Tolkien, the movie

The new biopic, Tolkien, was clearly written for me.

But you’ll enjoy it too.

What, you may wonder, do I mean by claiming that it was written for me? Of course that is not literally true: the film-makers don’t know me, don’t care about me, and have other things in mind. What I mean is that it’s a nearly perfect fit with what I know and what I care about.

This movie is a biography of J.R.R. Tolkien’s early life, from the time when he was orphaned by the death of his mother from Type 1 diabetes in 1904 when he was 12. (His father had died nine years earlier.) The family’s priest became his guardian. The movie traces his life from this point through his early adulthood. What made me feel that I was the desired audience was the tremendous attention to accurate detail, especially linguistic detail. As you may or may not know, it was the construction of artificial languages (with surrounding stories) that spurred Tolkien to write The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and this is made fairly clear in the movie. A lot of other matters related to linguistics appear throughout, including the relationship between sound and meaning (especially the famous issue of whether “cellar door” is the most beautiful English word), posters on Tolkien’s wall in the version of runic used in The Hobbit, and a fairly long thread about his knowledge of old and ancient languages. I especially liked the scene where he is called on by a teacher in his new school to read aloud from Chaucer; you need to know that he had entered late in the fall and therefore missed the beginning of the course, but he was the only one in the class to read confidently with correct pronunciation — and from memory, without looking at the text! Needless to say, this made him very unpopular with his classmates, but you can see why I say the movie was written for me.

If you need a trigger warning, let me point out that there are a lot of violent scenes from World War I, interspersed as flash-forwards so that you don’t get too much of it all at once. But these scenes add a lot to the movie, including not only the sense of fellowship that drove Tolkien’s novels but also many scenes that echoed ones from the movie version of Lord of the Rings. There are many other connections and echoes, such as Tolkien’s wife’s fondness for Wagner’s Ring cycle. All in all, everything seemed spot on, representing reality in an all-too-real way, as I know from having seen the exhibit of Tolkien’s own papers, drawings, and maps.

Go see it!


Categories: Books, Movies & (occasionally) TV