“Tolkien,” a new biographical drama about the early and challenging life of the legendary author and English professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, better known as J.R.R. Tolkien, opened in theaters this weekend.
The Disney film, two years in the making, promises to draw fans and followers of the literary giant whose works inspired the record-breaking “Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy franchise, which to date has grossed nearly $3 billion worldwide.
Yet students of Tolkien – and anyone else who understands and appreciates the formative and foundational importance of faith in an individual’s life – will be sorely disappointed that the movie sidesteps and understates the role the author’s Christian faith played in his personal and professional development.
So, why would a motion picture that tells a person’s story ignore the very hinge on which the individual’s whole life swung?
According to the film’s director, Dome Karukosi: “Religion is so internal, it’s difficult to visualize. It’s like watching an encyclopedia.”
Karukoski explained that attempts to portray Tolkien’s faith fell flat, even suggesting those who saw scenes attempting to tell his spiritual side found the depictions “boring.” In the end, those parts of the movie didn’t make the final cut.
Tolkien’s life can no more be explained without his Christian faith than the history and miracle of America can be told and understood absent the influence and faith of the Founding Fathers.
The award-winning Finnish film director’s explanation is telling, primarily because it reveals an increasingly popular worldview, namely that faith is a very private thing and somehow detached from our everyday lives.
Sadly, it’s this perspective that’s leading to either the neutralizing or downright neutering of faith in the public square. What’s happened with “Tolkien” is similar to Hollywood’s treatment of Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time,” another Disney film released last year that deliberately excised the original author’s faith.
At the time, screenwriter Jennifer Lee defended the removal of the book’s Christian themes, saying: “I think there are a lot of elements of what she wrote that we have progressed as a society and we can move onto the other elements.”
J.R.R. Tolkien’s father died when he was just 4-years-old and his mother died when he was 12. He and his brother were raised by Father Francis Morgan, a Roman Catholic priest who was living in England. The two Tolkien boys celebrated Mass with the prelate each day.
Growing up with the influence of Father Morgan, and at such a transformative stage of the teenager’s life, was clearly foundational in major ways, yet the viewer of the new film is left to only guess how instrumental this influence really was.
The only reason Hollywood producers and audiences find thematic depictions of faith “boring” is because they’re unfamiliar with the dynamism of what true Christian faith is all about.
Christianity is not a static, rote recitation of dogma, as Hollywood often depicts it – it’s a vibrant and personal manifestation of the miraculous – the Word made flesh, as the Gospel writer John put it. It’s a lot more than silent, praying parishioners in pews or the sounds of sacred music echoing off cathedral walls.
As a Christian growing up in early 20th century England, Tolkien’s future, fantastical writings were largely inspired by what he read – including the Old and New Testaments. Again, the literary significance of the best-selling book of all time on Tolkien’s life journey is overlooked on the big screen.
J.R.R. Tolkien saw himself as a writer, not a pastor or theologian, but writers who are Christians often weave profound truths in with their words, a habit the Englishman openly acknowledged.
“We have come from God and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed, only by myth-making, only by becoming a ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man ascribe to the state of perfection that he knew before the fall,” he said.
My favorite Tolkien observation stems from his study of storytelling, specifically why we’re drawn to tales of all types, whether true or fictional. A fairy tale, he noted, always starts out well, but turns negative and foreboding. Then the hero arrives, and the very bad thing suddenly becomes good.
In fact, the best-selling author even coined a word for the happy turn in a story. He called it a “eucatastrophe” – as in the joyful (eu) catastrophe. In other words, what first appears to be bad is often used by God for good.
I’m reminded of that insightful phrase and truth when Hollywood insists on secularizing profoundly Christian stories such as “Tolkien” for reasons of politics or profit. Tolkien’s life can no more be explained without his Christian faith than the history and miracle of America can be told and understood absent the influence and faith of the Founding Fathers.
In the end, the truth always finds a way out – especially the truth about the transforming and transcendent faith behind Tolkien’s literary genius.