Review: Tolkien (Dome Karukoski, 2019)
I probably should admit upfront that I am an avid fan of J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. When Peter Jackson’s trilogy was released back in 2001-2003, I devoured the books and watched each film three times at the cinema. I marvelled at the extended DVD versions (with a complete running time of over 11 hours) and trawled through all the extra bonus material countless times over. I was even lucky enough to visit some of the film locations during a visit to New Zealand, a place that is stunning enough without CGI wizardry. So, the announcement of a biopic on Tolkien’s life proved an exciting addition to the canon of academic work published and documented about the author (Fig. 1). I should also add that, despite my fondness for the films and books, I do not consider myself to be a Tolkien scholar. There are many who are more informed about the intricacies of his life and work, such as the excellent Dimitra Fimi who lectures on fantasy literature at the University of Glasgow. This review of the newly-released biopic Tolkien (Dome Karukoski, 2019) is not necessarily concerned with the authentic depiction of Tolkien ‘the man’, but rather explores the components that underpin the fabric of how the biographical film operates. Specifically, I shall focus in this post on the use of visual effects featured in Tolkien, and consider the ways in which they are employed to embellish the film’s narrative.
As George Custen outlines, the biographical film, or biopic, traditionally depicts “the life of an historical person, past or present’, providing ‘the official story” of a real person whose real name is used (1992: 79-80). The biopic tends to tread a difficult path between courting criticism in the portrayal of subjective, inaccurate or false representation, and the need to be entertaining. Dennis Bingham puts this into perspective when he describes the biopic as being perhaps “the most maligned of all film genres” (2010: 11). In the case of Tolkien, media coverage leading up to the film’s theatrical release fixated on the Tolkien family’s decision to distance itself from the film, refusing to “endorse it or its content in any way” (Flood 2019). Although the Tolkien estate is known for being rather vocal against creative associations with the author, its refusal to acknowledge any support appears somewhat confusing for a film that, despite the addition of fictionalised incidents and a tendency to avoid directly addressing Tolkien’s Catholicism, adopts a reverential approach towards its subject. Tolkien is a rather solemn affair, moving through time from his childhood home to the trenches of World War One in a series of recurrent flashbacks that lead up to his initial musings for The Hobbit (1937) fantasy novel (Fig. 2). The film proposes that Tolkien’s writings were inspired by the events in his life, the early ideas that went on to inform The Silmarillion (1977) and the world of Middle-earth shaped by personal experience.
The war presents a significant formative episode and it is scenes during the Battle of the Somme that provide the most visually compelling moments in the film. Although the combat sequences are brutally realistic, with wounded soldiers and dismembered bodies strewn across the barren landscape (evoking the dead marshes from The Lord of the Rings), these scenes are also, conversely, the most fantastic. As an injured Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) drifts in and out of consciousness, his delirious mind begins to conjure up imaginary beasts. The enemy flamethrowers turn into fire-breathing dragons, cloaked men charge on black stallions, spirits of the dead vanish into the ether and a giant masked figure casts an ominous dark shadow. While these monstrous images are perhaps intended to emphasise the horrors of war and provide the inspirational material for Tolkien’s later writing, their inclusion could be considered problematic as these visions are clearly based on conjecture as opposed to actual documented evidence. Although Tolkien was affected by his traumatic experience during the war, we don’t know whether he suffered actual hallucinations. Indeed, these animated effects, created by the British company One of Us, are so visually reminiscent of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) and The Hobbit (2012-2014) films (which were inspired by original book illustrations by Alan Lee and John Howe) that it is difficult to know where the creative or authorial agency lies in such depictions (Fig. 3).
The question here should be does it actually matter? As Robert A. Rosenstone asserts, “the imposed fiction of a story, the creative use of fact [and] the translation necessary to make a life comprehensible and interesting are prerequisite features of the biopic” (2007: 14). Furthermore, the biographical emphasis more generally requires interpretation to consider how a person might have reacted to actual moments or events, often based on biased, limited or non-existent accounts. This approach serves to “deconstruct, alter and invent incident” when projecting the psychological motivations of its subjects (Ellam 2012: 10). I would argue that the addition of fantasy merely adds a further layer to this approach, providing an extension of the psychological narrative that has always informed the genre. Many contemporary filmmakers would agree. Tolkien follows a continued trend for biopics to employ fantastical effects in exploring the creative minds of their given subjects. An example can be seen in the upcoming Elton John biopic Rocketman (Dexter Fletcher, 2019) which judging by the promotional clips appears to include imaginary sequences. Tolkien shares a more comparable tone with films such as Finding Neverland (Marc Forster, 2004), Miss Potter (Chris Noonan, 2007) and the recent Goodbye Christopher Robin (Simon Curtis, 2017), a film that uses fantasy-animated effects in its nostalgic portrayal about the author A.A Milne, the creator of Winnie-the-Pooh. In a similar fashion, the effects are quite sporadic in Tolkien, and I would advise not watching the trailer beforehand if you are interested in this specific aspect of the film. Personally, I would have preferred more brief fantastical moments interspersed with the drama as this would have provided emphasis and insight into other (non-war) aspects of Tolkien’s writings. Yet, the fantasy sequences that punctuate Tolkien inspired me to revisit The Lord of the Rings for the umpteenth time, which I guess means the film achieved its purpose.
Bingham, Dennis. Whose Lives Are They Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2010).
Custen, George. Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992).
Ellam, Carolyn. “Depicting a Life Less Ordinary: Fantasy as Evidence for Deconstruction in the Contemporary Film Biopic”, MeCCSA Networking Knowledge 5, no. 3 (2012).
Flood, Alison. ‘Tolkien estate disavows forthcoming film starring Nicholas Hoult’, The Guardian (April 23, 2019), available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/apr/23/tolkien-estate-disavows-forthcoming-film-starring-nicholas-hoult.
Rosenstone, Robert A. “In Praise of the Biopic”, in Lights, Camera, History: Portraying the Past in Film, eds. Richard Francaviglia and Jerry Rodnitzky (Texas: University of Texas at Arlington, 2007), 11-29.
Carolyn Rickards is a Research Associate working on the AHRC project ‘The Eastmancolor Revolution and British Cinema 1955 - 1985’ based at the University of Bristol. She has recently published work in the Journal of British Cinema and Television and Fantasy / Animation: Connections Between Media, Mediums and Genres (Routledge, 2018).