Why, oh why, it occurs to this critic to inquire, does a story as rich with drama as that of British novelist and master philologist J.R.R. Tolkien — the father of modern high fantasy himself! — seem so void of life onscreen? Tolkien was born in South Africa and orphaned at a young age. He fell in love with a boarding house roommate whom he was forbidden by his caretaker to see, and he later participated in some of the most horrendous combat of the First World War. Then he wrote The Lord of the friggin' Rings.
And yet, in the hands of Finnish director Dome Karukoski, Tolkien's life is merely a procession of non-pivotal moments that inspired his famous fiction. Here, we pause on the rolling British countryside or the puddled mud of the Somme and consider how it inspired the Shire or Mordor. There, we watch as German flamethrowers are transformed, in Tolkien's mind, into a belching dragon. Everywhere, we suffer allusions to rings and elves and, finally, an on-the-nose description of friendship as "fellowship." When a meaningless character who professes his loyalty to Tolkien on the French front lines is revealed to be named "Sam," you may shout, as I did: WE GET IT ALREADY!
(If you're not familiar with LOTR and/or its Hollywood adaptation, this is a reference to Samwise Gamgee, a fiercely loyal hobbit who accompanies protagonist Frodo Baggins, nephew of Bilbo Baggins, on his quest to destroy the one ring.)
Tolkien opens Friday at area theaters and is unlikely to make much of a dent at the box office, with Avengers: Endgame continuing its monopoly through a third weekend. Starring Nicholas Hoult as Tolkien and Lily Collins (Mirror Mirror) as his girlfriend Edith, the film chronicles the author's early life. Only in the film's final scene does Tolkien begin writing The Hobbit, but his fiction is the film's subtext. Fans of Tolkien's may appreciate the abundance of references to Middle Earth, but Karukoski's attempts to correlate actual events in the author's life with events from his books are pure fan fiction. In fact, it's the most imaginative thing about this otherwise formulaic biopic.
Beginning in 1916 amid the horror of the WWI trenches, the film mostly follows John Ronald Reul Tolkien as he seeks out a soldier friend who's been lost in the chaos of battle. As he staggers through the salient, we flash back to his youth. We watch the formation of the T.C.B.S, a "secret society" of the sort precocious elite high schoolers are wont to devise. And we watch as Tolkien and Edith fall in love. We watch, also, as Tolkien cultivates an appreciation and talent for language. Among the film's more notable achievements is demonstrating the centrality of language in Tolkien's artistic and academic pursuits. His fantasies follow from the creation of language, not the other way around. We see Tolkien learn that languages are nothing without history and legend and meaning attached to them. Creating Middle Earth seems to have been a way to bring the joy back to his scholarly work.
But Hoult's Tolkien, as a character, is just sort of meh. He's not Jude Law's ebullient Thomas Wolfe or Johnny Depp's zany Hunter Thompson or Cynthia Nixon's mannered Emily Dickinson. He's just an earnest young man who's really into words.