'Tolkien' biopic shows author's inspirations for Lord of the Rings

(FILM REVIEW) In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Dome Karukoski’s new film “Tolkien” ends where author J.R.R. Tolkien’s career begins: with the penning of this famous first line.

In traditional biopic format, the film tells the story of Tolkien’s early years in a series of flashbacks.

As an orphan in Birmingham, Tolkien falls in love with his housemate Edith Bratt, attends King Edward’s School where he meets his closest childhood friends, and begins an academic study of languages and classic literature.

Tolkien reflects on these several events from the trenches of World War I as he becomes weak with fever and searches for his Oxford friend Geoffrey Smith.

At times, the darkest scenes of battle become like Middle-earth. Chlorine gas above Tolkien’s head wisps into dark smoke, and he stands facing a battlefield dominated by the fiery balrog. Only in this war, there is no Gandalf to smote the creature in its ruin.  

“The idea of the film is that every idea, every vision, or sound or experience that he has is an idea, something he then later on uses,” Karukoski said in a panel at Montclair Film Festival in New Jersey.

The film, and following panel moderated by Stephen Colbert, was premiered at the Montclair Film Festival on May 7 and screened to theaters nationwide.

But creating a portrait of Tolkien’s life that even so much as hints at his inspiration is bold. After all, Tolkien had a disdain for allegory that extended to the way people viewed his work.

He says the following in the Foreword to “The Fellowship of the Ring”:

“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history—true or feigned—with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

Tolkien wasn’t attempting to create a fantasy series about The Great War, his faith or even his friends.

Where this movie ultimately succeeds is the recognition and respect of that fact.

“I approach it from a dream,” Karukoski said. “It doesn’t have to be factual and historical—in every scene this happens. It’s more like his emotional take from that journey.”

In this emotional journey, Tolkien is a constant creative: he develops languages, sketches creatures and creates worlds for both to belong.

Actor Nicholas Hoult, who portrays Tolkien in the film, said his creativity was one of the most important ways in which to understand his character. To prepare for the role, he read several of Tolkien’s letters and recreated his drawings and watercolors.

“There was something subconscious where I thought, I didn’t know that was something he did, in terms of drawing maps and the illustrations,” Hoult said. “I thought there must be something in there artistically that would connect my brain to him somehow.”

But different readers gain different meaning from Tolkien’s life and work.

Christians have revered Tolkien for decades because of his devout Catholicism, and often imbue a Christian reading on the tales of Middle-earth.

Even Tolkien admits in one of his letters that "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.”

But faith in the film isn’t a focus. Colbert asked whether this was intentional, or if they “just couldn’t fit it.”

Tolkien’s guardian, Father Francis, is depicted as a figure of grace and strength in the young man’s life. And, at his lowest, Tolkien looks up at the sky and recites a Christian poem.

“He’s looking upon the heavens for answers,” Karkoski said.

Apart from these subtle inclusions, however, Karukoski says there’s a reason that Tolkien’s Catholicism isn’t depicted very heavily.

“Visualizing religion is one of the most challenging things in cinema because it’s so internal,” Karukoski said.

Fans of Tolkien and scholars of his work have noted with some disappointment the film’s lack of attention to detail elsewhere. Joseph Loconte, a notable Tolkien scholar, said in the National Review that the film “overlooks a crucial exchange: a meeting in December 1914, dubbed ‘the Council of London,’ which was transformative for Tolkien.”

Karukoski, a man deeply familiar with Tolkien’s work, recognizes this and admits he took creative license at some points in the movie.

“[Tolkien] says, ‘I’m not a big fan of biographies,’ but I think it’s partly because of the storyteller he is,” Karukoski said. “Because life can be a little boring, you know. So maybe one day I’m sitting on a cloud with him smoking a pipe, and then I can ask him: ‘I did a little artistic license there. Is this story now interesting?’”

And ultimately, “Tolkien” doesn’t need the explicit faith statement, nor does it need a detailed analysis of his academia. The purpose of a biopic like this is simply to create a cinematic reflection of the life of a man already read and revered by millions.

Tolkien’s faith is reflected in his love of nature and detailed shots of trees, in the love he has for his wife and his closest friends. His academic presence is artfully depicted as a passion rather than just a career. His life is just as fascinating as the stories he created.

Tolkien was indeed a Catholic, a brilliant philologist, a war veteran, a father, a husband and friend. But he was at heart a storyteller. “Tolkien” is a film that, in itself, uses engaging storytelling to reflect the spirit of a man whose work has changed the life of millions.

Jillian Cheney is a student at The King's College in New York. She has written on the National Desk at NY Daily News and served as the Weekly Editor at the Empire State Tribune. A Texas native, she loves New York pizza and watching movies.  You can follow her on Twitter here: @_jilliancheney.