In 2001, Peter Jackson brought J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of The Rings” into the realm of cinema and a new generation grew up with Frodo and the story of the One Ring. It was a blockbuster, but it wasn’t really a success—and it was deja vu all over again.
Tolkien’s first fame culminated in being embraced by the ’60s counterculture, which he rejected indignantly. His second fame he would also have rejected, since it meant something equally childish and sentimental. I think it’s fair to say we all love these movies, but Tolkien would not love us for it.
You can find clues about why in the fate of these stories. They eventually turned into memes about walking into Mordor. They earned several billion dollars and several Oscars, only to spur Jackson to bowdlerize his work by making “The Hobbit” into yet another trilogy, even though it was more computer game imagery than story.
Whatever hope Tolkien had of influencing the culture was dashed again. The culture always lets him down, I’m afraid. At this point, there are very successful Tolkien computer games where you get to kill all sorts of creatures in all sorts of delightfully gory ways, one puzzle at a time. To speak in Tolkien terms for a minute, every time people hear his stories, they get a hankering to put on the Ring of Power and take it for a ride.
Harry Potter-izing Tolkien’s Mythology
For a brief moment after 2001, it seemed like stories about morality and tragedy could become popular in America. That’s “The Lord of The Rings” for you—it’s not the usual happy end we seek, it’s very melancholy, and it features a lot of evil. Then it all turned into sentimentality. The effectual truth of these movies is not Tolkien—it’s Harry Potter.
That was an even more popular story and it’s still making billions of dollars, but it’s cheap sentimentality by Tolkien’s standards. That’s a very unpopular thing to say, and it’s the beginning of the truth about Tolkien—he was and is and will be, as long as he is remembered, a very unpopular man.
But since we love Tolkien’s stories, Hollywood is sure we’re going to love him personally, too—as soon as they turn his biography into a Harry Potter story about yet another English orphan who finds love and friendship in the period costumes and décor of Victorian and Edwardian England.
We love English accents and you get to shoot the film in Oxford, so what’s more postcard cinematic than that? Thus, the man himself can also be reduced to sentimentality and then we will finally conquer his resistance to our popular taste. But I think Hollywood’s wrong and this movie will flop humiliatingly.
So people who love Tolkien’s books should do well to learn from the failure of this movie, which was rejected by the Tolkien estate and family just before it was released. There is much to learn about what we get wrong about storytelling and why that is. It might also mean that we have a new chance to think about these much-beloved stories and how to deal with them as a culture—which is more urgent a concern than you might think, since Amazon bought the rights to them and will produce something—whether it’s very good or very bad.
Hallmark Movie Plus Biopic
“Tolkien,” meanwhile, was made by Fox Searchlight as a combination of Hallmark movie and awards season biopic. Tolkien is played by Nicholas Hoult, a promising young actor who acts as well as he can, given that his script and director have given him very little clue about Tolkien. It’s just another romantic (but repressed) loyal, but shy, young Victorian Englishman.
He was a very peculiar man in reality, but our storytelling aggressively normalizes him. This is because the biopic has rules of its own and the story of the troubled genius who fights against his society cannot be changed. The politics of Hollywood demand it and everything else be damned.
The troubled young genius is of course saved by a beautiful, smart, morally perfect, socially oppressed, but outspoken and principled young woman, Edith Bratt played by Lily Collins in a role that’s sure to make her career more difficult by reason of insipidity. This is regrettable, since the actress is charming. There is neither depth nor interest in the character on the screen—again, a very peculiar young woman is made aggressively normal to fit the standards of 21st-century biopics. It makes you wonder, why bother with people from another time if we have to reduce them to boring, conventional people of our own times?
So also with Tolkien’s friends, who are rowdy but sentimental and artistic, oppressed by bourgeois society, privileged by their social class, but actually normal—playful, looking to get drunk and go out with girls, plus creative. You’ve seen these characters a million times before, and you’re doomed to see them again. The movie’s great achievement is to remove any sense of tragedy from the fate it announces at the beginning—death in the trenches of the Great War, for them and for so many others.
Hollywood’s Distortions Obscure the Story
In a way, this is the most shocking thing, since the most distinctive thing about the age of aristocracy was a willingness to die on principle. We tend to lie about this: Remember the Titanic? The movie tells you aristocrats locked the poor in the sinking ship, when in reality they died gallantly to save the women and children of the poor. Noblesse oblige.
So also with this privileged youth of England we see in “Tolkien”—their fathers were dangerously imprudent, but the boys on principle died together, in vast numbers, as the last of the officer class of the British Empire. This thought is unthinkable in Hollywood, apparently.
The movie starts with the war and keeps cutting back to it, as though this was the most important event in the young man’s life, but it also lies about the situation. Tolkien went to war married, unlike in the movie, so his young wife’s acceptance of a terrible situation is quietly removed from the story. He also chose to complete his education before going to war. Tolkien said he just wasn’t man enough to sign up, even though his family felt humiliated by his cowardice. This might make for interesting drama and real characterization, but it too is all concealed.
More still, the young men who signed up in 1914 didn’t know what was going to happen to them. Tolkien signed up mid-1915 and only ended up in France a year later—at which point everyone knew it was a slaughterhouse with no hope of victory. That, too, is completely concealed from the audience, although it is a fact of some importance. Instead, we get “war is hell” montages done by people who have no talent for it.
The movie is not bad, it’s just banal. At the end of it, you will know no more about Tolkien than you did before, even aside from the liberties it takes with his life. This is frustrating, since he really was a very interesting man whose peculiarities ended up revealing so much about Victorian England.
The movie minimizes his orphanhood and that of his wife, makes even less of his Catholic faith, which decided most important things in his life (but is unacceptable in Hollywood), and ends up making his art a kind of sentimentality for all to share in, not the unique calling of one man. Of course, his incredibly conservative political and social views are completely concealed.
The ugly truth is that the purpose of such movies—and this is just the most unsuccessful, therefore obvious, attempt—is to persuade gullible people to admire the banality they see on screen. It hopes to take our natural love for the good and the great and turn it into an engine to reproduce liberal pieties about creative individualism, however much someone’s life has to be disfigured in the process.
This attempt to control our natural admiration should be denounced. Tolkien deserved and deserves better than this caricature—so do we, the audience.