Changing The World Through The Power of Art: A Review of ‘Tolkien’

Most of the Collective crew and I consider ourselves devout Tolkienites, and when a panel and a screening of the Tolkien film was announced at WonderCon, we made sure to wear our finest Elf attire to the event. We were fortunate enough to speak with director Dome Karukoski after the screening (during which he complimented our cosplays, but that’s neither nor there). Shortly after WonderCon, we were invited via a friend to attend the Los Angeles premiere on May 8.

Seeing the film for a second time proved that it is just as heartwarming and tender as it was when we first saw it last month. Tolkien is a film meant for his fans: it paints a picture of a young man whose imagination was strengthened and nurtured by the fellowship and love of the people surrounding him in his youth.

The film focuses on Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) in his youth, following the death of his mother, he becomes a ward of Father Francis and the Roman Catholic Church, and attends a school chosen by his benefactors. At school, he befriends three boys: Robert, Christopher, and Geoffrey. The boys form a fellowship that they name the TCBS, and together they declare that they will “change the world through the power of art.” As the years pass, Tolkien develops his love of language, his gift of storytelling, and most importantly, his relationship with Edith (Lily Collins), the love of his life. Framed with glimpses of Tolkien’s time as a soldier in World War I, the film is a tribute to a man who would become one of the world’s most beloved authors.

The story, while beautifully acted by its principal actors, is most creatively told by what the actors don’t say. Cinematography, lighting, and mise en scene create clever homages to the works J.R.R. Tolkien created later in life. We see a spider illustration (inspiration for Ungoliant or Shelob) on Tolkien’s wall. We see a glimpse of the Two Trees. In the War, Tolkien imagines a fire-breathing dragon (AKA Smaug) as opposing soldiers use a flame thrower in the trenches. We see Edith dancing under a tree for him, as the Elven princess Luthien once did for the mortal man, Beren.

It is because of these homages that I say that this film is especially meant for ardent fans of the Professor’s works. While the craftwork of the film is simple and touching, casual film-goers may not understand or recognize these homages for what they are. However, themes of the film shine through without the foreknowledge of the legendarium of Middle-earth. Karukoski’s use of light, in particular, shows that there is “a light in dark places, when all other lights go out.” Whether it pierces through darkness, or softens a sorrowful moment, the lighting in the film is what truly sets the tone for it. One of the most heart-wrenching scenes of the film is set in soft lighting, reminiscing Tolkien’s childhood, in which the titular character urges the mother of a deceased member of the TCBS to publish his poetry.

You do not need to know much, or anything really, about Tolkien’s creative works to understand the grief that Tolkien has over the loss of his friend, or that he understands that the War stripped away so many potential artists, poets, composers, and authors.

The film concludes where most people assumes that Tolkien’s story begins: In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit. Perhaps that is where the writing begins, but what Karukoski seeks to show us is that that while the author openly negated the use of allegory in his works, maybe Tolkien’s journey through life wasn’t so different from Bilbo or Frodo’s quests. “The Road,” as Professor Tolkien writes, “goes ever on and on.”

Tolkien is now playing in U.S. cinemas.