Everything has an origin story—including stories themselves. The elven halls of Rivendell, the muddy Hobbit-holes of Bag End, and the twisted hellscapes of Mordor weren't created whole cloth—they were experienced. And it's that experience of J. R. R. Tolkien, a young man caught between love and war, that concerns the new biopic Tolkien.
Opening decades before he would publish the ground-shaking works of fantasy that would cement his legacy, Tolkien (in theaters today) isn't interested in the author most of us might typically picture—the aged English professor, debating the finer details of the elven language, perhaps while smoking a pipe. Instead, the film is singularly concentrated on Tolkien's early life and his time spent at Birmingham and Oxford, all overshadowed by the devastation of World War I.
"So many elements crossed between him and I," Tolkien director Dome Karukoski told Seniorhelpline. "When I discovered [Tolkien's] books, I was 12 or 13. I was alone. I was bullied...those stories become my friends...he was also alone. He grew up without a father. I can relate to that."
Tolkien begins with the tragedy of the Somme Offensive, but weaves in elements of the author's childhood and adolescence. Orphaned before his 13th birthday, Tolkien bounces from home to home before attending the Birmingham Oratory school, where he finds three close friends and forms the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, a youthful club of pals determined to change the world through art. Along the way he meets Edith Bratt and quickly forms a deep relationship.
Tolkien employs a familiar biopic trope, showing glimpses of elements that would one day fuel the creative furnace of his magnum opus. His mother tells him bedtime stories of a knight slaying a terrible dragon, he takes Bratt to see Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen (aka The Ring), and on the battlefield, Tolkien's visions—perhaps created while in the throes of Trench Fever—conjure demon-like creatures that could be easily mistaken for Nazgûl and Sauron.
"He doesn’t even know what they are yet," Karukoski says. "He’s slowly building that. It’s not Nazgûl yet...you have to satisfy fans but you have to be true to the era he in which he lived."
As far as biographical films go, Tolkien isn't a particularly challenging film. You might have heard that the Tolkien estate didn't "authorize" the making of the movie, but that doesn't really mean much. The estate was similarly irked by director Peter Jackson's original cinematic creations—and those films won Oscars.
But for an author so meticulous about the complexity of Middle-Earth, the story can't quite scratch the surface of Tolkien's mostly Boy Scout-like reputation. In the film, Tolkien's faults seem relatively small, verging on non-existent. While still entertaining, you can't help but shake the feeling that you're only getting one side of the story.
But that doesn't necessarily diminish the story itself. What Tolkien lacks in Silmarillion-level detail, it makes up for in acting—with great performances by Lily Collins and Nicholas Hoult—and weaving together a life that's almost as magical as the ones Tolkien created.
It's true that Tolkien's experience with Tea Club and Barrovian Society and the Great War, which would kill two members of the society during the Battle of the Somme, went on to influence The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. But the themes of rich vs. poor, dark vs. light, love vs. duty, and friendship vs. death are all present in The Lord of the Rings as they were in Tolkien's life.
"Lord of the Rings is very religious, yet the Silmarillion is very societal—about how we corrupt ourselves—and The Hobbit is a story of growth," Karukoski says. "After decades and decades and decades, many people still relate to these stories."
And now with Tolkien, fans have an opportunity to relate to the man behind the pen.