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Pronunciation of ‘Tolkien’ is the most interesting takeaway of the movie

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is full of high drama, what with all those wizards and dragons and cataclysmic battles. Tolkien, the movie about the man who invented Middle Earth, is decidedly not high drama. In fact, it’s barely drama at all.

This film is so respectful and respectable a presentation, that the real upset and turmoil of JRR Tolkien’s young adult life barely registers. And while the film’s biographical details are, I presume, all true, they in no way explain or help us understand how he could write such influential literary works. Given how superficial or cursory the movie is, it seems he could just as easily have grown up to be a dentist as a fantasy writer.

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I appreciate how difficult it is to bring the life of a writer over to cinematic life. Making external a primarily internal process is a conundrum. The movie comes closest to pulling this off during a dinner conversation Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) has with his girlfriend and eventual wife Edith Bratt (Lily Collins).

“Tell me a story,” Edith says.

“I’m not a performing monkey,” Tolkien replies.

“A story of the cellar door,” she says. “… It begins with the arrival of a proud and opinionated princess … she demands entertainment.”

“Cellar door, it’s not a princess’ name, it can’t be,” Tolkien starts. “Cellar door … it’s a place, an ancient place, impossible to reach except by the most treacherous climb … a path, it’s a path, through a dense, dark forest.”

If the film could have figured out a way to do more of this, translating the creative process to the big screen, Tolkien might have better justified its existence. It tries to make biographical connections to The Lord of the Rings, but they come across as strained or half-hearted. For instance, when Tolkien and his schoolboy friends form a club they proclaim themselves a “fellowship.”

“This is more than just a friendship, it’s an alliance, in invincible alliance … a fellowship.”

And when the flame-throwers on the front lines of World War I morph into fire-breathing dragons, the ties to Tolkien’s Middle Earth are apparent. Ultimately though, these ties seem more like signposts than literary transformations.

One surprising takeaway from the film is the pronunciation of the famed writer’s name. If an early scene is to be believed, his name is pronounced Toll-keen, not Toll-kin. Unfortunately, when that’s the most memorable thing about the movie — and it is — it’s not exactly high praise.

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