Like a spark to the global imagination, J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Hobbit set off a wildfire, single-handedly dominating the fantasy adventure genre in the last century. The “Tolkien effect” echoes everywhere throughout literature, television and movies. In his never-before-seen worlds and tales, Tolkien’s realms of wizards, hobbits, dragons and mythical beings evoke the best parts of human nature: our love of quests, our willingness to sacrifice for others, our hopes for good to defeat evil and the strength we get from true camaraderie.
Now, with Tolkien, comes a story of how the young Tolkien transformed from a lonely orphan into one of the great storytellers of all time — a story that is itself an enchanting tale lit with the power of imagination, the bonds of fellowship and the forging of purpose in the fires of love and war.
The film is directed by Dome Karukoski (Tom Of Finland) from a screenplay crafted by David Gleeson (Cowboys & Angels) and Stephen Beresford (Pride).
Tolkien explores the formative years of the renowned author’s life as he finds friendship, courage and inspiration among a fellow group of writers and artists at school.
Their brotherhood strengthens as they grow up and weather love and loss together, including Tolkien’s tumultuous courtship of his beloved Edith Bratt , until the outbreak of the First World War which threatens to tear their fellowship apart. All of these experiences would later inspire Tolkien to write his famous Middle-earth novels.
Rising star Nicholas Hoult (The Favourite, Mad Max: Fury Road, X-Men: Apocalypse) stars as John Ronald Reuel Tolkien in his formative time as a student, young romantic and soldier, long before he published The Hobbit in 1937.
Raised by a devoted and imaginative mother who died tragically when he was only 12, Tolkien was left to carve his own precarious path. Everything changes when he forms a secret society with his fellow students, youthful artists, outcasts and rebels who together hope to change the world. In them he discovers steadfast friendships that will buoy him through the dark times of war and give him the confidence to try to follow the star-crossed lover he is forbidden to see and inspires him to write epics no one else could have conjured.
Tolkien director Dome Karukoski hopes to bring his idea of a trek into the wilds of Tolkien’s inventive young mind. “I’ve been a fan of Tolkien since I was 12 years old so the most important thing to me is to bring all the emotions I had reading his books to this movie,” says Karukoski.
“Tolkien is a magical story of love and friendship. It’s the story of an orphaned boy finding fellowship, going to war and discovering the one woman he’ll love for eternity. At the same time, it is about how Tolkien, in his creative brilliance, might have been inspired to weave each of these real things—friendship, war and love—into his incredibly lively fantasy worlds.”
“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 forward 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.”
Crafting The Screenplay
Tolkien’s life began far from the incomparable characters he forged in his famous novels. Irish playwright and screenwriter David Gleeson was mesmerized by Tolkien’s own story of a young man on a heroic quest.
David Gleeson hails from a family of cinema-owners in Co. Limerick, Ireland where his grandfather opened his first cinema in the 1940s. David’s family is still in the cinema business today and he attributes his current career path to a deep childhood immersion in movies. He began his creative journey in theatre, winning numerous accolades for his first play, “Class Control.” Following this he relocated to New York and attended the New York Film Academy where he met his producing partner (and wife), Nathalie Lichtenthaeler.
In 2003, Gleeson made his feature film debut as writer and director of Cowboys & Angels, which charmed critics and audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.
In 2003, Gleeson made his feature film debut as writer and director of Cowboys & Angels, which charmed critics and audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Hislm, The Front Line opened in cinemas across Ireland in summer 2006. Following this project he sold his screenplay – the epic time-travel adventure, The End Of History – to Sony Pictures. He followed this up a year later with the Morgan Freeman-attached Down To A Sunless Sea. Gleeson recently sold his screenplay ’Twas The Night – a fresh take on the perennial Christmas poem, “The Night Before Christmas” – to Paramount Pictures, and also wrote Red Giant for Chernin, Mattel Entertainment and 20th Century Fox. In 2017, David returned to helming duties with the feature film Don’t Go, released by IFC Films in Oct 2018. Additionally, Gleeson is in development on the feature film The Grimm Legacy for Walt Disney Productions.
Much as he loved the soaring legends of The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings, Gleeson was equally moved by the deeply human story of how Tolkien came of age against the odds—and how he was spurred to write lasting stories in part by a determination to live and create to the fullest.
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 beloved but ill mother, who died of diabetes at age 36 in an era before insulin. By age 12, John and his brother Hilary were penniless orphans, but Tolkien defied those circumstances at every turn. It soon became clear he had exceptional gifts, including a rare genius for inventing languages, mapping out mythology and concocting imaginary creatures in words and drawings. That genius provided him with the opportunity to enroll in the prestigious King Edward’s School in Birmingham, and where his blossoming fantasy life really began to soar, thanks to the very best kind of encouragement—a circle of faithful friends who kept daring him to go further and always had his back.
Gleeson found it all so enchanting that he mentioned to the team at Chernin Entertainment that he felt there was a real potential for someone to write a movie about Tolkien.
That kicked off an intensive personal odyssey of research as Gleeson dug deeper into Tolkien’s own lore, honing in 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, which remains one of the bloodiest conflicts in British military history, to the start of his life with Edith Bratt, who would become his hard-won muse.
Gleeson especially loved that Tolkien first sharpened his storytelling savvy as part of a clandestine society of teen misfits. In 1911, Tolkien joined up with Robert Gilson, Christopher Wiseman and Geoffrey Smith to create a secret club playfully dubbed the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, TCBS for short, to trade barbs, share ideas, debate everything going in the world, unleash their inner poets and support one another in their exuberant aspiration to lead lives of courage, creativity and meaning.
“I found it really revelatory to discover that Tolkien was part of this foursome of friends who really were a fellowship,” says Gleeson. “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. Later in life, Tolkien was quite keen to separate his personal life from his works, and talked very little about it, but it’s impossible now not to draw the connections.”
Gleeson also became swept up in the almost Shakespearean love story between Tolkien and fellow orphan Edith Bratt. After a fiery courtship based on their mutual love of art and mischief, their link was nearly severed when Tolkien’s guardian, Father Francis Morgan, banned the love-struck pair from so much as making eye contact until Tolkien was 21. Things might well have ended there, but 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.”
The script by Gleeson and Stephen Beresford (Pride) was full of energy, humor and had a feeling of both physical and emotional adventurousness not often associated with the lives of writers behind their desks. Spanning from childhood dreams to a surreal vision of Tolkien at war, it also had an epic sensibility Tolkien himself might have recognized. The producers at Chernin were immediately ready to jump in.
Stephen Beresford (Written By) is a writer for stage and screen. He trained at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) and his first play “The Last of the Haussmans” opened at the National Theatre starring Julie Walters in 2012 to great critical and commercial success. His adaptation of “Fanny and Alexander” opened at the Old Vic Theatre in London in February 2018 starring Penelope Wilton. His first screenplay was Pride (2014), directed by Matthew Warchus. It premiered at Cannes Film Festival where it closed Directors’ Fortnight. The film won three British Independent Film Awards (including Best British Film) and was nominated in four further categories, received the South Bank Show Award for Best British Film, and was nominated for BAFTA Best British Film, Golden Globe® Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical and London Critics’ Circle British Film of the Year. Stephen won the BAFTA Award for Outstanding Debut.
“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.”
From Page To Screen
Now the pursuit began to find a director with a visual imagination unique enough to match the material.
The producers handed the reins over to director Dome Karukoski whose previous Finnish films include multiple award-winners Tom Of Finland, The Home Of Dark Butterflies And Lapland Odyssey, with the two former serving as Finland’s official entries for the Oscar® Best Foreign Language Film category. “When we saw the intensity of Dome’s passion for telling this story, it was clear he had to be at the helm,” says Ready of the choice. “His commitment elevated every element of the story. It became something very personal to him.”
Once Karukoski was set as director, the film was greenlit by Fox Searchlight and Thykier came on board to help produce the film in the UK.
Karukoski related to Tolkien at the deepest level, because he too grew up without a father. Born in Cyprus to a Finnish mother, Karukoski didn’t meet his American father until he was 14, so he was able to instinctually tap into Tolkien’s loneliness and understand why the communion and grounding he found with his friends in the TCBS and with Edith operated like a magic spell on him.
“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,” he says.
Being Finnish, Karukoski felt a special kinship to Tolkien, having read that Tolkien taught himself the language as a student and held its culture in high esteem. “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 was the chance to mine some of the most mysterious human territory: how entire worlds can be built from the strictly ethereal, incorporeal fabric of memory, emotion and make-believe. Karukoski especially could not wait to re-create the exhilarating atmosphere and boyish fun of the TCBS secret society on screen. “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 a draw, especially because the powerful 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, who 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.”
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.”
J.R.R. Tolkien: The Facts
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892 in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State, South Africa to an English couple: banker Arthur Tolkien and his wife Mabel.
When Tolkien was three, he returned to England with his mother and brother Hilary to visit family. Tragically, while they were gone, his father died of rheumatic fever in South Africa. With no income of her own, Mabel and her boys were forced to live with her family in Birmingham.
In 1896, Mabel, John Ronald and Hilary moved to the rural hamlet of Sarehole, a mill town near Worcestershire, in the pastoral fields of the West Midlands. This area of tremendous natural beauty would later inspire the Hobbit’s shire and other villages in Tolkien’s writing. He also spent time at his Aunt Jane’s farm, Bag End, a name later used for the home of Bilbo Baggins. Mabel home schooled John Ronald and Hilary, sharing her own love of languages, stories, plants and trees.
Around 1901, Mabel moved the family to King’s Heath in urban Birmingham, to a house adjacent to a railway. Tolkien soon became a scholarship student at King Edward’s School (a boy’s school founded by King Edward in 1552) in Edgbaston, Birmingham.
In 1904, Mabel died at the age of 36 from acute diabetes (two decades before insulin was invented). At 12 years old, Tolkien was left without parents. Mabel’s close friend and religious adviser, Father Francis Morgan, was assigned the role of guardian to the two young Tolkien brothers and would oversee their finances and education until adulthood.
In 1911, Tolkien formed the TCBS (Tea Club and Barrovian Society) with fellow students and close friends Robert Gilson, Geoffrey Smith and Christopher Wiseman. Named in honor of Barrow’s, the store close to their school where they enjoyed tea, cake, books and highbrow debate, the club became a haven for each of them to explore their aspirations.
Tolkien met Edith Bratt at 16, when he and his brother began living at a boarding house where she also resided. Also an orphan, 19-year-old Edith was then studying to be a concert pianist.
Tolkien and Edith began falling in love, but when Father Morgan saw Tolkien’s schoolwork slipping, he prohibited them from seeing one another until Tolkien turned 21, leaving Tolkien heartbroken.
In October of 1911, Tolkien began his studies at Exeter College, Oxford. He initially studied Classics but switched to English Language and Literature in 1913. In 1915, he graduated from Exeter with first class honors.
On his 21st birthday, Tolkien wrote to Edith and proposed, only to learn that she was already engaged, convinced she’d never hear from Tolkien again. In January of 1913, Tolkien and Edith met at Cheltenham Station, where she agreed to marry him. Three years later, they had their wedding.
Tolkien enlisted to serve in World War I in 1915. He was posted to the trenches in June 1916 as part of the 74th Brigade, 25th Division and found himself in the Somme in July of that year. After coming down with trench fever in the fall of 1916, he was evacuated back to England, where he later learned most of his battalion was completely wiped out in the ensuing battles.
Two of Tolkien’s dear friends and TCBS members, Robert Gilson and Geoffrey Smith, were killed in the war.
Following a long recovery and the birth of his first child with Edith, Tolkien took his first civilian job working as an etymologist for the Oxford English Dictionary. He then became the youngest professor ever hired by the University of Leeds. He returned to Oxford in 1925 as the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon.
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 and an enduring 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.