“Tolkien” Film: How Christian Reviewers are Getting it Wrong (SPOILERS)

The following is adapted from a review appearing on the Amon Sûl podcast as Episode 006, integrated with recorded reviews from multiple listeners. And, like the title says, there are definitely spoilers here:

It really struck me when I started reading review after review of the new “Tolkien” biopic coming out of especially religiously conservative websites (I actually haven’t seen any reviews from progressive sites) that utterly panned the film, regarding it as a betrayal. The most common complaint was that Tolkien’s religion was completely cut out of the film, whitewashed, secularized, etc. I’ll have more to say about that in this episode.

A lot of reviews of the film that I read were essentially concerned with how this film figures into the culture wars, especially regarding sexual morality. For instance, I remember reading in February an article on the Imaginative Conservative website from respected Tolkien biographer Joseph Pearce which included the following predictions about Tolkien himself, his mother, his friends and his childhood guardian Catholic priest Fr. Francis Morgan:

The heroism and “martyrdom” of Tolkien’s mother will be airbrushed out of the picture altogether, as will any other positive portrayals of Catholicism. Fr. Francis Morgan will be seen as a repressed homosexual who has a sordid homo-erotic attraction to the young Tolkien and whose opposition to Tolkien’s relationship with Edith is enflamed by feelings of jealousy. As for Tolkien himself, if he is to be portrayed positively, he will no doubt be portrayed as being bisexual. This is necessary because heterosexuality is now seen as the last refuge of the scoundrel. I prophesy that he will have homo-erotic feelings towards his friends and towards the young soldier who inspired the future characterization of Samwise Gamgee, thereby “queering” The Lord of the Rings as well as its author.

Well, where does one even begin?! Literally every single one of Pearce’s breathless prophecies turned out to be wrong — every one. What saddened me is that I saw this article shared many times when it came out, accompanied by comments from people saying that they therefore would not be seeing the movie. Pearce did say in his article that he would apologize if he turned out to be wrong. I hope he does. (UPDATE: He has indeed apologized.)

The Same-Sex Attraction Issue

Now, to be fair, we should say that it is true that Anthony Boyle, the actor who played Tolkien’s friend GB Smith in the film, in fact did say that he interpreted his own role as indicating homosexual feelings for Tolkien, and there are a couple of scenes in the film that could be read that way. I will say that when I saw the film, it did not even occur to me to read the scenes that way. I only learned that this was “a thing” when I read the interview with the actor.

Now, even if it really is the case that certain people involved with making the film had the agenda of trying to “smuggle” normalizing homosexuality into the film, I don’t see why the viewer has to accept that as the only way of interpreting it. The affectionate language toward Tolkien in GB Smith’s writings was simply an expression of intimate male friendship, something that our age has a hard time seeing as existing without sexual content.

In the Orthodox Church, we don’t interpret the Bible as having only a single meaning, seeking for the so-called “original intent” of the author and denying everything else. So even if it was the intent of all the filmmakers to suggest something between these two friends that historical record doesn’t, we don’t have to accept that intent as determining our interpretation of their work.

Further, the culture-war style alarm gongs sounding over this film because of these themes seem to me to turn the ancient logos spermatikos doctrine of St. Justin Martyr on its head. What do I mean by that? St. Justin said that the Logos — that is, Jesus Christ, the Son and Word of God — could be seen in “seed” form even outside of the Church:

And whatever both philosophers and poets have said concerning the immortality of the soul, or punishments after death, or contemplation of things heavenly, or doctrines of the like kind, they have received such suggestions from the prophets as have enabled them to understand and interpret these things. And hence there seem to be seeds of truth among all men; but they are charged with not accurately understanding [the truth] when they assert contradictories. (St. Justin Martyr, First Apology, 44)

So Christ was revealed, even if in the midst of what is false. Yet those who are lambasting this film because they see some other kind of “seed” in it — a seed apparently sown by their opponents in the culture war — suggest to me a kind of diabolos spermatikos, the devil in seed form. And instead of seeing the many elements of the film that speak of Christ, they pick this one little seed of the diabolical and thereby declare the whole thing ruined.

Even if it is the case that those scenes in the film really can be interpreted in only one way — and I disagree with that idea — why shun the whole thing, even in the many themes that are edifying and humane?

But what about the question of how accurate this film is regarding Tolkien’s life, especially his religion and love of ancient things?

Tolkien’s True Loves

We have to remember what a biopic actually is. It is not a biographical documentary. It is a work of fiction that is based on a historical person. But especially with a person whose life has been written about so much, it is only natural that we go into a biopic expecting to find biography. I also think this is reasonable.

I do wish that Tolkien’s service at the altar as an acolyte during his time at the King Edward’s School would have been highlighted. I also wish that the theme of ancient things had been brought out more in that, tested by time and integrated into culture, they are healing when held in proper relationship to the human person.

That lack in the film is probably due to how it tried to do, well, maybe too much all at once. There are three major themes in the film that I could discern that were shown to be an influence on Tolkien: Friendship, Love and Language.

If the Language theme were explored more singularly, I think that the theme of the ancient would have been treated with a lot more thoroughness and care. But would a film that dealt mainly with that and largely left out Edith and the TCBS have even worked? I don’t think so. So I understand why the film didn’t end up pursuing that avenue as well as one might have hoped.

That said, the film did indeed do a beautiful job of underlining Tolkien’s love of language and culture, expressed most especially in his friendship in the TCBS. And this, I believe, is one of the key things that makes this a film that communicates Christianity, even if it is not (per se) a Christian film. But the insistence on the integrality of art and language to culture is a blow to the gnostic sensibility that much of our culture now embraces.

The incarnated solidity of art and language as material things that offer a window into transcendence is central to historic Christianity. Christianity created civilization and was in its expressions influenced by civilization, and the sub-creative aspect of the making of culture reveals the Incarnation again — that God became man and dwelt among us with His own human body and soul means that materiality, including the materiality of cultural artifice, becomes the means of connection with the divine.

Some people have compared this film, especially the TCBS related scenes, what that 1980s favorite “The Dead Poets Society.” But there is a critical difference here. The TCBS, including how they are portrayed in the film, are not a band of students following a charismatic teacher who easily urges rebellion against authority and following whatever passion takes hold of you. I liked “The Dead Poets Society,” but let’s face it: That’s basically its message. The TCBS are concerned with culture-building, not rebellion, and even where there is a pushing against authority in the film (not all of which is fictional, by the way — Tolkien actually did steal a bus at one point!), it is a testing of boundaries, not a 1960s style abolition of them.

The Moral Universe of “Tolkien”

So this underscores another element I wanted to mention, and that is that the moral universe of the “Tolkien” film is very much not the normal moral universe of most of modern cinema, in which authority is denied and mores are cast easily aside. This is perhaps no more clearly shown than in the relationship of Tolkien to his fellow orphan, love interest and eventual wife Edith.

The film, true to history, shows Tolkien finishing his growing up with Edith in the same house, falling for her there, and then honoring his guardian Fr. Francis Morgan’s command that he not see her until he turns 21. The moral universe of 2019 would have them running off against his wishes and doing who-knows-what away from judgmental eyes. But that’s not what the film shows.

And even in the moments where physical affection is shown between the two, it is portrayed as very much chaste, with no groping at each other or sexually suggestive behavior of any sort. Most films released in 2019 would throw the two into bed with no hesitation at all. We might even have expected that to happen after the two get married — but it doesn’t.

It’s clear throughout the film that Tolkien has eyes only for Edith, and yet a physical consummation is never put on the screen. That that should be so in 2019 is almost shocking.

Now, let’s get to what is the primary feature in so many of the reviews panning the film.

But where is Tolkien’s Christian faith?

So it occurs to me that a lot of the reviews complaining of Christianity being “ignored,” “cut,” “whitewashed” or “secularized” (all words I’ve seen) from “Tolkien” are basically looking for a kind of culture-war approach in which we see explicitly “religious” actions as the mark of what it means to portray Christianity. That thought occurred to me when I read one review that said the film was “secularizing” Tolkien’s life. A-ha — secularizing! What is that word supposed to mean here? It means that the religion is being subtracted so that it’s not actually evident.

But is it not?

I am not going to claim that the filmmakers were actually just trying to be stealthy in portraying Tolkien’s faith (there was apparently a communion scene that got filmed but cut), but my sense of these reviews I’ve read is that they would actually not find Middle-earth itself to be Christian enough because Jesus never steps out from behind an Ent somewhere to say hello. I mean, no one in Middle-earth even goes to church, and there is almost no prayer.

But shouldn’t the unabashedly Catholic Tolkien be shown doing those things? Well, yes, I would like to have seen some of that made explicit. But does that mean that his faith was “cut” or “whitewashed” or “secularized” out of the film? I don’t think so.

Does the film show us that J. R. R. Tolkien is a Catholic Christian? YES. But not enough, apparently. Okay.

But, more importantly to me: Does the film contain any Christian themes? YES. I mean, if you’ve read this far, you already know this.

And I think one of the things also being ignored in these reviews is that they are looking for Christian identity-markers in a film which covers a period which Tolkien himself identified as being very problematic for the practice of his faith. He wrote the following in 1963 to his son Michael:

But I fell in love with the Blessed Sacrament from the beginning – and by the mercy of God never have fallen out again: but alas! I indeed did not live up to it. I brought you all up ill and talked to you too little. Out of wickedness and sloth I almost ceased to practise my religion – especially at Leeds, and at 22 Northmoor Road. Not for me the Hound of Heaven, but the never-ceasing silent appeal of Tabernacle, and the sense of starving hunger. I regret those days bitterly (and suffer for them with such patience as I can be given); most of all because I failed as a father. Now I pray for you all, unceasingly, that the Healer (the Hælend as the Saviour was usually called in Old English) shall heal my defects, and that none of you shall ever cease to cry Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini. (Letter 250)

His time at Leeds and Northmoor Road (which is in Oxford) is just about all the 1920s-40s, which is a big chunk of the period covered in the film. He would have been 28 at the beginning of the period in Leeds — only four years into his marriage with Edith — and in his mid-fifties by the time he moved away from Northmoor Road in 1947. Is it possible that his struggles with practicing his faith might have started earlier in his twenties? I don’t know, but it’s not unreasonable to wonder.

Even before that, by the way, Tolkien described, for instance, his first year at college as a fall into “folly and slackness” in Letter 43, written in 1941. I haven’t yet found anything by him specifically describing the state of his faith during that year (write to me if you know of something!), but might a time of “folly and slackness” not also include some failure to practice his faith? That seems reasonable to wonder, as well.

Now, if I were making the film, I would have found it very interesting to show his struggle in that period in which, in his words, he “almost ceased to practise [his] religion,” a period in age which covers his twenties into his forties — a time not unknown to be one of struggle in faith for many people.

This period was rather different from the one in his later life in which he was very explicitly and staunchly Catholic (and even rather “papist,” by the way, as also seen in Letter 250!), and all this was particularly in the face of many changes in the Roman Catholic Church which he did not like at all. So I think that some of the reviewers who wanted to see a more Catholic Tolkien are probably expecting the older, more mature Tolkien in a film that is limited to portraying the younger one.

All that said, does this really mean that Christianity was absent from the film’s depiction?

I don’t think so. To everything said up to this point I would also add that I did not see anything in the film’s depiction of Tolkien himself that actually contradicts Christianity. And there are a good many things we see that are expressions of Christian themes, such as love, friendship, self-sacrifice, chastity, humility, diligence.

Is This a Tolkienian Film?

I believe that this is certainly a distinctly Tolkienian film, and if it did not do as much as one might have hoped in any one theme from his life or writings, I believe that the overall character of the film presents a true if not perfectly factual image of the man. But again, we should remember that a biopic is not biography. If biography is what you desire, of course pick up the Humphrey Carpenter classic, and although I have not yet read it, I’ve also seen many recommendations for John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War, which covers much of the same period as the latter parts of the film.

Is it even possible for a film to capture the man? Well, even those of us who love the Peter Jackson films (usually the first three more than the latter) will admit that films cannot capture the man’s work. So how much more is that true of the man himself? So, no, I do not think that this new film captures the man. And there are of course things that I wish it had done more of or done better.

No, the film is not overt about Tolkien’s Christian faith, and we’ve discussed already why in some ways that might actually be an accurate depiction of that period in his life. But even if it’s not, not being so overt about faith might actually be Tolkienian, too.

My overall sense of this film is that it does present a fairly, if not perfectly true image of this author in his younger years and most especially that it will do at least some of the job of helping the viewer to long for some of what Tolkien himself longed for.

I felt this way myself at many points in the film. I think my heart warmed especially when I heard the whisper of Eala Earendel, that famous line from the Anglo-Saxon poem “Christ,” whose opening lines famously include the word middangeard, which Tolkien translated as “Middle-earth.” From that hymn to Christ was Tolkien’s legendarium born.

The Enchanted World

The link between our own everyday world and what is revealed to us in Christ is often revealed in elements such as these ancient lines of poetry which, in the film, we only ever hear snatches of. But that sense of something mystical and elusive is presented in the film in another way.

When Tolkien is on the battlefield at the Somme, we sometimes see images that in a material sense do not belong there — enemy soldiers with flamethrowers are depicted alternatively as fire-breathing dragons; wisps of some kind of misty spirit make their way across the battlefield; brave knights and what strongly remind one of Ring-wraiths as depicted in the Peter Jackson films appear on the screen; and we finally even see a figure who is meant to suggest one of the Dark Lords of the Legendarium.

The most common way I’ve seen reviewers talk about these images is that they are “hallucinations” that Tolkien is having while on the field. But they connect so directly with what he is experiencing in the material world that I would like to suggest they are something more than hallucinations. They are, in a sense, brief glimpses into an enchanted world, a world in which the spiritual and the material are more obviously one. And that is what Middle-earth itself is — a world which is not dominated by the modern disjunction between the spiritual and material.

In the end, I think this is why some Christian critics of the film are getting it wrong when it comes to the film’s depiction of Tolkien’s faith. They ignore all these elements that point to a fully integrated Christian world and look only for things that in the modern sensibility qualify as “religious.”

Tolkien’s Middle-earth is in no way explicitly Christian in this sense. Yet it is one of the most deeply Christian stories of our time. Why would we fault the film-makers for a film that could be interpreted in essentially the same way? Certainly their achievement is not as monumental as Tolkien’s, which is the work of a profound genius, but my own sense of the film is that it is doing much of the same kind of work.

And it is indeed genius that we encounter in this film. I certainly felt that way myself.

The Encounter with Genius

The encounter with some geniuses leaves one dumbfounded, astonished at their ability and all the more convinced within “I could never do that.” We’ve all heard of such geniuses and perhaps encountered them. They amaze us but that is where it ends.

But there are other geniuses whose genius calls something forth in us, urging us onward and upward, enlivening us with new and increased creativity. Tolkien was that sort. How many people have, after immersing themselves in Tolkien’s writings or even derivative pieces of art from other people, wanted to draw or paint or write or record or compose something of their own, perhaps in imitation or tribute of him or perhaps something more original? It is too many to count.

In the end, the reason that I knew that this film had communicated J. R. R. Tolkien to me is that the first feeling I had as the credits rolled was that I wanted to go home and write.

I hope it is that way for you, too.

7 comments:

  1. A small correction, if I may: it was (and still is) King Edward’s School, not St. Edward’s, founded by King Edward VI. (I am an alumnus myself.)

  2. Thank you for your review. I was afraid this movie would have been a total loss, but my wife and I enjoyed it very much last night. I cringed at the “homosexual moment” but I don’t think my wife even noticed, so I didn’t bring it up. The main question I was left with (besides why did they take out all references to his faith, which you addressed) was why they didn’t at least have a cameo by CS Lewis? I mean, the movie ended in 1937 when he started writing, and supposedly they met in 1926. So it would have been natural to include it, and would have really been a nice touch. I’m sure they must have thought of doing that but chose not to. Any ideas as to why?

    1. If I had to guess, it is because of story-telling limitations. If you’re going to put CSL on the screen, you had better do a lot with him — I don’t think you could cameo him in. But then you have just extended the story by decades. So I think they were trying to keep it limited to the main influences that led up to “In a hole in the ground…,” which probably was written in about 1930. He didn’t show a manuscript to CSL until 1933.

      Anyway, I’ve seen a few obscure rumblings about a sequel, so maybe we’ll eventually get the JRRT/CSL friendship on screen.

    2. Actually apparently the film makers wanted to put some scenes in that would indicate more of Tolkien’s Catholic faith practices but test audiences did not like them. Also, even if the wonderful Geoffrey Bache Smith did have homosexual feelings towards Tolkien he respected Tolkien – and possibly his faith – enough to not act on them and show that love more in being comforting and encouraging him by talking about the beauty of love. Being Christian isn’t about being perfect or not being tempted – that is impossible. If Geoffrey Bache Smith had those feelings, his self control was admirable. It can also simply be interpreted as very close friendship. Also, I believe all his friends were at least nominal Christians. Christopher Wiseman, the one other than Tolkien that survived the war , was Methodist. Another thing – some people found the movie boring but I don’t see that except for it dragging a bit at the end and I was glad it showed his children , ig only briefly. I thought it a beautiful film and could see Christian themes all through it even if they weren’t explicitly stated

  3. Thanks for writing this article. Tolkien is a hero to me, and I was beginning to believe the film want any good. You have helped me see it in a new light. Thank you! If I have the chance, I’d love to go see it, hopefully soon.

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