– By Maria Andress –
The new Tolkien biopic released in the US last weekend turns out to be a pleasant meander from one tapestry moment in author and linguist J.R.R. Tolkien’s life to the next, but it could hardly be what Catholics or avid lovers of Tolkien the man would deem satisfying.
Emotionally and cinematically, the film by Finnish director Dome Karukaski is replete with gorgeous shots, splendid costuming, and ethereal editing that speaks Tolkien. Overall the acting was well-done, particularly of the boy actors who embodied a brotherhood not just in concept but in context and action — something not often portrayed well in film. There are several wonderful scenes on the contribution of art or Tolkien’s pursuit of language, and aside from the one scene with two small baudy painting done by the rebellious friend of their group, this film has no clear visuals uncomfortable to morals.
Admittedly, the two conventional “love scene” moments felt rather boring and commonplace, though one could argue that the actions of love are relatively the same for any couple — it’s just that to the individual story or couple that they are unique. Overall, however, the film is moving, worthy of the period genre, and a pleasant if incomplete sojourn.
What has kept it from success? Two words suffice: oversimplification and omission.
To a knowledgeable Catholic or Tolkien nerd, much — besides J.R.R. Tolkien’s Catholicity — has been oversimplified to fit a bird’s eye film view. Whether it’s his upbringing, his relationship with Edith Bratt, his literary pursuits, or his imagination (which he himself used to get bogged down in), it seems as if Disney’s anti-religion stance worked its way into the limitations of the director and pinned the script into mediocrity.
To the average viewer who does not really know Tolkien (arguably less than 50% of the audience for a small biopic film), this might not be as harmful overall. However, every bit of Catholicism or imagination or life detail that informed the man would have added that much more depth, symbolism, and context throughout the course of the film, perhaps giving it the punch of greatness it needed.
Had the film honored all the historical details of Tolkien’s life, then the artistic liberty taken with many of the references and editorial cuts of the film would provide new depth. As it stands, however, with the foundational characteristics and life details of Tolkien the man usually overridden, the emotional arcs that stayed true don’t stand a chance on their own.
If this is indeed Disney’s fault, Tolkien nerds might find rueful irony in the words of Tolkien himself on the subject in one of his letters: “It might be advisable, rather than lose the American interest, to let the Americans do what seems good to them — as long as it was possible (I should like to add) to veto anything from or influenced by the Disney studios (for all whose works I have a heartfelt loathing).”
As for the Catholicism, it appears to be a sin of omission to exclude the fact that Tolkien’s mother was penniless and friendless because of her conversion to Catholicism. Karuski said that scenes on Tolkien’s Faith had been filmed, but had fallen flat and missed the cut, explaining, “Religion is so internal, it’s hard to visualize.” One has to give him a thumbs up though for including a crucifix tombstone in one clip of the Somme battle and for allowing shots of Tolkien looking up to the heavens presumably for help from God.
This omission error could be attributed to the normalized divorce of religion from modern storytelling as a way of appealing to any race, creed, or nationality in the audience. Precisely a problem that Tolkien would have pointed out in his abhorrence of modern thought and process.
If this film was about how Tolkien’s early life provided inspiration for The Lord of the Rings, then a famous quote from one of the author’s letters should have been foremost in the minds of the filmmakers: “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion,’ to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”
If that quote was not enough, then also take a look at this one: “We have come from God and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed, only by myth-making, only by becoming a ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man ascribe to the state of perfection that he knew before the fall.” When that is the basis of Tolkien the man, no film could hope to be complete without trying to capture it.
Many points in the film floundered with omission. Visuals of Catholicism and how it affected the foundations of his life would have added better perspective and poignancy to his childhood move, his mother’s death, and his relationship with Edith Bratt (including her conversion to Catholicism). It would have added context and depth to his argument in the garden with Father Francis Morgan instead of making the scene seem like a cliché rebellion against the Catholic morals of the priest. Perhaps most importantly, it would have lent credibility to the imaginings of his future stories drawn in the film.
While secular industry critics speculate on why the Tolkien Estate never officially endorsed this new film, Catholics and literary enthusiasts might nod knowingly–however cinematic and fun this meander through the early life of J.R.R. Tolkien might be, his own estate could hardly give the stamp of approval to a piece that misses the historic details of his life and leaves out Tolkien’s own acknowledged defining characteristic, his love for the Catholic Faith.
About the Author
Maria Andress is a film production and acting alumna from JPCatholic (Class of ’17) who hails from the proud green and gold state of Wisconsin. She is currently working in film producing, and pursuing a career in period film production. She is also a travel enthusiast always on the lookout for a fascinating idea or historical tidbit that she can translate to story through the many mediums of art.