One can’t study J. R. R. Tolkien for very long without encountering his preface to The Lord of the Rings in which he rejects forcefully any interpretations of that work that are allegorical.
Whether this is a dig at C.S. Lewis and his Narnian success (as is sometimes assumed) or simply a scrupulous case of word parsing from a man obsessed with language, Tolkien’s allergy to any attempts to draw parallels between his epic quest and the wars that shaped his time and life have always struck me as strangely defensive. Nevertheless, it’s his life and his writing, and authors trying to control the interpretations of their work is hardly a new phenomenon.
Having read that preface many times, I went into Tolkien, Dome Karukoski’s stately biopic with skepticism bordering on hostility. The film’s trailer made it look like a standard literary biopic pastiche of Easter eggs and insider references. Surely if the author rejected the notion that The Shire was England, he would be aghast at the insinuation that the Fellowship was a thinly veiled portrait of himself and his prep school buddies. Wouldn’t he?
It turns out that the best and worst thing about the film is that knowledge of Tolkien’s literary output is largely superfluous to following and enjoying the film. That’s a plus in my book, but I certainly understand how people drawn to the project through Peter Jackson’s gadawful movies might feel victims of a bait and switch. (Speaking of Jackson, the film’s inside-joke at his expense, when a character speaking of Wagner says that the story of a magic ring shouldn’t take six hours to tell, might be my favorite cinematic insult since George Lucas and Ron Howard invented the Eborsisk.)
What we get instead of biographical allegories is an attempt to understand why art and friendship were so important to Tolkien. After the early death of his father, Ronald (he is referred through much of the film by his middle name) is dependent on church charity. He’s well aware of and somewhat resentful at class prejudices, and he feels a constant tension between his true passions (Edith and philology) and the more practical paths of least resistance that he felts pushed towards by all but his friends.
One element that I very much appreciated about the film is that it shows Ronald’s friends as having actual merit. So often in these prep school settings, the isolated hero (or heroine) must make all the first moves. Tolkien was intelligent, and his intelligence here allows him to see not just the shallowness of shallow people but the depth of kind people and the character of conflicted ones.
The love story between Ronald and Edith Pratt (Lily Collins) is sweet and intelligent. In what is probably the film’s best scene, Edith chastises Ronald for not wanting to discuss big ideas with her as he does with his male friends. The rendering of female characters is often given as Tolkien’s major literary weakness, and I suppose one may hear echoes of Eowyn’s lament to Aragorn in Edith’s criticisms of the man she loves. Tolkien doesn’t exactly disentangle the man, his work, and his religion from the patriarchal soil in which they were all planted, but it at least presents the author as sympathetic to Edith’s longing for full inclusion in the passionate conversations he finds so spiritually sustaining.
In summary, the film is at its best when it stops presenting Tolkien’s life as the origin of his work and instead presents it as a story in its own right. That story is not as singular or sweeping as The Lord of the Rings, but it is one worth telling. Much as with Goodbye Christopher Robin, the film understands that people, whether at war or peace, find inspiration and meaning in stories. It celebrates the love of art, not just the love of a particular piece of art.