Sadly there have been some rather dismissive reviews of Dome Karukoski’s recently-released Tolkien biopic. These critiques argue that the film falls short for failing to tap the depths of Tolkien’s devout Catholic faith which so influenced his works and life, and for supposedly reducing the author to banal cliché.
But I believe fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien would have loved the film—if only for the rich imagination that permeates it, resulting in a beautiful and magical telling of how his deepest and most meaningful relationships inspired his stories and characters.
This is because it is a movie, like Tolkien’s stories, that implies rather than states a theological belief in the divine—a God of justice and goodness who ultimately defeats evil through sacrificial love. This sacrificial love, along with courage, friendship, and imagination, are the driving themes in Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings fantasy trilogy. These are also the driving themes in Karukoski’s film. And he executes these themes brilliantly.
Beginning with its portrayal of Tolkien’s ailing and widowed mother Mabel Tolkien (inspiringly played by Laura Donnelly) who devoted herself to tutoring her sons and instilling in them a passion for story-telling and languages, the film shows how those who loved Tolkien (played by Nicholas Hoult) the most influenced his worldview, life, and stories.
In the scenes of the Battle of the Somme, Tolkien’s enlisted batman Private Sam Hodges, (played by Craig Roberts), insists on leading the traumatized second lieutenant weakened by trench fever from where he lies dying in his comrades’ pool of blood to the front so that he can search for his dear classmate Geoffrey Bache Smith (wonderfully portrayed by Anthony Boyle).
Like Samwise Gamgee is to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, Sam Hodges is Tolkien’s savior during this time, leading him through the hell and fog of war in search of Smith whom Tolkien loves like a brother and is willing to die for.
It is the story of the Good Shepherd, played out as Tolkien, encouraged by Hodges, struggles through the poison gas and blood-filled trenches of the Somme Offensive in his relentless search for Smith. Here one sees Christ’s reckless love for His lost sheep.
It is the greatest love spoken of in John 15:13—the kind of love that compels a willingness to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. As songwriter Cory Asbury sings in “Reckless Love”, this “overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God … it chases me down, fights ‘til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine.”
It is within these scenes of war—perhaps the most powerful scenes of the film—that Karukoski beautifully depicts the sacrificial love that joined Tolkien and his fellowship of friends—“the Immortal Four”—after their friendship deepened from that of schoolmates and members of the T.C.B.S. (the Tea Club and Barrovian Society), to that of comrades in arms in the Great War.
“What you need to understand is that we are a fellowship—an alliance,” says T.C.B.S. member Christopher Wiseman (played by Tom Glynn-Carney) to Tolkien in the film. “Join your comrades in the act of changing the world.”
The tightly-bound members of Tolkien’s fellowship sought to change the world through sacrifice—if it came to it—imagination, and art. This was Tolkien’s style. Who can say whether Tolkien, (who did not look all too favorably on C.S. Lewis’ allegorical writing), did not write specifically to appeal to the unchurched or to those who had forsaken their religious beliefs after encountering unexplainable suffering.
Is this not why Tolkien’s stories have such appeal? Could it be that they show there is meaning in love, suffering, and sacrifice that ultimately points to Christ on the cross?
It is correct to say that the film does not overtly reveal the details of Tolkien’s religion or driving faith beliefs. It was not meant to do so. What it does do is to allude to the true message of Christianity using the power of imagination.
Tolkien did not wear his Christianity on his sleeve, offer apologetic arguments, or depend largely upon allegory to get his message across in his fiction. He used the power of art and storytelling, and let his stories speak for themselves. “We change the world through the power of art,” Smith tells Tolkien in the film. And it works beautifully.
Sheryl Henderson Blunt is a former senior writer for Christianity Today and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship Alumnus whose articles and reporting have appeared in Congressional Quarterly, The Philanthropy Roundtable, The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard, and other publications. In her spare time she enjoys roaming the woods pretending she is Arwen Evenstar.