J. R. R. Tolkien is one of the most important authors of the 20th century, and his overwhelming influence on the fantasy genre is still felt today across books, movies, TV, video games, and beyond. Capturing the author’s early years in the biopic Tolkien, which follows him from childhood through his time at the University of Oxford and into World War I, was no easy task for director Dome Karukoski.
There are plenty of challenges inherent in attempting to portray a person’s real life in a way that’s narratively compelling as well as true to who they really were. Tolkien’s life presented even more difficulties beyond the standard ones, but Karukoski told GameSpot he worked hard to capture the “emotional truth” of who Tolkien was.
“There has been this one rule that I have learned, which is: Always uphold emotional truths,” the director, who’s worked on several other biopics in the past, said. “I know a lot of people can be very nitpicky about factual events and factual years, but if you lean too much on factual years or factual events, and the emotional truth does not come out of the characters, then it is not emotional–it’s usually a worse film.”
Karukoski said he always starts with the facts, but is willing to “dramatize” events whenever it makes the story better. For example, in the movie, Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) marries his wife Edith Bratt (Lily Collins) after returning from the war, while in real life they married before he shipped off. “I think that the emotion is stronger in this version, but it is still the same emotion,” Karukoski explained.
Creative liberties like that may have something to do with the Tolkien estate’s recent, very public disavowment of the film. But the director has remained firm in his insistence that not working with the author’s estate was a creative blessing that allowed him to take more liberties, in turn making Tolkien a better movie.
“It is really difficult for people who do not write films to understand how the structure and the form work,” the director said. “Everything has to be done so it is the best possible film emotionally, so that people can enjoy and love the film, I hope. And it is done with respect toward [Tolkien], and emotionally, I want to be very true to him.”
Karukoski said the research into Tolkien’s life was expansive, from studying the author’s letters and illustrations to reading existing biographies and meeting with experts. Through that research, the director said he and the movie’s writers, David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford, began to picture Tolkien as two distinct characters–one before The Hobbit’s publication, and one after. That led to the decision to focus entirely on the former, since according to Karukoski, “Those times, as you saw, were the most surprising and cinematic.”
“The writers and I felt like that is the dividing moment of his life,” Karukoski said. “It is such a different life post-publishing The Hobbit, when he actually gets published and he becomes more like an author than the younger Tolkien.”
The director identified reflections between Tolkien’s early life and his own early life, when he first discovered The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings books. “When I read about his younger times, maybe he is about the same age [as I was], he is also the outsider, he is also growing up without a father, he is also alone, and he also wants to find friends and communities and a place of belonging,” Karukoski said. “There was a feeling of destiny, of how instrumental he has been to me, and what is the era that should be told in his life.”
That all makes sense, but the decision to focus on Tolkien’s life before The Hobbit also created a unique problem: The movie includes very few explicit references to Lord of the Rings, which may leave some viewers scratching their heads, given the subject matter. One way Karukoski got around that is by crafting “visions” that he imagined Tolkien might have had at pivotal moments in his life.
Karukoski described how Tolkien’s journey from orphan to student to soldier might have changed these visions–things that may have sparked ideas or provided inspiration later, like a hallucination of evil creatures roaming a World War I battlefield. The director imagined these visions gradually transforming from light to dark throughout the course of Tolkien’s life. If the author first envisioned great heroes, how would those ideas become twisted by the horrors of war?
“When his mind gets corrupted [by] all the bloodshed during war, and that vision becomes like a dark fallen knight, then that becomes an internal battle between good and evil within him,” Karukoski said. “Then I can imagine that he later uses that idea, you know? If a person gets corrupted, does that not become a Ringwraith–kind of a corrupted fallen king?”
The fantastical and terrifying visions Tolkien sees in the film bring various elements of Lord of the Rings to mind without explicitly referencing them. It’s a clever way of imagining how iconic characters and creatures may have formed over time in the author’s imagination.
“A Nazgûl is not a Nazgûl yet [when Tolkien imagines it on the battlefield],” the director explained. “It is an image, a vision of something, he does not yet know what–but his mind is building.”
Clearly Tolkien’s writers and directors took plenty of creative liberties with the author’s story. If you want to know whether it paid off, check out our reviews round-up to find out what critics are saying.
Tolkien hits theaters May 10.