Editors Note: This article is a guest contribution from Jason Delgado.
By Jason Delgado
What makes a great writer? It’s not enough to simply be a wordsmith, as is pointed out in this film to J.R.R. Tolkien (aka Ronald, in this movie). It takes imagination and a connection with the audience to have any lasting impact, both of which are sorely lacking in Tolkien.
Writers often hear the advice, “write what you know.” So Tolkien meets hobbits, elves, wizards, and Gollum on an epic adventure for the one ring to rule them all, right? Not quite. This is a coming-of-age tale about an orphan who becomes part of a “fellowship” of 3 other boys who discuss literature and art, while also being a fragmented love story, intercut with World War I in France.
Tolkien is an hour and fifty-two minutes long, but it feels like watching a Lord of the Rings film, and not in a good way. Much of the movie drags on at a snail’s pace, as if the viewer has to endure the King Edward’s School in Birmingham with the younger version of Tolkien. The potential for a better film is frustratingly buried underneath all of this.
It’s a bloody shame that the film drags so much, because the actors in Tolkien have talent, and there are brief moments of emotional connection to the characters and this film, but they are not enough to combat the viewers’ waning interest. Nicholas Holt (better known as the Beast in the recent X-men movies) does a fine job as Ronald Tolkien, even though he’s not given much to work with. The same is true for Tolkien’s romantic interest, Edith Bratt, played by the lovely Lily Collins. Holt and Collins have a nice chemistry together, yet the writing does their love story little justice. Tolkien’s three tea club friends: Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney), Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson) and Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle) are good additions to the cast, if unspectacular because they are unremarkable. The way they are written, they could be interchanged with witty, wise-cracking type school boys from any other number of other films.
Ronald is told by two different characters in the movie (his girlfriend, and a professor) the advice that words are nothing if they are without meaning. Someone should have told the screenwriters of Tolkien (David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford) that films are nothing without imagination. They briefly show Tolkien imagining dragons and the Ringwraiths from LOTR during his time in the war, and we all know of Tolkien’s epic creativity from his work, so it’s maddeningly vexing that the script shows no inventiveness of its own.
When making a movie based on one of the best fantasy writers of all-time, “you better come original,” as the 90’s hip hop and reggae infused alt-rock band 311 would say. I have the same beef with the new version of the Twilight Zone. The original is a beloved classic that holds up today because of the writing of the genius Rod Serling (among others), while the new version (so far) is a pale comparison, due to the poor writing. It’s like watching Steven Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park, and then the Geico Caveman commercials, and being asked to compare the two (to be fair to the cavemen, those commercials can be entertaining).
Tolkien is almost a tale of two different schizophrenic films. I enjoyed the scene early on where Tolkien and Edith are on a date and he is telling her about his new language that he created (which later becomes Elvish), and she tells him that the word “hand,” has meaning because it’s associated with “touch,” as their two hands link for the first time romantically. I did not enjoy a different date later in the movie, at a ritzy establishment, where Edith was bored (much like the viewers of this film), so she flicks some food onto a lady who doesn’t seem to notice, and then challenges Ronald to do the same, as he vigorously protests by saying “I wouldn’t dare.” The next scene shows them being dragged out. It came off as lazy, rather than charming, and sadly that was the prevailing feeling I got from Tolkien. Another example of poor writing (or it could have been the editing) was that one of the major relationships of the movie was left as an unresolved loose end. I won’t go into specifics because it would be a major spoiler, but it was an odd choice, one that I believe was made because the film was already too long.