This weekend, American movie theaters will feature the first-ever biopic of J.R.R. Tolkien, the most important fantasy writer, and the most popular writer to have thought through the moral and political changes Christianity brought into the world. The movie, Tolkien, seems guaranteed to fail and, worse, deserves to fail. It tells Tolkien’s story from childhood to his marriage, from service in the Great War to his establishment as a don at Oxford and a budding writer of The Hobbit. All this, but nothing about Tolkien’s faith or his thinking about how Christianity changed the barbaric peoples it converted, especially the Germanic peoples. In short, the movie disfigures Tolkien.
Instead, we get another Harry Potter—brilliant outsider shunned by society, with a pretty, witty girl and rowdy, good-natured friends. Tolkien was an orphan, as was his wife—a fact that the movie makes almost nothing of, but which makes their story central to the story of England, a society led by orphans of their own parents’ making, abandoned as so many of them were to boarding schools. Hence the literature of fear, abandonment, abuse, and longing for home that once included writers of genius like Kipling and Waugh, and that persists today in the Harry Potter stories. One expects that this suffering made Tolkien open to faith and to the Romantic longing to return to a pre-modern, pre-industrial age when communities were strong. But this, too, is neglected in Tolkien.
Tolkien learned to read at the age of four, soon after his father died, and this again would seem to be an important fact, both in his search for happiness in fantasy and for moral strength in his mother’s new religious faith. Converting to Catholicism cost him a lot—his extended family abandoned them, as would his wife’s family upon her conversion, when they married. But the movie cuts out these parts, too, so you’d never know. Tolkien’s mother died when he was 12 and he was left under the authority of his mother’s priest. Between the two of them, mother and priest get less than 10 minutes of screen-time. The movie ignores Tolkien’s faith entirely, without a single exception.
In the movie, Tolkien’s mother briefly reads him the story of Sigurd—the hero who kills the dragon Fafnir—from Andrew Lang’s very popular Fairy Books; in another brief montage, Wagner’s Ring is mentioned. As David Goldman once wrote, Tolkien made it his life’s work to supplant Wagner’s rewriting of Saxon myths with his own, myths that would make sense as a prelude to Christianity—which emerges as the humble solution to the proud nihilism of the Norse warriors. Had the writer, director, producers, or anyone else involved in Tolkien learned something about the man, they might have pointed out what in his young years helped him become the adult he was. There’s nothing of that, unfortunately. His war experience, however, keeps showing up as a setting for Mordor, empty of the moral point that Sauron is evil embodied.
For a long time, we have suffered under the delusions of storytelling obsessed with oppressed individuals who are special, who break down the conventions of their insufficiently liberal societies, and who affirm through their personal achievements that we should all be creative, self-expressive individuals. This is silly, since if everyone was Tolkien, nobody would be.
What’s more, Tolkien’s essentially conservative views make him the worst imaginable fit for the pieties and conventions of biopics, but somehow nobody noticed that before the movie hit theaters. This is more than suppressing a man’s faith because the people who tell the stories don’t like it; it’s suppressing the community and the beliefs with which he grew up, the manners and habits that made those people distinct from us.
The one good thing about the movie is the time it spends on Tolkien and his friends—this is one important thing Victorian England obviously had, but we don’t: male friendship. It’s not enough to make the movie good, but it’s what makes it bearable. I could watch an entire movie on this, if it showed why Tolkien was so dedicated to the idea of fellowship—and, judging by the popularity of Peter Jackson’s bowdlerizing movies, lots of other people would, too.
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