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Alan Charlton

A script off the old writer's block

Voices May 13, 2019

Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins in Tolkien. “Perhaps it is unfair to expect any film to be able to demonstrate how a person develops as a writer, but Tolkien leaves us with more questions than answers,” writes Alan Charlton

I suppose most people have moments of missed opportunities in their lives. I was certainly reminded of this when viewing the movie, Tolkien.

To begin with, although a voracious reader at an early age, I was not introduced to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit until adulthood. Even allowing for the shortage of books in wartime England, just why this was so I cannot begin to guess, though in my first year at university Christopher Tolkien had the unenviable task of being my assigned tutor in Anglo-Saxon, preparing me for reading Beowulf in the original language.

My failure to read his famous father’s literary works, even though that father was head of the English Language faculty, continued. Despite the fact that the trilogy The Lord of the Rings was published during my undergraduate years and Blackwell’s, the iconic Oxford book store, had piles of the novel on display throughout that period of time, I was still not moved to read it – though I remained eternally grateful for J.R.R. Tolkien’s co-editing of the definitive edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. My reading of the man’s creative literature did not happen until much later when in the late ’60s and early ’70s everyone was reading Tolkien. I then happily embraced his works, dutifully went around wearing a “Frodo Lives” button, and realized what I had been missing all along.

Of course, millions of readers were far ahead of me, so that when Peter Jackson’s film versions came to the screen, viewers thronged to see them. I cannot share in the enthusiasm with which they greeted the films. I thought that they were too laboured and overblown, and felt particularly that his treatment of The Hobbit missed the charm and whimsicality of the book, a book to which I return quite often, partially in a vain attempt to experience what I missed as a child and above all because of its joyous entertainment value.

Now there comes along a film which attempts to portray the early life of the author, presumably to help viewers understand what shaped the writer. In that probably few are familiar with his life and would like to understand what forces contributed to his genius in creating the whole saga of Middle-Earth, the sad fact is that Tolkien proves to be another largely missed opportunity.

The film does present some salient events of his life: his moving from South Africa to Birmingham after the death of his father, his being handed over, on the death of his mother, to the guardianship of a well-meaning priest who arranged for him to be enrolled in a private (i.e. in England, Public) school, where after some bullying as a result of his being poor and academically brilliant, he became friends with three other artistically inclined classmates, forming a kind of self-praising club. He was attracted to a young (and equally impecunious) girl who became the love of his life; he was awarded a scholarship to Oxford; he experienced the horrors of trench warfare in World War I and developed trench fever; and, in what seems to be a highly romanticized view of events, he eventually became a student of the renowned language professor, Professor Joseph Wright, which set him on his brilliant academic career.

From this we are to assume that Tolkien developed some of the major themes of his books: the pursuit of love, the idea of fellowship, and the fighting with monsters.

There is even an illogical attempt to show how he began to develop a love of mythology when exposed in an unbelievable way to Wagner’s Ring cycle. Perhaps it is unfair to expect any film to be able to demonstrate how a person develops as a writer, but Tolkien leaves us with more questions than answers.

While it makes clear Tolkien’s love of languages, particularly Finnish, his ability to draw maps and creatures from his vivid imagination, and even invent his own language, just how this later flourished into his being both an authority on English language and literature and a controversial author of imaginative fiction is ignored.

Are we supposed to assume that his friendship with young would-be artists is what led to the later formation of the Inklings? Are we supposed to learn that his lack of money led to the idea of the pursuit of treasure? Are we really intended to accept that the use of flame-throwers in warfare led to his depiction of dragons?

None of this really works. Even the odd and completely surprising to the author of the writing of the opening sentence of The Hobbit is unsatisfactorily shown, let alone the mysterious forces which generated it. What is perhaps even more egregious is the omission of the spiritual component of Tolkien’s life. It is good that for once there is a depiction of a benign priest, but the film totally ignores the great importance that religion took in the life of the writer, who remained a devout Catholic throughout his life, a factor which impacted enormously on his writings.

In short, Tolkien offers just a sketchy outline of the author’s formative years and one which may well confuse North American viewers in that so much that is essentially British is left unexplained. It certainly does not help us to understand the factors which led to works of enormous creativity and widespread appeal.

Like so much else in life, the film is a missed opportunity – but that, in this case, might simply be because of the impossible nature of the task.