Last in May

  1. 5. 19

After some unavoidable delays, at long last we got round to discussing the Tolkien biopic at this last meeting in May. We have no comments from Carol because she hasn’t seen the film yet.

Our discussion started with Tim’s observation that the film is not a documentary and that Biographies have long existed for anyone wanting straight biographical details.

While giving due consideration to the film’s use of symbolism and fictionalizing of the Somme battle, I said I was astonished that, in the context of the reality of war, Tolkien had been able to use some of his experiences, as he acknowledged, in his fiction.

Eileen suggested that on the other hand the fiction shows his need to write out those experiences. Tim expanded this when he remarked on Tolkien’s focus on other things as a coping strategy.

Laura remarked in this context that Tolkien had been included in a programme on war poets, even though his poetry was quite different to that of poets like Wilfred Owen.

Laura also commented on the film’s depiction of the filth of the trenches and Tolkien’s illness when he caught trench fever.

Chris thought that the film’s depiction of Father Francis Morgan was well-handled and explained his attitudes to crucial moments in Tolkien’s life. Ian added that Father Francis was played by an Irish actor which played to a trope of the priest-type for the sake of the audience rather than showing Father Francis’s Spanish descent.

Ian suggested that the film revises the misleading image we are used to of Tolkien as an older man – images that came to the fore in the wake of the publication of The Lord of the Rings. He added that the depiction was of a world prior to the writing of The Hobbit and still in the 1920s, in which values were different. On the other hand, at times contemporary values were overlaid onto those of the early twentieth century to make them more accessible to modern audiences.

Ian also remarked on the use of lots of reflections in the film – in water, in glass, in mirrors – and that these define it as a reflection of events and a critical interpretation.

He further observed that parallels are set up between the TCBS and the Fellowship in the context of war, but that Tolkien’s time at Great Heywood and Cannock Chase were omitted; and that the presentation of the relationship between Tolkien and Joseph Wright was less biographical and more representative of relationships between tutors and students generally and the need for discipline.

Laura picked up this scene and remarked that in reality Tolkien had read Wright’s Gothic Primer when he was at school. Ian commented that the film makes the significance of Joseph Wright and his Gothic primer into drama.

Laura also noted that contrary to photos of the time, Tolkien wasn’t shown on screen with his Second Lieutenant’s moustache.

Tim observed that the film did not give blow by blow accuracy, but gave the biographical details a mythological cast in keeping with Tolkien’s own technique, and Tim compared this to many myths which have a grain of truth from the ancient past, such as the myth of King Arthur, who may have been a real warrior, but any truth underwent sequential development.

Laura then raised the point that Tolkien came to fame as an older man, especially in America, and his adoption by the student community at a very troubled time, and by all sorts of hippy culture may have contaminated the sense of his worth as a writer in this country. Angela commented that at university in England in the late 60s she was already aware of Tolkien’s popularity among some students.

Angela went on to remark that the film could have made more of the poverty in which Mabel Tolkien and her sons found themselves on account of her conversion to Catholicism, and the consequent help provided by Father Francis. Ian noted that the introduction to the lodging house to which the orphaned boys are moved refers to religion.

Chris thought that this doesn’t come out clearly in the film, and he proposed that film-makers don’t like to deal with religion these days. Ian replied that Father Francis points out Tolkien’s lack of money and therefore his need for a career, and thus the need to concentrate on his studies not marriage.

Ian turned our attention back to the war scenes with his observation that as we know in the trenches Tolkien suffered trench fever so the hallucinatory sequences function as the effect of the fever. They are therefore not an account of any actual bit of the war. Ian wondered whether survivor’s guilt on Tolkien’s part was emerging in The Lord of the Rings. Again, this is a reflection of the creative environment of the book.

Chris made the point that the film is not blow by blow referencing of the book or the film adaptations, but that it picks up references from them.

At our next meeting, the first in June, we will begin our discussion of The Hobbit.

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