The Tolkien biopic has been in limited release for several weeks now, and assessments have appeared in many of the usual places by professional movie reviewers. I’ve decided to collect a few reviews by Tolkien scholars and fans. I’m not aiming to be comprehensive, so let me know in the comments if there’s a review I’ve missed that you particularly liked. The opinions summarized below range from quite positive to quite negative, and many in between. Of course, please don’t read these reviews if you’re avoiding spoilers!
Some Tolkien scholars and fans were given an opportunity to preview the movie at a couple of conferences last month. Possibly the first review to appear was by Christopher Vaccaro:
“’Hel-heime!’: The Daring Love Between Men in Dome Karukoski’s Tolkien.” Journal of Tolkien Research, vol. 6, no. 2, article 11.
Chris Vaccaro’s review focuses on the relationship represented in the movie between Tolkien and G.B. Smith, one of his school friends.
Also after a conference preview, Dawn Walls-Thumma described the lively discussion she had with some friends. They debated issues such as the ethics of adapting someone’s life and the problematic representation of Edith’s relationship with Tolkien. She thinks that the movie succeeds in general; she likes the representation of creative collaborations but finds that the movie resorts to some romantic clichés.
“Love, Friendship, and Stories: The Tolkien Biopic Informs and Inspires.” Tor.com, 10 May 2019.
Jeff LaSala asks who is this film for, and who will enjoy it the most? His answer is that it’s for all fans, but that probably “casual Tolkien fans who won’t notice the creative licenses taken” will enjoy it the most. His review includes a good list of what the movie doesn’t give us as well as what it does give us. His overall view is that the movie is “a worthwhile adventure.” This review comes with some reading recommendations for those who want to know more about Tolkien’s life and work.
“Tolkien (2019) Movie Review.“ Tolkien Guide.com, 6 May 2019.
Jeremy Edmonds finds that the movie is “broadly successful” especially for people with no prior knowledge of Tolkien’s life who won’t be annoyed by issues of historical accuracy. He thinks that the movie tried to make simple connections between events and people in Tolkien’s life and his fiction, but he does recommend the film “as art, not biography.”
This is the review that the movie director, Dome Karukoski, has proclaimed on Twitter to be his favourite (@domekarukoski). Brenton Dickieson states that he “decided to go and be open to loving the film—even knowing that it would be imperfect or even troubling at times.” The result is that he was “both relieved and impressed.” Although he believes that the movie could have used better CGI effects, “overall, the set design is lovely, the actors are compelling, the photography is excellent, the score invites empathy as a companion to the writing, and the storytelling is inviting.” His advice: don’t go into the movie expecting a documentary.
“Love, Study, Friendship, and War: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Early Life.” Times Literary Supplement, 15 May 2019.
This review is behind a paywall, but you might be able to find it in a library or store (although here in Nova Scotia, the print edition still hasn’t appeared on shelves; you’d have to read the review in the digital version of the TLS). Dimitra Fimi finds that the movie “strikes a fine balance.” She points out some elements that are just “plain wrong” but she also likes a number of scenes, such as the representation of the TCBS friendship, the love story of Tolkien and Edith, Tolkien’s developing ideas about language and mythology, and the horror of the Somme. However, she does point out that the movie does not adequately represent Tolkien’s and his mother’s Catholic faith, an important element in his life. There are a number of other good moments in the movie, according to Fimi; one that she especially likes is the reading of G.B. Smith’s last letter to Tolkien. Her conclusion is that the movie might bring more readers to Tolkien’s work and that “it has got many emotional aspects right.”
John Rateliff finds a number of praiseworthy elements: the cinematographer’s focus on trees, the look and feel of the movie set in a not-too-distant past, and the representation of how poverty limits a person’s options in life. What he doesn’t like, however, are the scenes with Tolkien wandering around on the battlefield. He also doesn’t find that the movie represents Tolkien’s inner creative life very well. Finally, he thinks the pace is too slow. His conclusion: “So, not a disaster some feared, not the travesty it cd have been, just not the success I’d hoped for.”
“Tolkien Film Fails to Capture the Majesty of His Achievement.” National Review.com, 9 May 2019.
The title pretty much summarizes it all. Joseph Loconte thinks that the movie represents neither Tolkien’s spiritual life nor the stories and myths that fueled his imagination. Although he does find some positive elements in the depiction of love and friendship, a major lack for Loconte is the absence in the movie of Tolkien’s Christian beliefs in accounting adequately for his outlook on life.
“Tolkien: the movie.” Tolkien Society blog, 11 May 2019.
“Tolkien: the Bio-Pic.” Calimac’s Journal, 10 May 2019.
David Bratman did not like the movie, and he explains why in two places: once on the Tolkien Society blog (May 11) and once in Calimac’s Journal (May 10). He thinks that the movie does not represent Tolkien’s creative sources well, and when it does attempt to illustrate some stories and artwork, “it is of a tenor to give more the impression that Tolkien is the author not of his books but of Peter Jackson’s movies.” He criticizes several other features of the movie, and his conclusion is that it is “dull and meandering.”
Do you agree or disagree with any one of these reviewers? Please feel free to add your opinions or other reviews that you found interesting in the comments.
Like other commentators, I can recommend some further reading if you’re interested in Tolkien’s biography: Humphrey Carpenter’s official biography or John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War would be good sources to consult. If you’d like a half-hour video documentary, I’d recommend Tolkien’s Great War by Elliander Pictures on Vimeo (which also features John Garth).
Tolkien. Fox Searchlight, 2019. Directed by Dome Karukoski. Written by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford. Performances by Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, Derek Jacobi, and others.