-century England.
He meets Edith (Lily Collins), another orphan at the group home, and is instantly smitten. The best scenes of the movie feature these two as they navigate the throbbing impulses of young love over some wonderful conversations about art and language. There were moments where I wished the entire movie had been about these two. Their chemistry and charm could produce a smile on the most hardened curmudgeon. Unfortunately, “Tolkien” spends way too much cutting back and forth between periods of his life. There’s as much pointless time travel in Tolkien as “Avengers: Endgame.”
There’s a lot of time and care put into some framing sequences involving the World War I—beautifully filmed moments amongst some of the most horrific battlefields ever created, as Tolkien looks for one of his friends gone missing and believed to be dead. While this plot point makes the friendship flagships seem like a precursor for tragedy, it does help add weight and a sense of foreboding throughout the film. We’re getting to know the young men, and understand their passion for life could be snuffed out by a senseless, grotesque conflict.
There’s a lot to like about “Tolkien.” Fundamentally, the film leans heavily into weaving inspirations of his most famous literary works into the narrative. Huge fans of “The Hobbit” or “The Lord of the Rings” will see clearly peppered parallels everywhere. Anyone unfamiliar with the works of J.R.R. Tolkien might just think he or she is watching a very talky British film about love, friendship and the lengths one person is willing to go in order to preserve them. In that respect, “Tolkien” is a film worth watching. Even without the cinematic devices used to link the author to the work, there’s a charming central story that feels exceptionally earnest.