What inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to write The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings? Whole books have been written in answer to this question. It's the mark of great writing when there is such fervent interest in origins. The answer is, of course, we don't know but this movie gives suggestions based on Tolkien's own words.
For years, it was assumed by many that because LOTR was written in the Thirties and Forties, it was about WWII, the rise, the threat and then the defeat of Fascism. Tolkien himself always denied this saying his decisive influence was his experiences as a soldier in WWI. The movie begins with Tolkien as a soldier, under fire in the trenches. He is desperately searching for one of his friends and meantime, he himself is increasingly feverish. That fever probably saved his life for it caused him to be invalided back to England and a long, slow recovery.
Meantime, we're with Tolkien in the trenches and then in flashbacks of his remarkable life. He was actually born in Africa where his father was working. He and his baby brother were brought to England by their mother. Their father died before he could join them so they lived in poverty during his childhood. At first, they lived in the beautiful green country of rural England that bears a remarkable resemblance to the Shire in LOTR. Then poverty drove them to what Tolkien saw as a very ugly city. His mother entertained them with stories, especially Norse mythology with emphasis on fighting dragons and the problems caused by an evil ring of power. So it is his mother that inspired his lifelong love of all mythology but especially the Norse.
She died when Tolkien was in his early teens and left him under the guardianship of a kindly priest. He went to live in a boarding house while going to school and studying for exams that would give him a scholarship to Oxford. However, there was a girl at the boarding house and they soon became pals. Edith understood him, admired his love for language and myth. They fell in love for life. She is the girl whom Tolkien grew up to marry. He always credited her for being his inspiration. However, they were teenagers, acting like teenagers. Soon, he neglected his studies to do things like run off with her to see the Richard Wagner opera, The Ring Cycle which was inspired by the same Norse myths that inspired LOTR. As a result, he flunked his first effort at winning a scholarship. His guardian, who correctly saw how brilliant he was, forbade him to see Edith again until he was 21.
Tolkien won entrance into Oxford, made friends and then WWI broke out and he went to war.
Does this sound like fiction? I had read one of his many biographies, so I can say the movie is accurate except in minor ways. For example, it shows the feverish Tolkien seeing a flame thrower as a flaming dragon. It gives him a faithful batman (assistant) named Sam who carries on his mission to find his friend when he's too ill. That's made up.
The basic facts, the framework of the movie is accurate. Tolkien simply led a remarkable early life. After the war, after the grief of losing his closest friends, he and Edith were married and raised his family. He became an Oxford professor for the rest of his life. He told stories to his children just as his mother had done with him. One day, he picked up a blank sheet of paper and wrote, "In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit." And the rest, as they say, is history.
I enjoyed the movie. I felt it never quite caught fire but that's a minor quibble. It's worth seeing if you love LOTR.
Reviewed by Marian Powell