When I wrote in March of my visit to New York, and the Morgan Library's Tolkien exhibit, and the two-day conference for which many distinguished Tolkienists gathered, I left something out.
Saturday morning, before any of the other conference events occurred, most of the conference presenters converged from various directions in the chilly quiet of a March weekend morning in New York, on an otherwise deserted (not yet open for the day) spacious multiplex movie theatre out on the far fringes of East Midtown. (I hadn't known there were any multiplexes in Manhattan, did you?) This was the first most of us had seen of each other on this visit, and it was a strange way to greet old friends. I was walking along a deserted street towards the theatre, for instance, when a man crossed the street and fell into step beside me to greet me: it was Peter Grybauskas. In the theatre were many more, including John Garth, the British scholar whose biography Tolkien and the Great War is the closest thing to a book equivalent to the movie we were there to see, which was of course the Tolkien biographical film which is just now hitting general release.
And the reason I haven't said anything about it until now is that we all had to sign embargo forms before entering the theatre. This didn't surprise me: I've previously been asked not to publish pre-release reviews of movies I've seen in private previews, though this was the first time I had to sign a form. Curiously, the form bore no date on which the embargo expired, so I wrote "until the film's general release" on the form before signing it. Others were less punctilious, but at least one person there blanched at the form and refused to sign it at all, and therefore (as far as I know) did not see the movie.
But now it's out so I may speak. So I'll tell you what I said. When the lights came up I turned to Janet Croft and David Emerson, who were seated near me, and said, "If they're going to make stuff up, why can't they at least make a coherent and interesting story out of it?" Only I didn't say "stuff."
The plot covers Tolkien's life from the time his family moved away from idyllic Sarehole (at which time Tolkien was 8, though he's played as a boy by a young man who was something like 16 at the time of filming) until his return from France during WWI, with a couple of later epilogues. The elements mostly come from his life, but by the time he gets to Oxford, the sequence and causality of the plot have departed sufficiently from historical fact that it's essentially made up. But if they're going to play so loose with history, why not include even any of the historically known ways that Tolkien's life inspired his fiction, let alone make any up which they were free to do?
The movie is being promoted as "explor[ing] how ... time spent in college and his service in the British army ... and other events influenced his classic works," but that’s exactly what it doesn't do.
For instance, in an epilogue title card we’re told that the names of Beren and Lúthien appear on Ronald and Edith’s tombstone, but nothing is said in the movie itself of the inspiration for that story. There's a brief shot of Edith dancing in the woods (at a different date than the occasion which actually inspired the story), but the allusion is left completely untouched.
I subsequently saw an interview with the director who said that he was trying to avoid the implication that Tolkien's fiction encoded his life. An admirable concern, but that ship has sailed. The only point in making a commercial movie of Tolkien's early life is to show how he became the man who wrote the fiction, and you can do that without reducing the fiction to a commentary on the life. See John Garth's book for a start.
But it's worse than lacking that connection. The movie keeps telling us that Tolkien was marvelously creative, but what it shows us is a man who's mostly inert or at best reactive (more often unreactive). There's a scene at the TCBS where the others ask Tolkien what he's written lately and he says he hasn't written anything. Why is this scene in the movie, then? There's another scene where he brings Edith to meet the TCBS (I don't think this ever actually happened) and the conversation is awkward at first, but as soon as Edith gets into a juicy discussion of Wagner with Christopher Wiseman, Tolkien jumps up and says they have to leave. Why does he do this? In the next scene Edith chews him out for it, but there's never any explanation or an attempt to fit this in to a larger pattern of behavior. There's almost as much attention in this movie to G.B. Smith's poetry as to Tolkien’s writings.
Nor does the movie entirely avoid showing Tolkien's creativity being inspired. But what it does show – fragments of some stories which have nothing to do with the legendarium; a hallucination of mounted knights clashing on the Somme; artwork pinned to Tolkien's walls that appears inspired by the Book of Ishness but is far grimmer than anything actually appearing there – is of a tenor to give more the impression that Tolkien is the author not of his books but of Peter Jackson's movies. At the end there's a casual attempt to wrap up every experience Tolkien has had and claim they went together to make up The Hobbit, but it's glib and the book doesn't carry that kind of weight.
I found this movie dull and meandering. By far the best acting in it came from by far the best-known actor in it, Derek Jacobi as Joseph Wright. Laura Donnelly (new to me) as Tolkien's mother shows some zest, and the bit in which she reads from Völsunga saga to her boys is my favorite scene in the movie, as well as the one most relevant to Tolkien's inspiration. Nicholas Hoult as the adult Tolkien looks pained a lot. Lily Collins as Edith pouts a lot. The actors playing the other TCBS members as adolescents have a liveliness to them which disappears when they're replaced by the actors who play them as adults. I don't anticipate this movie having a major impact on public perception of Tolkien, simply because it doesn't have the kind of appeal, as a film on its own account, that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies certainly had.