How do you track genius?  Well, one way would be to trace the influences that were significant in the life of the person with the brilliant mind.  It doesn't explain everything.  But it sure adds some layers of complexity to an already complicated persona.

            J.R.R. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) was orphaned as a teenager,and left in the care of a not-quite-kindly cleric, Father Francis (Colm Meaney).  After a couple of unsuccessful forays into foster care, Father Francis sends Tolkien off to boarding school, where he makes fast friends with three other students.  They form a club whose members consist only of themselves.  They are all very bright, and talk about everything from music and literature to chess and billiards.  These bonds of friendship are immensely important to Tolkien, but he has also developed an interest in a girl at the boarding house, also orphaned.  Edith (Lily Collins) is already an accomplished pianist, and obviously very bright herself, but in the patriarchal world of turn-of-the-twentieth century England, she could only aspire to be a caretaker, or “home companion,” and suffered terribly from the lack of intellectual stimulation that Tolkien took for granted at his elite school.  He and another buddy get accepted at Oxford, and the other two at Cambridge. 

            Tolkien had always envisioned fantasy lands in his head, and even as a boy made up a language, in addition to a narrative and a geography, which he would only much later put down on paper.  His philology skills were recognized at Oxford, and he would have been glad to just continue his advanced schooling, but the world intervened.  World War One broke out.  Tolkien and his friends, loyal Brits to the core, join up with the rest of the lads, and soon find themselves in the horrid trench warfare, where the land is devastated and the troops are shell-shocked and everyone is in Hell.  Tolkien, contracting trench fever, begins to see images of fantasy beasts patrolling the No Man's Land, mercilessly slaughtering all humans in their path.  He searches for one of his friends among the doomed soldiers, only to discover, much later, that his friend was already dead.  Tolkien survives several attacks of the deadly mustard gas.  Tolkien has now seen the darkest side of humanity, and it has informed his perspective, because there is always a dark side in his writings. 

            Fortunately for Tolkien, Edith is there to nurse him through his war wounds, but he is devastated to discover that not just one, but two of his old friends are dead, and the other has apparently become a shell of his former self, so the fast-friends-fraternity is a thing of the past.  But Tolkien uses that influence of the strong bonds of friendship, as well, in his Hobbit fantasy, and the Lord of the Rings, though the movie pointedly omits any Christian inferences, much less his influence on C.S. Lewis' conversion to Christianity.

            Nonetheless, the movie “Tolkien” is an enthusiastic, creative biopic of the early years of J.R.R. Tolkien, whose inherent genius was evident to anyone who knew him.  But it was the people and events surrounding him that most shaped his incredibly inventive body of work.


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association