Tolkien | A Film of Restoration and Where Hope is Reborn
J. R. R. Tolkien, the master of heroic fantasy fiction, is presented for the first time in the new biographical movie, Tolkien. With skillful cinematography and acting, this compelling movie exhibits the author’s early life and writings. Tolkien endures challenges with classmates, the love of his life, Edith, and WWI, to write the intense tales of Middle-Earth (a fictional continent on Earth in a prehistoric period), in which the characters and tales reflect the importance of Christian values. Tolkien is a film of restoration and where hope is reborn.
Having developed a rich, lyrical, aesthetic language for his ultimate tales of Middle-Earth – Tolkien became a student of linguistics, the study of written language in developmental and historical contexts at Oxford (this also influenced the English language). He developed a history and geography for his Middle-Earth stories, which began in the hellish trenches of WWI after he graduated from college.
One of his goals, was to provide a unique rich English mythology.
Like a spreading fire of global imagination, J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, have been a dominating force in the heroic, fantasy, adventure genre in this past century. In Tolkien, we see how a naïve J. R. R. Tolkien developed, was forged, and transformed from a lonely orphan into one of the great storytellers of all time. His stories illuminate our imaginations, encourage the bonds of fellowship, and create a desire for eternal good purposes. Director of the film, Dome Karukoski, explores this aspect in the film, and related to his subject in many other ways.
Karukoski, has an interesting personal history. From Cyprus, he moved at five-years-old to Finland with his mother. His father was an American actor whom Dome did not meet until he was a teen, and his mother was a Finnish journalist. He speaks Swedish and Finnish, as well as English. In 1999, along with just two other students, Karukoski, majored in directing at the University of Art and Design of Helsinki. He has become one of Finland’s most acclaimed directors. His films have received 38 nominations in Finnish Film Awards. He has been awarded for Best Director twice. He is the only Finnish director ever to win all the main Finnish national awards.
An Exclusive Interview with Tolkien Director Dome Karukoski
DH: What are the major universal themes in this movie?
DK: A major theme is about how art changes the world at personal to international levels. Art provides a unifying experience that is intergenerational and interracial. It can facilitate healing on personal to international levels.
DH: How did you visually picturize and connect these themes?
DK: We did this through performances, costumes, and other production elements. We used various color palettes to reinforce a range of scenes from dreamy-like, to like a love letter, to naturalistic. We used various production elements to create vivid scenes of a range of emotions.
DH: How have you visually picturized how Tolkien came to experience hope against the backdrop of intense personal and national suffering and loss?
DK: We start with his own mind of visions, sounds not yet in books. We move from darkness to light and from internal to external. With his kiss with Edith, they are lit against the darkness. With Edith, their relationship, and their family, there is more and more light. A warm shining light comes from Edith, as it does with the elves.
DH: How did you use color and light with sections of the story?
DK: The film is divided into three distinctive looks: Tolkien’s school days are charged with color and innocence; then the war brings a swirling darkness; and finally, Tolkien emerges into the fresh light, and serenity of family life.
DH: How does the camera move with Tolkien?
DK: With internal and spiritual moments with Tolkien, the camera focuses on Tolkien, and goes around him when he is lying on the grass looking to the heavens. Here, the camera reinforces his struggle with loss and looking to his Christian faith.
DH: Why is this movie timely for today?
DK: This movie challenges the corruption of war, and the loss of minds, and life. It appeals to our need for communal unity.
DH: How do you want to affect your audiences with this movie?
DK: My hope is that it will inspire valuing, and loving life, and that it will have healing, restorative power with audiences.
Dome invites audiences to share in Tolkien’s inventive young foundational friendships that meant so much to him, as well as in the great love, which he grappled to find again. Dome permits us to see that each of Tolkien’s bright and dark experiences enable him to develop the voice to create singularly intense and compelling stories.
Dome says, “For me, one of the biggest challenges going in was: how do you express the mind of a genius visually? I dug deep into Tolkien’s stories and his illustrations, searching for how his mind operated, for ways to show how he saw the world. I wanted those who love the books to be able to trace everything you see in the film, [forwarded] into Tolkien’s work, but also for that to be so subtle that the story is equally compelling without knowing a thing about Middle-Earth.”
Tolkien (played by Nicholas Hoult) in his formative years as a student, a young romantic, and a soldier before he published The Hobbit in 1937. After his father died young, J. R. R. Tolkien’s loving, imaginative, Christian mother, reared him, but also died when Tolkien was 12. His guardian enabled him to go to a school where he formed a secret society (TCBS with three other scholarly students). Tolkien, with his fellow young student artists friends, wanted to transform the world. In them, he discovered steadfast friendship and fellowship which carried him through dark times of war and loss. They gave him the confidence to pursue his education, his beloved Edith, and the writing of his great epic tales.
Irish playwright and screenwriter David Gleeson was captivated by Tolkien’s own personal story as a young man on a heroic quest. As much as Gleeson was fascinated with the soaring stories of The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings, he was equally moved by the human story of how J. R. R. Tolkien, came of age against all odds.
Tolkien lost his father while still a child, then was whisked from his South African birthplace, to an England he’d never seen by his ill mother, who died of diabetes, at 36. By age 12, John and his brother, Hilary, were penniless orphans, but Tolkien defied those circumstances because he had exceptional gifts, including a rare genius for inventing languages, mapping out mythologies, and creating imaginary creatures. That enabled him to enroll in the prestigious King Edward’s School in Birmingham – where his blossoming fantasy life began to soar.
Screenwriter Gleeson found it all so enchanting that he began an intensive personal odyssey of investigation, digging Tolkien’s own story. He then focused on one catalytic period: from Tolkien’s arrival at King Edward’s School, to his near demise fighting for the British in the Battle of the Somme, during World War I.
Gleeson says, “I found it really revelatory to discover that Tolkien was part of this foursome of friends who really were a fellowship. They all enlisted into The Great War together, so you truly had this alliance of young men, who had to confront tremendous peril, which is a theme that became so close to Tolkien’s heart.” Gleeson became captivated by the Shakespearean love story between Tolkien and fellow orphan Edith Bratt. After a fiery courtship based on their mutual love of art and mischief, their bond was nearly broken when Tolkien’s guardian, Father Francis Morgan, banned the pair from so much as making eye contact until Tolkien was 21.
Nevertheless, Tolkien refused to let go of his dream. “Here was a tremendous romance between two lost souls who were torn apart just when they really needed each other, only to find each other again and make it work,” Gleeson says. “It’s another remarkable story from Tolkien’s life.”
“By pulling back the curtain on Tolkien’s early life, you find a story that delves into where art and stories come from,” says Archery Pictures producer Kris Thykier. “For Tolkien, friendship was one of the most important things in the world, and here you see why that became so central to his life and works.”
Producer David Ready adds: “We all got very strongly behind the idea that this story needed to be told. And we felt we could do it in a way that would be true in spirit to Tolkien’s past, but also tap into a larger question: where does such an incredible imagination come from? When the film opens with a feverish Tolkien roaming the trenches of the Somme, searching for a lost friend, you know right away, this is not going to be a standard biopic. It starts in war, but then it becomes the wonderful story of these beautiful friendships that Tolkien made and that helped to make him.”
Co-producer Dan Finlay notes that the appeal of the story felt far broader than anyone anticipated. “It’s about things everyone finds transporting, no matter who you are: friendship, love, and the battle of light against darkness.”
They began to search for a director with a visual imagination unique enough to match the material and found director Karukoski.
“When we saw the intensity of Dome’s passion for telling this story, it was clear he had to be at the helm,” says Producer Ready. “His commitment elevated every element of the story. It became something very personal to him.” Karukoski related to Tolkien at the deepest level, because he too grew up without a father. He was able to instinctually tap into Tolkien’s loneliness.
“Although, I’m not an orphan like Tolkien, my early life was also as a fatherless son. Seeing Tolkien as a lost orphan trying to find his way really resonated with me. His search for friends, for love, and for his own identity, had an emotional core I could not resist,” Karukoski says.
Being Finnish, Karukoski, especially appreciated that Tolkien taught himself the Finnish language as a student.
“Tolkien is thought to be almost ‘Our Own Icon,’” says Karukoski. “Tolkien was apparently captivated by the Finnish language and our mythology, Kalevala. He even wrote his own version of the Story of Kullervo from the Kalevala. For me, it’s obvious that Tolkien has taken elements from the Finnish language and Kalevala into his own legends.”
Equally irresistible to Karukoski, was the chance to examine how entire worlds can be built from the strictly ethereal, incorporeal fabrics of memory, emotion, and imagination.
“It’s such an exciting time in life when you find friends like that, and I wanted to show it as Tolkien’s first great adventure,” Karukoski comments. “He was discovering how not to be afraid of his imagination. These four young men make this bold declaration that they’re going to change the world through art—and that mark on him will last forever.”
The love story was also fascinating to Dome because the evocative Edith would come to inspire several of Tolkien’s most beloved female characters.
“One of my first crushes as a boy was on Tolkien’s characters Arwen and Lúthien, the elven princesses from his mythologies, whom Tolkien said, were based on Edith,” Karukoski admits. “So it was very fulfilling to try to recreate an elven princess in the flesh as Edith. I thought a lot about how pure their love must have been. They had something we all yearn to feel. But what’s different about their love story is that it allowed Tolkien to write legends of love that are now eternal.”
Actor Nicholas Hoult says about performing Tolkien that “Helheimr is what they were all after: that spirit of living in the moment and seizing the day, whether artistically, emotionally, or physically. It’s a constant reminder of their potential to be better.”
To take Tolkien from the pages of history and give him real modern life, the filmmakers would need two different actors who needed to be able to let the audience see inside the rolling wheels of Tolkien’s imagination. Karukoski immediately saw something of Tolkien in Hoult.
“The first thing that intrigued me with Nicholas is his intelligence,” explains Karukoski. “He’s very smart, which you need to be to play a genius like Tolkien. The second thing is that he’s very playful, also a quality of Tolkien, who was known to dress up as a knight and go out to scare people in Oxford! Nick fully embodied that. He spent months preparing, even practicing how to illustrate as Tolkien did while sitting in the makeup chair for X-MEN. Finally, Nick is an actor willing to do take after take, going for something different each time. He never stops looking for what’s best for the scene.”
Although he’d been in awe of Tolkien since his own childhood experiences with Middle-Earth, Hoult says it was Karukoski, who tantalized him by excavating Tolkien’s imagination. “Dome’s passion made him a fantastic guy to tell this story of perseverance and finding your voice. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who is such a force of nature as Dome,” says Hoult. “It felt like a huge honor to play Tolkien in a way no one has seen.”
Hoult dove headlong into research, reading everything he could find on Tolkien. “I read all the biographies, listened to recordings of Tolkien in later life, and went through all the photographs,” says Hoult. “And the more you learn about Tolkien, the more you are amazed by all his achievements and ideas. Still, as an actor, you have to reconcile with the fact that when playing a real person, you can only ever play a kind of ghost of them. You can’t impersonate them, so you try to capture some of their living essence.”
Important to Hoult was Tolkien’s loyalty to his friends, who became his family. “Tolkien felt so connected to the members of the TCBS because they were all equally creative, whether in poetry, music, or painting, and they also all shared a kind of irreverent love of mischief. They were the kind of friends able to push each other and encourage each other to go further. And at that time, Tolkien didn’t have anyone else like that,” said Hoult.
According to Hoult, Helheimr, became a motivation for Tolkien’s resolution and unwillingness to give up on Edith. “I think Tolkien saw in Edith a tough survivor like himself. But I also think they just had a lot of crazy fun together. Their relationship only became more exciting because it had to be so secretive and they had to go through so much to be together.”
While Hoult plays Tolkien in young adulthood, Harry Gilby plays the teenage Tolkien. Says Karukoski of Gilby: “When I first saw Harry, I was struck by the fact that he’s almost as tall as Nick and he looks and even walks, like Nick. He also had this sense of pure innocence that I felt captured something about Tolkien as a younger boy. I felt he brought out that playful, childlike quality that Tolkien always kept alive inside himself. Harry is a brilliant young actor,” adds Hoult. “He was great to work with and we spent a lot of time together, learning to mirror each other’s movement and mannerisms.”
Gilby sees Tolkien’s friendships as a life raft that dragged him to safety in dark times. “I think the TCBS became a way to distract himself from his grief for his mother,” Gilby observes. “Having the outlet of the TCBS for having fun, making jokes, talking about literature, art and changing the world, gave him happiness again.”
Karukoski says about Tolkien’s Secret Society, TCBS: “It was about gaining the trust of each of these young men—and also encouraging them to trust each other. You have to really feel that they not only get to know each other on that level that only best friends do, but that they believe in each other.”
Tolkien’s first encounter with how much fellowship can mean began when he arrived as a friendless newcomer at King Edward’s School. However, he rapidly fell in with three mates who develop into the rarest of inseparable friends: Robert Gilson, Geoffrey Smith, and Christopher Wiseman.
Together, they formed the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, TCBS, due to their mutual passion for sneakily sipping tea in the school library or at nearby Barrow’s tea room.
The TCBS gave each of them a place to express who they really were. In the privacy of the TCBS, they shared “everything under the sun,” as Wiseman said.
“That was what bound us together.”
“Tolkien and Edith had such a deep love and a connection that it could never be broken,” says actress Lily Collins (PBS, Les Miserables) who performs Edith and says, “They were each other’s escape but also each other’s reality.”
At first, it was her resemblance to the real-life Edith that caught Karukoski’s eye. “They look so much alike, it’s uncanny,” says the director. “And then I saw that Lily has that same inner warmth that I feel Edith must have had. There’s so much texture to her emotions that you can see why the young Tolkien became so enraptured with her.”
Producer Kris Thykier says, “We all feel Nick Hoult is becoming one of the great actors of his generation—and then we found his match in Lily Collins, who is simply luminous as Edith. Together on screen, they are magnetic. They managed to tap into that sense of two lost souls, who find each other and etch out a bond that’s eternal.”
Hoult, who found their chemistry organic from day one, says, “Lily brought so much grit, intelligence, and grace to Edith that you could feel all this energy from her,” he reflects. When Collins met Karukoski, she realized that the director aimed to create something more imaginative than a straight-ahead history of Tolkien’s youth.
“I saw that he wanted to take what could have been just a period drama and flip it on its head, to make it something both more creative, and more human. His attitude and his ideas were just infectious,” she says. Collins began seeking out as many personal remembrances of Edith as she could.
“One of the things that really struck me was the fact that she and Tolkien truly did go to fancy places and throw sugar cubes into people’s hats. That gave me some insight into what kind of spark and sass Edith must have had,” says Collins.
As for why Edith would be drawn to this young man, yet to accomplish anything, Collins says, “I believe she fell in love with his stories. Tolkien provided a creative escape I think she’d long been craving. They loved disappearing into his fantasy worlds together. Also, I think Tolkien had a sense of who Edith really was. He knew what it was like to be driven and creative, and I think she expanded his mind.”
A magical animating scene in Tolkien, is from a true experience in J. R. R.’s and Edith’s life-long romance. This happened when Edith danced in a grove of hemlock trees. This sparked his vision of Lúthien, the elven princess who sacrificed her immortality for the mortal Beren. Tolkien wrote of that moment: “I never called Edith Lúthien—but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief part of The Silmarillion. It was first conceived in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks…in those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them…”
“It captures two of Tolkien’s two greatest loves and inspirations together: nature and Edith,” Karukoski says. At the heart of Tolkien, is the way that the natural world from an ancient, gnarled tree, to a pastoral farmhouse, to the belief in the face of a friend, or loved one, can ignite evocative imaginings.
Cinematographer Lasse Frank had an idea that the camera would feel inseparable from Tolkien. “The camera always moves with Tolkien and his emotions. So if Tolkien sits and is in peace, the camera sits. If he moves or he is in turmoil, the camera amplifies, or embodies that feeling with movement. Not all of the locations allowed this, but it gave us a really close experience to our actors and our main character,” the director explains.
Although the film starts on the battlefield, it soon cuts to Tolkien’s childhood home in Sarehole, which was key for setting the tone of his childhood. “Sarehole was later the inspiration for the Shire, so that was really important. Tolkien always loved the trees there,” notes Karukoski. “We really wanted to bring out the idea of those trees having a life of their own in his mind.”
Montgomery used archival research to recreate Mrs. Faulkner’s boarding house, where Tolkien first meets Edith, as an atmospheric haven. “It was this huge Edwardian house that probably hadn’t been redecorated in 20 years. The place had a dark feeling, because Mrs. Faulkner liked medievalism and Gothic revival – visual references that also echo where Tolkien went with his writing, with all the dragons, knights, magic, and fantasy,” says Montgomery.
Because the bombs of World War II largely destroyed turn-of-the-century Birmingham, the film team utilized Liverpool, which retains some pre-World War I architecture. There, they recreated Barrow’s Bookshop, with its luring tea room that draws the TCBS club to meet there, as they used Liverpool’s St. George’s Hall, a distinctively 19th Century building in the neoclassical style. The Grand Hotel where Tolkien and Edith threw sugar lumps into guests’ hats was recreated in Liverpool’s Town Hall with gilded tones. “I wanted a rich, dream-like quality to the hotel so that you feel you’ve gone from the darkness of Mrs. Faulkner’s, to this real sense of light,” Montgomery explains.
The set of King Edward’s School, recreated in the Victorian-style Rochdale Town Hall in Manchester, was also lined with Gothic delights.
To shoot the scenes in Oxford, Karukoski felt only the real thing would do.
“Oxford was not only where Tolkien’s intellectual life was centered—it’s also where he and Edith made their family. There was for all of us a feeling of magic to being there,” says the director. That same mix of historical accuracy and vibrant life was sought in the costumes. “These young people were so full of life that I didn’t want period clothes that might drain them of that,” Karukoski says. “I wanted the costumes to have a modern fluidity and Colleen found wonderful ways to do that. I also fell in love with Colleen’s idea to color the dresses and costumes by using the same color palette that Tolkien used in his own real-life illustrations.”
Upon reading the script, costume designer Colleen Kelsall knew she had her work cut out of for her.
“It’s a story with four different time periods and elements that range from war to fantasy,” she notes. “So we started with a tremendous amount of research and from there we really tried to pour all that we learned into the personalities of these wonderful characters.”
To probe the deep links between the war and Tolkien’s work, Karukoski, aimed for an otherworldly quality to the war scenes. The infamous No Man’s Land of the Somme blends with Tolkien’s churning fantasies and hallucinations into something mythic. “Death was so close to Tolkien in that time,” notes Karukoski. “In those moments imagination often takes over and you see into the darker catacombs of your mind. Tolkien must’ve felt that. Experienced dread and darkness. I believe that him seeing evil and darkness is the emotion he took from war. I wanted to bring that into this story.”
To understand that reality, Grant Montgomery immersed himself in photography from the trenches as well as first-hand accounts. Although images from the Somme are all in black-and-white, Montgomery learned that the trenches were so laced with chemicals that the air had a yellow tinge, while the water turned red with oxide, which he, in turn, used to chilling effect. “The colors would have been very surreal,” he says, “which works cinematically because in our film we show Tolkien having these vivid hallucinations.”
Over a period of 10 weeks, the production team dug a maze of trenches across 15 acres in the Cheshire countryside, just south of Manchester and then dotted the landscape with 30 foot-high polycarbed trees, treated to appear burnt, full of shell holes and hung with branches lined with rats attempting to escape the deadly gas below. As filming began, nature produced remarkably heavy rain, upping the authenticity. “The rain made it more difficult to work but it also replicated a bit of how it was for the soldiers in the trenches – up to your ankles in mud,” says Montgomery.
Recalls Karukoski: “Everyone was really excited at the start of filming in the trenches, but by the second week everybody wanted out! People were tired and exhausted because the conditions made the experience so real. What Grant and his team were able to achieve was just phenomenal.”
The realism of the environment also helped to evoke the urgency of Tolkien hoping against hope to reunite with his dear friends. Hoult recalls that during the scene in which Tolkien reads a letter from TCBS member Geoffrey Smith, “Dome and I both just started crying. We felt so invested in these characters.”
Tolkien was evacuated due to his severe trench illness, but it would take years for him to recover and to absorb all that had happened. However, it was Edith who helped restore him not only to the joys of everyday life, but reignite his creative fire. What developed in his writing after that time of grief and reconciliation were the dualities he’d experienced: courage and fear, love, loss, peace and battle.
Summarizes Karukoski: “Creating Middle-Earth took J.R.R. Tolkien nearly his entire life, but it all began in his love of childhood stories, then it blossomed through his friendships with the TCBS, and was deepened by the darkness of war. With the understanding of an artist, he made out of it all an adventure of love, fellowship, and creation.”
In 1937, Tolkien published The Hobbit to wide critical acclaim. In 1954 and 1955, he published the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings, which would become one of the best-selling novels ever written, read by millions in nearly every language has had an influence on popular culture ever since.
Tolkien and Edith had four children and their love endured for the rest of their lives. Edith died in 1971 at the age of 82. On her tombstone, in Oxford cemetery, Tolkien, inscribed the name Lúthien, the name he gave the ravishing Elven princess who sacrifices immortality for love in Middle-Earth. Tolkien died on September 2, 1973, at the age of 81. Inscribed on his tombstone, under his name was Beren, the mortal for whom Lúthien sacrificed so much.
Tolkien presents the influences in J. R. R. Tolkien’s youth with the following: fellowship other young scholarly friends, Edith who ultimately became his wife, the study of ancient languages, personal loss, and suffering. His Middle-Earth stories, which are complex and rich, deal with themes such as power, greed, and courageous leadership over evil. Another timely theme coming from Tolkien’s own life encounters is that of the value, and power of unity among disparate comrades. Tolkien is a film of restoration and where hope is reborn.