A tribute to a literary giant (1900-1919, England & France): No Man’s Land reads like you’re watching a movie. Simon Tolkien has a “gift for making people and places come alive.” So does the star of this movie, Adam Raine, as his coming-of-age saga was inspired by J. R. R. Tolkien, the author’s grandfather “who fought on the Somme July through October 1916.”
Admittedly, Simon Tolkien’s famous lineage piqued my interest. The intrigue was furthered by a recent article noting the novel was being marketed not only to Lord of the Ring fans (timed to its 90th anniversary) but to Downton Abbey types, which includes readers of this blog since this British era has enchanted. Parts were apparently written while the author watched the acclaimed PBS series. That’s because a country estate – Scarsdale Hall – set in north England’s misty landscape of “still-water lakes and green fields” is where some of the drama takes place, propelling plot and a superb ending.
This immersive, thoughtful novel follows Adam’s maturation from boyhood to manhood, harsh worlds that forged the strength and integrity of his heroic character. For Adam can’t “bear to be less than he hoped he was,” a “virtue and a fault that he would carry with him all his life.” These profound aspirations define Adam and largely “who we are; and who we become.” This overarching theme plays out in many consequential scenes, none weightier than on the battlefield.
It would be a mistake, though, to peg this solely a war novel. Detailed, it weighs in at a hefty 578 pages, so this movie ought to be long, maybe 2 ½ hours. While the war consumes a chunk, to appreciate Adam’s character by the time he’s an Army soldier, the movie, like the well-crafted novel, should depict the historical context and Adam’s upbringing. (Adam, like J. R. R. Tolkien, did not immediately join up. He was studying at Oxford, like J. R. R. Tolkien and the author.)
Historical images of union strikers and suffragettes would float across the screen reflecting a “new age of social justice.” Adam’s father is one of those activists, in-and-out of construction jobs, staunching fighting for a world “where men are valued for who they are, not for what the rich can get out of them.”
The novel opens with a foretelling line: “The first world Adam knew was the street.” Those streets were the slums of London. Adam’s childhood was impoverished. Yet, like his mother’s piano music, his was a world of both “sweetness and loss.” His sickly, desolate, church-praying (spirituality another theme), loving mother managed to nurture Adam’s passion for books, Latin and Greek, and poetry (like J. R. R. Tolkien). From there, we witness Adam’s adolescence spent in northern coal country, also marked by hard times and formidable challenges.
Tranquil imagery contrasts greatly with vivid, life-and-death scenes. One, for example, happens at the manor house, home of Sir John Scarsdale, owner of the Scarsdale coal mine, paralleling a period in British history when coal miners protested unsafe conditions and unfair wages around 1912. More drama takes place 500 feet underground. Shafts descend into the “godforsaken darkness” of harrowing, narrow-tunneled mines. We feel for Adam’s struggles with claustrophobic demons, and we cringe at the vision of “pit ponies” hurtled down mine shafts to do their jobs – emblematic of the vast “industrial outcrop of the new century” when Britain was the “most powerful nation in the world.”
The movie, like the novel, would splendidly punctuate the bleakness with shots of the landscape’s beauty. The author continually reminds us of the environment’s importance as a “balm” for a “tortured soul.”
The coal town is named Scarsdale for a reason: the mine was “king.” Pitting the working-class against the “ruling class that has become decadent,” it highlights the extraordinary class system of the Edwardian era where “everyone has their place in the world.” This was an era when “decadence precedes disaster,” when an angry, disenfranchised working-class rose up against the “rich and powerful.” You can’t help but be struck by a novel set 100 years ago that resonates today with the populist movements that brought Brexit and the Trump presidency.
Simon Tolkien spent four years researching and writing this novel, his fifth. (A former London barrister, he’s written crime novels.) So he couldn’t have known this epic would send chills warning us that a “house of cards” can lead to calamity. Hence, like a well-made movie, the novel takes hold. The prose enchants us – i.e. grabs us – but most of the worlds it inhabits are not enchanting.
Here are exceptions: Adam’s resiliency and compassion; and his cautious, tender love for painfully shy, overly sensitive, submissive, Miriam, devout daughter of a parson Adam admires and befriends. (Like J. R. R. Tolkien, Adam fell in love before he went to war.) Miriam’s striking beauty is “simple like Madonna in a painting.” Adam later meets up with the Parson when he volunteers as a war chaplain, resurfacing spiritual questions more forcefully. How can horrific war be explained? “How can such beauty exist in the world?” churns Adam.
Like a well-cast movie, there’s a memorable cast of characters. Some bear uplifting traits of incredible bravery, fortitude, loyalty, generosity, objectivity, fair-mindedness, and humility. Others are scheming, cruel, villainous: Miriam’s mother, Lady Scarsdale and her younger, weak, insanely jealous, “dandified” son, Brice – all foes of Adam.
Adam encounters the admirable cast when he moves to Scarsdale, where his cousins live. Some don’t accept the city boy initially. An incident at the mines forms bonds. None more formidable than when the cast finds themselves on the Western Front during the “Big Push” depending on each other for survival. The power of friendship another compelling theme.
The wonderment of Adam is that he embodies “the spirit of man and what he can achieve.” He endures adversities, yet his “spirit wanted to embrace life rather than dwell on the hardships he’d suffered.” So in this soul-searching, serious work, you’ll find gems of inspiration and hope.
Adam’s not the only character that lifts us up during this historical time of crushing devastation and death. Seaton, the elder son of Sir John, Adam’s calls the “best man he’d ever known.” You’ll agree, though you’ll likely feel the same about Adam. From the moment Adam met Seaton, he felt an “intense sense of companionship” with him. Seaton’s certainly another hero. (So is Rawdon, a fearless Yorkshire-dialect speaking miner, and Earnest, Adam’s good-natured cousin.) Seaton ought to take second star billing. Wonderfully caring of Adam, we cheer when he stands up to his despicable mother and brother; when he frees Adam in a fairy-tale hot-air balloon ride over the magnificent landscape; and when he’s a courageous colonel defending his men on no man’s land.
Which means this movie is R rated for violence. It also means the film must be shot in both Technicolor and sepia/gray-black tones. Technicolor is far less visually prominent as the slums, mines, and trenches are grimy, dark, muddy, deplorable. Yet the value of the colorful hues of nature that keep popping up, often in the most unlikely places, cannot be overstated. Can you imagine what it meant to Adam injured and alone on the smoldering French countryside in earshot of the Germans to spot “brimstone butterflies fluttered above the daisies and the buttercups and waving red poppies”? The Great War’s Symbol of Remembrance feels real. It will stick with you, which, of course, is the point.
That’s why a novel full of the vocabulary of colliers and warriors still enchants us. For amongst the tragedies and unspeakable catastrophes, Adam still finds goodness and beauty in the world.
No Man’s Land stands fittingly muscular for these tough-talking, chaotic, alarming times. Testing who we are. How we answer will speak volumes about who we become.