Hollywood! Adapt This: The Life of J.R.R. Tolkien

     August 18, 2013


During last weekend’s D23 (a fan celebration of all things Disney), new footage was unveiled for the studio’s upcoming film, Saving Mr. Banks.  The movie tells the story of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and his decades-long pursuit of the rights to the Mary Poppins books, written by P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson).  While it remains to be seen just how true to life the movie will be, it got me thinking about another famous author and the fact that most people know more about his works (and their adaptations) than the man himself.  While Peter Jackson has his hands full with The Hobbit movies over the next couple of years, it’s time we get a look at the man behind the fountain pen.  Hit the jump for more.  Hollywood!  Adapt this: the life of J.R.R. Tolkien.

j.r.r. tolkienWhat It’s About:

While obviously a biopic on Tolkien would encompass his life’s story, the real challenge for the screenwriter is to pick and chose those formative moments in his life on which to focus.  In doing just the slightest bit of research, it’s also obvious that Tolkien has a rich, if a bit sad, early life which certainly had an impact on his later writings.  Born John Ronald Reuel Tolkien in 1892 in South Africa, Tolkien lost his father to rheumatic fever when he was four.  The family’s resulting move to England provided a young Tolkien with new lands to explore, places that would inspire his fictional settings.  When Tolkien was only 12, he lost his mother to acute diabetes.  The “orphan” is a protagonist that comes up again and again in popular literature, but it’s not so often that we see a prominent author rise from such inauspicious beginnings.

Early life aside, there’s the fact that Tolkien was involved in both world wars; the first, actively so, and the second, recruited as a codebreaker.  Not only did these experiences acquaint Tolkien with the unenviable familiarity with the loss of friends and family and the machines of war, it also granted him a better understanding of the common man and the brotherhood formed between soldiers.

Of course, no biopic of a scholar such as Tolkien would be complete without delving into his rich educational experience, but there’s also an important aspect of his life that was learned wholly outside the classroom: the courtship, marriage and life-long relationship with his wife, Edith.

How Could / Why Should It Be Adapted?

A couple of years ago, there were hints that a Tolkien biopic was in the works.  The film would be an adaptation of Steve Hillard’s “Mirkwood: A Novel about JRR Tolkien”, a fictionalized account of the author.  The author and his project ran into substantial resistance from the Tolkien estate, so that project is likely scrubbed.  However, it would be nice to see a fresh take on the author’s life, perhaps inspired by this authorized bio from Humphrey Carpenter.  A straight up biopic on Tolkien would be sure to interest his devoted fans, but for someone so imaginative in his career, perhaps a more creative take on his life’s story would be more appropriate.  Personally, I’d like to see his imagination come to life on screen at the moments of his inspiration, so we can truly see the world as he did, whether it be during his research into Beowulf, his denigration of the Nazis during World War II, or watching his wife dance in a flowering meadow, which inspired the meeting of Beren and Lúthien.  It’s an impossible thing to see something exactly as another does, but in the right hands, this creative vision could come close.

jrr-tolkien-pipeThe Final Word:

P.L. Travers had substantial doubts about Disney’s ability to accurately portray her character on screen and was apparently none too pleased with the result, refusing any future adaptation rights for her books (except for an intentionally non-American produced stage production in her later years).  Although we’ll never know what J.R.R. Tolkien would have thought of either of Peter Jackson’s film trilogies, it would be nice to get to know the man himself.  His stories are read and beloved the world over, but there has yet to be a companion film that tells the story of the author himself.  It’s time Tolkien the man was celebrated as much as Tolkien the creator of Middle-Earth and all its varied inhabitants.

Be sure to let us know who you think would make a good Tolkien in the comments below. (Perhaps Tom Hiddleston or Benedict Cumberbatch?)  And get caught up on our previous Hollywood! Adapt This articles here.  Tune in again next week when we tackle another overlooked adaptation!

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