British thinker and writer J. R. R. (John Ronald Reuel) Tolkien (1892–1973) is one of the most beloved fantasy authors ever. As author of The Lord of The Rings trilogy and The Hobbit, his works rank among the best-selling books of all time. He has been popularly referred to as “the father of modern fantasy literature.” I saw the recent movie about his life, Tolkien, and wanted to offer my impressions.
Tolkien served as a British officer in the First World War and fought at the ominous Battle of the Somme. Many years later Queen Elizabeth II would honor him as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. A graduate from Exeter College, Oxford, Tolkien would later serve as a longtime professor of English language and literature at his famed alma mater. He was a philologist and mastered multiple languages. A close friend of fellow author and Oxford lecturer C. S. Lewis, Tolkien was a member (with Lewis) of the informal literary discussion group known as the Inklings. Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic by theological conviction.
Tolkien, the Movie
With the enormous success of The Lord of the Rings films, I was excited to hear about the new film that would feature Tolkien’s life. I love to learn about the lives of all my favorite Christian thinkers and authors because understanding their life events helps me to put their ideas into context.
Yet the new movie is not about Tolkien’s worldview. Rather, it is a snapshot of his early life up to his service in World War I. The film depicts Tolkien’s (played as a youth by Harry Gilby and as an adult by Nicholas Hoult) difficult life as an orphan and his formative academic years and friendships. The movie also recounts the love story involving Tolkien’s tumultuous early relationship with his future wife, Edith (played as a girl by Mimi Keene and as a woman by Lily Collins). The biopic presents flashbacks of Tolkien’s early life through the overarching prism of the utter devastation of World War I, which profoundly affected Tolkien and his friends.
Like all such films, Tolkien takes dramatic license and doesn’t follow the historical record of the writer’s life. Unfortunately, the movie does not explore Tolkien’s rich Christian (Catholic) faith, which leaves a gap in understanding what ultimately motivated Tolkien’s life and thought. I hope another film will pick up where this movie left off and illustrate Tolkien’s profound religious worldview.
Yet I still enjoyed the film. Tolkien had a tough life that was filled with suffering. I was moved by at least three things: (1) the thought that after being orphaned upon the death of his mother, Tolkien went on to become one of the world’s greatest writers; (2) the truly cataclysmic effects of the Great War, which are captured powerfully in the movie; and (3) Tolkien’s love for Edith, a woman he would be married to for almost sixty years.
So, while there are important things I wish Tolkien had included, I still recommend the movie as an engaging biopic of his early life. I hope you will appreciate, as I did, that some people emerge from difficult and often tragic circumstances to enrich the world with their talents and wisdom.
Reflections: Your Turn
How much do you know about J. R. R. Tolkien? Do you have a favorite book of his?
- C. S. Lewis scholar Michael Ward offers a largely critical review of the Tolkien film here: “This Tolkien Biopic Is Woefully Unconvincing“
- Tolkien scholar Colin Duriez greatly enjoyed the film and recommends this positive review: “1st Film Review: Tolkien a Gorgeous Blend of Language, Love, Loss“