REVIEW: ‘Tolkien’ has few faith elements but it still can teach us a lot

May 10th, 2019 / By: Michael Foust / comments

REVIEW: ‘Tolkien’ has few faith elements but it still can teach us a lot

Credit Fox Searchlight

Ronald is a young British man with a brilliant mind and a wild imagination.

He dreams about talking trees. He thinks about fire-breathing dragons. He makes up silly words that belong in an other-worldly language.

He would be a great novelist, but right now, he’s too busy chasing a girl named Edith and having fun with his friends Geoffrey, Christopher and Robert, who attend Oxford College with Ronald and are trying to find their way in the world. One man wants to be a painter and another, a poet. They’ve known each other since boyhood and desire to change the world “through the power of art.”  

“We should form a brotherhood,” one of them says.

Thus, this male foursome swears allegiance to one another with the goal of mutual support as they enter college and the real world.

But then Ronald gets in trouble and loses his scholarship. And then their country goes to war, forcing them onto the battlefield.

Will they survive bullets and bombs long enough to make an impact on the world?

The biopic Tolkien(PG-13) opens this weekend, telling the story of author J.R.R. Tolkien in his childhood, teenage and young adult years before he penned the classics The Hobbitand The Lord of the Rings. It stars Nicholas Hoult (X-Men: Apocalypse) as Tolkien and Lily Collins (Les Miserables, 2019) as Edith, and was directed by Dome Karukoski, a Finnish filmmaker.

The film shows Tolkien and his brother growing up under the care of their mother, a widow. But then she dies, they are placed in the care of a Catholic priest, who puts them in a home for orphans. Tolkien becomes a standout student at a distinguished school for boys and then is accepted into Oxford.

The movie faced pushback in April from Tolkien’s family, who released a statement saying they did not “did not approve of, authorize or participate in the making of this film.”

"They do not endorse it or its content in any way,” the statement said.

But Karukoski told me leaving the family out of the production was intentional. Otherwise, he said, the film may stray away from the facts and deliver a plot too friendly to the subject.

The movie has little to no discussion about God and theology -- a fact that will disappoint some Tolkien enthusiasts -- but it nevertheless shows how he developed some of his basic ideas for The Hobbitand The Lord of the Rings.

The film’s themes, Karukoski said, are love and friendship.

“There's only so much time we have left [in life], and we have to choose what to do with it,” Karukoski told me. “I would hope that people would spend more time with their friends and inspire each other.”

The film has its enjoyable moments, yet it’s mostly slow and likely confusing for non-Tolkien fans. If you know nothing about Middle Earth, then this film likely isn’t for you. Still, it ends on a high note.

Warning: minor/moderate spoilers!

(Scale key: none, minimal, moderate, extreme)

Violence/Disturbing

Moderate. The film shows Tolkien in a World War I trench and then on a battlefield. We see shots fired and men fall, presumably dead. We see bombs exploded. We see a pile a bodies and a large pool of blood. At school, Tolkien gets into a fight during a rugby match. Later, he hits a friend who was berating him.  

Sexuality/Sensuality/Nudity

Minimal. Tolkien’s painter friend shows copies of paintings of nude women to his friends. “What I need is live models. Not much chance of that, of course.”

Tolkien and Edith kiss, twice.

The film implies that one member of the brotherhood is gay. (The word is never mentioned, and he never acts on his feelings.) 

Coarse Language

Minimal. A-- (1) and a couple of “for G-d’s sake.”

Other Stuff You Might Want To Know

Tolkien and his friends drink several times. Once, he gets drunk and stumbles into an open area at night, shouting at everyone.

Life Lessons

Among the lessons in Tolkien: the impact of a mother (Tolkien’s mom), overcoming tragedy (Tolkien following her death), building up one another (Tolkien and the brotherhood) and the bond between friends (the brotherhood).  

Worldview/Application

Tolkien’s mother, Mabel (Laura Donnelly), is on screen only a few minutes, but her impact on Tolkien is significant. She introduces him to the love of reading. She sparks his imagination. We see her read books to Tolkien and his brother at night as a spinning lantern projects images on the walls. Tolkien’s imagination goes wild. In real life, she died at the age of 34, but her impact is still reverberating around the world through his works.

It’s true that the film has no “God talk,” but I suspect the human writers of the New Testament would applaud its portrayal of brotherly love— at least most of it. Ronald and his friends support one another, no matter the circumstances. They build up one another. They challenge one another. They inspire each other. Too often, men put up a facade. They rarely mirror the brotherly love commanded in Scripture (Romans 12:10, 2 Peter 1:7) and seen in Tolkien.

Still, it’s tragic that the film implies one of Tolkien’s friends was gay, without evidence. Can’t men have a close bond without the world imposing its twisted views of sexuality?

What Works

The focus on the bond between Tolkien and his friends. The ending. 

What Doesn’t

The lack of faith content.Yes, the movie’s focus on brotherhood was a wise choice, but somediscussion about his Catholic beliefs would have been nice. (And if you’re curious, C.S. Lewis isn’t mentioned in the film. He and Tolkien met after the events that are portrayed.) 

Discussion Questions

  1. Why are friendships important for Christian growth? For living life?
  2. How did Tolkien and his friends model biblical friendship? How did they influence one another?
  3. What impact did Tolkien’s mother have on him?
  4. What was your reaction to Tolkien’s friend being portrayed as gay?

Entertainment rating:2.5 out of 5 stars. Family-friendly rating:3.5 out of 5 stars.

Rated PG-13 for some sequences of war violence.