Teasing out the myriad influences on any artist creating a timeless masterpiece is tricky business, but Finnish director Dome Karukoski does an admirable job of it in , an evocative dramatization of the late linguistics professor and beloved fantasy author’s early life.
Per the film’s official premise: “As a child, J.R.R. Tolkien becomes friends with a group of fellow artists and writers at his school, with whom he finds inspiration and courage.
Their bond of fellowship grows with the years, as they experience life together. Meanwhile, Tolkien meets Edith Bratt, with whom he falls in love. But when World War I breaks out, Tolkien’s relationships with his friends are tested, an act which threatens to tear their “fellowship” apart.” Nicholas Hoult () heads the cast in the title role, with Lily Collins () playing Edith.
The broad strokes of those formative years provide the backbone of the film. In 1892, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in modern-day South Africa while his bank manager father, Arthur, had left England to manage a branch of the British bank there. When Tolkien was three, his mother, Mabel, took him and his younger brother, Hilary, for an extended trip to England. His father was meant to join them but died of rheumatic fever, leaving the family with no source of income. Mabel and the children wound up living in Birmingham with her parents, and the nearby village of Sarehole would end up inspiring various scenes in Tolkien’s novels.
Mabel died when Tolkien was 12, and a local priest, Father Francis Xavier Morgan, assumed guardianship of Tolkien and his brother and ensured they received a good education. It was at King Edward’s School that Tolkien met Rob Gilson, Geoffrey Bache Smith, and Christopher Wiseman, forming their own artistic society: the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, or T.C.B.S. That brotherhood anchors the film, which follows the young, idealistic dreamers who wanted to change the world with their art as they march off to defend Great Britain in World War I.
Later (after the events of the film), Tolkien bonded over a shared love of Norse mythology with Narnia-creator C.S. Lewis when the two men met at Oxford as professors in the 1930s. Along with several other Oxford-based writers and scholars, they began meeting regularly at a local pub called The Eagle and Child, fondly dubbed The Bird and the Baby. The Oxford Inklings, as they came to be called, were arguably the literary mythmakers of the mid-20th century, at least in England. That is the period of Tolkien’s life most familiar to fans of and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In fact, Lewis was the first to read early drafts of Tolkien’s imagined world. Tolkien later credited Lewis with “an unpayable debt” for convincing him the “stuff” could be more than a “private hobby.”
But most of us are less familiar with Tolkien’s formative years. “To me it was surprising, as I always envisioned Tolkien like everyone else: with his pipe at The Eagle and Child, debating with C.S. Lewis about elves,” said Karukoski. “Then I found out he had all this background, being an orphan, finding his friends, going to war. The story is quite amazing.” So Karukoski set out to bring it to life on film.
“For me, what is most important is to find the emotional truth of the character.”
Making a film about such a well-known and beloved literary figure is always a daunting prospect, especially in light of the sometimes litigious Tolkien Estate. The Estate did release a statement in April clarifying that the family “did not approve of, authorize, or participate in the making of this film” and “they do not endorse it or its content in any way.” But a spokesman for the estate told The Guardian that statement wasn’t a harbinger of legal action. The intent was simply to distance the Tolkien Estate from the film, lest people confuse the director’s artistic vision with historical fact.
Karukoski isn’t bothered at all by the statement, which he thought was “quite respectful. I didn’t feel offended.” In fact, he has invited Tolkien family members view the film with him, with the hope they’ll see he has treated their forebear with great respect. That said, he readily admits to taking some creative license with the facts of Tolkien’s life in his interpretation of the author as a character.
“Almost any biopic or real-life story needs alterations, because everyday existence is not that exciting or cinematic. At the end of the day, the narrative flow must work,” he said. “For me, what is most important [for a biopic] is to find the emotional truth of the character.”
Still, there are many factual flourishes throughout. Tolkien really did fall in love with a fellow boarder, Edith, only to be forced to choose between her and an Oxford education, thanks to Father Francis (played by Miles O’Brien himself, Colm Meaney). A scene in a Birmingham teahouse where the couple toss lumps of sugar into the hats of fancy diners is largely accurate (except the real Tolkien and Edith sat on a balcony and tossed the lumps into the hats of passersby below). Edith was briefly engaged to someone else but broke it off when Tolkien declared he still loved her. They married after the war ended. And the tragic fates of two T.C.B.S. members are also part of the historical record.
While the film explores the many early influences that would one day feed into Tolkien’s writings, it largely avoids the trap of drawing overly direct parallels between biographical elements and Tolkien’s art. “There are no sign posts, no vision of something that is finished,” said Karukoski, noting the author would have hated any attempt to claim a specific scene or character was directly inspired by specific events in his life.
For instance, when young Tolkien’s mother reads his a story about Norse mythological hero Sigurd slaying a dragon, the boy envisions the classic knight on a white horse scenario. That image turns into a darker, fallen knight later on in the film, as Tolkien faces the horrors of World War I. “We are not expressing that it is specifically a certain character [in his fiction],” said Karukoski. “We’re expressing how his mind works. It is like he has the instruments and is slowly adding his own music.”
Tolkien’s spirituality (he was a devout Catholic) most certainly influenced his fiction, but it’s woven into the fabric of his world-building and hence is much more subtle than the nakedly allegorical approach of C.S. Lewis. (The Narnia books in particular are blatant Christian allegory, and Tolkien, who revered the symbolic power of myth, objected to that ham-fisted treatment when he read the manuscript: “It simply won’t do, you know.”) Showing that aspect of Tolkien proved the most challenging for Karukoski. He ultimately cut a scene in which Father Francis administers last rites to a dying patient because it just didn’t fit with the overall flow of the film. (It will be included among the DVD extras, however.)
The fact that so much of the film’s drama hinges on Tolkien’s interior life was a challenge for its star, Nicholas Hoult, but the actor proved more than up to the task. “He has so many characteristics that Tolkien himself had, to build upon,” said Karukoski. “He has the intelligence. He’s funny, which Tolkien was. He has this wonderful playfulness in him.”
Hoult prepared for the role for months, even learning how to draw illustrations like the author, “because that also tells us about the character, how your hand moves, what’s your temper when it moves,” said Karukoski.
For Karukoski, making the film provided an extra layer of insight when he went and re-read Tolkien’s books—and he hopes it will do the same for other fans. “You don’t have to be a Tolkien fan to see the film; at it’s core it’s a story of friendship and love,” he said. “But if you read the books after you see the film, I think you will better understand the profundity and the poetry in them.”