When I heard the announcement of this film, I rolled my eyes and thought 'Oh, God, no.' Remembering the
sandworms were-worms bursting from the earth in that last Hobbit movie, I could only view the prospect of a biopic with dread. We'll have Tolkien kicking a football into No-Man's Land, crying 'play up, play up', and storming the German trenches at the Somme on 1 July 1916, winning both the day and the war as he duels Herr Colonel Professor Doctor Melkor von Morgoth, the evil Prussian philologist, whom he kills by shouting 'Wenn ist das Nunstück git und Slotermeyer? Ja! Beiherhund das Oder die Flipperwaldt gersput! (later used to such great effect in 1944). He thus also forever established the ascendancy of Lang over Lit, and won the hand of the fair Edith Bratt, whose raven hair and dancing skills had stirred such an evil lust in von Morgoth that he had precipitated the world into war by abducting her.
Perhaps I exaggerate, but you get my point: clearly I was not expecting the film to be anything but a disaster.
Much to my surprise, however, I liked it, when I saw it at a special screening in NYC in March. To be sure it got any number of chronological and factual details of Tolkien's life wrong, and I noticed them. Yet somehow they did not bother me as much as they had when Peter Jackson's films of The Lord of the Rings made similar mistakes about the events and characters of that tale. I found myself saying to myself, 'Well, a biopic is an adaptation, not a documentary. It is going after an impression of Tolkien's life that could not be satisfactorily communicated in two hours without some artistic license.'
But this explanation did not work for me. There was something wrong with it, mostly because I had objected to so many of the adaptations made in Peter Jackson's films.So I kept thinking it over, and gathered but did not look at the reviews of others because I wanted to sort this on my own.
I recognized that isn't adaptation I object to per se. Clearly different media have different narrative horizons and methods. What I liked about Tolkien was that the adaptations made in the film gave an impression of the man and of what was important to him and for his work, an impression that was right enough. Tolkien gave the gist of Tolkien, even if it departed from the true chronology and factual accuracy.
Peter Jackson's films of The Lord of the Rings by contrast adapted Aragorn into some late 20th Century post-modern conflicted protagonist who has greatness thrust upon him, and in doing so got him entirely wrong. Aragorn is not a protagonist, but a hero, a warrior, and a king, the stuff of whom legends are made. (For heaven's sake, the dead follow his commands.) And while he may doubt whether he will succeed, he has no doubts about whether he wants to make the attempt. That is not the Aragorn Peter Jackson gave us. And despite Viggo Mortensen's fine performance, the gist of Aragorn is lacking in the Aragorn they gave him to play. That is where Jackson's films fail and Tolkien succeeds. One adaptation was right enough, and the other wasn't.