SALT LAKE CITY — Though J.R.R. Tolkien himself stated that his works were “not about modern wars,” the biopic about his life focuses heavily on the author’s experience in World War I.
Director Dome Karukoski of "Tolkien," the film releasing in theaters May 10, said that he thinks Tolkien's statement from a 1968 interview is often taken out of context. He referred to the fact that Tolkien specifically said his well-known fantasy trilogy "The Lord of the Rings" wasn't meant to be "allegorical." But that doesn't necessarily mean that his experiences did not influence his work.
Also, Karukoski noted that "Tolkien" is meant to focus more on the author's formative years when he developed the content of "The Hobbit" and his lesser-known, posthumously published work, "The Silmarillion." Even more so, Karukoski wanted the film to show "the building and shaping" of Tolkien's creative mind.
Most importantly, he said, "this is a story about friendship and love."
“Tolkien” tells of the early years of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult), who was orphaned at 12 years old and put under the guardianship of Catholic priest Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney). By merit of his obvious intelligence, Tolkien was able to attend the prestigious King Edward's School in Birmingham. There he developed close friendships with three other boys, who formed the T.C.B.S. (Tea Club, Barrovian Society), a club where they would discuss and encourage each other’s artistic endeavors.
Also depicted in the film is Tolkien's relationship with his future wife, Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a fellow orphan he met at their boardinghouse, who Father Francis separated him from at first because he felt she was interfering with Tolkien's studies. All these relationships are shown as influencing his future novels, but at the center of it all is Tolkien's experience in WWI.
The film intermittently jumps forward in time to Tolkien wandering the trenches at the Battle of the Somme, where gas bombs and flame torches turn into monsters in his imaginative mind. The line drawn between the war and the evil portrayed in Tolkien's novels is blatant.
"We're showing how his mind works," Karukoski said. "Turmoil, bloodshed and destruction … become the fight between good and evil, between belief and nonbelief."
Also portrayed in the film is Tolkien’s great love of languages, which he studied at Oxford. He even invented some of his own, which he would later create stories around. This includes an elvish language that would appear in his future novels, which was heavily influenced by Finnish. A Finn himself, Karukoski said he grew up learning in school about Tolkien and how Finnish mythology and language influenced his writing.
“He’s almost like an honorary citizen,” Karukoski said.
Karukoski first read Tolkien’s books when he was 12 years old, so he said it was a joy to bring the emotions he had reading these stories into the film. The difficulty was narrowing Tolkien’s life story down to a dramatic, narrative path. For example, the film focuses on Tolkien’s school days, so his friendship with the other famous fantasy author, C.S. Lewis, isn’t included.
“In all honesty, (the film is) almost two hours and C.S. Lewis would have added another 45 minutes,” Karukoski said. The filmmakers had to limit themselves and pick one story to tell.2 comments on this story
The Tolkien family released a statement last month that they did not endorse “Tolkien,” though Karukoski confirmed they had not seen the film beforehand. But, Karukoski added, it’s usually better not to work too closely with the family when creating biopics anyway. He said he’s had two biopics he was developing in the past that never went to film because they were trying to please the family and “they would never do a script that would work dramatically.”
“That is the reason why you try to be honest to your own vision, your own inspiration,” Karukoski said. “You always make it so the drama works best.”
Karukoski called "Tolkien" a "labor of love," and he hopes that love translates to viewers when they see it.
“I hope when people walk out of the film they feel inspired and they call a friend and say, ‘Let’s meet up. Let’s tell stories,’” he said.