J.R.R. Tolkien’s Life is Now a Movie: What Story is it Telling?

At last, it’s nigh: the biopic of J.R.R. Tolkien that’s been steadily looming, though it was little more than a rumor until recent times. We got a few casting choices dropped like breadcrumbs over the last year, then some still images, and now we’ve got our first official trailer. Something to look at, theorize and marvel over until May 10 (or at least the next trailer drops).

Will this movie be like Finding Neverland or Goodbye Christopher Robin or The Man Who Invented Christmas? These biographical dramas sure are the rage now. So what’s in Tolkien’s, then? Let’s talk about it!

First off, all Tolkien-related media ought to be considered with a certain level of apprehension. It’s only fair. Even the best of Jackson’s adaptations pissed off book purists (which I am not; I loved them), so the bar should be placed…if not low, at least reasonably low-ish. There’s always a chance this film might be great. And if it’s truly amazing, it will be despite the placement of the bar. And if it disappoints, well… no big surprise.

It looks as if Tolkien is the dramatization of a young, pre-Rings, and even pre-Hobbit J.R.R., covering his romance with Edith Bratt, his early academic friendships, and some of his experiences with the Great War that shaped him. They’ve cast even younger versions of some of the characters, too, so we’ll inevitably see glimpses into his life as a child, as well.

So, what do we know? Tolkien himself is played by Nicholas Hoult. I’m sure many of you know him from various films (the X-Men movies, right?), and it turns out he was a valiant young warrior in the ehh-at-least-it-looks-cool Clash of the Titans remake who totally gets petrified by Medusa. But I mainly I know him from his 2015 role in Mad Max: Fury Road.

Screenshot: Warner Bros. Pictures

A no-brainer for Tolkien, right? Once he’s cleaned up, allowed to grow a little bit of his hair back, and buttoned up in an early twentieth-century vest, he looks like he could be visiting Downton Abbey. All good. As for Hoult’s acting chops, I can’t really say.

And playing the role of Edith Bratt—real-Tolkien’s living muse—is Lily Collins, who I’m sure you guys all know from a bunch of things I’ve never seen. But I know her as being the daughter of drummer/singer/songwriter Phil Collins! (Half the world knows him from Face Value and his other solo albums, but you, dear reader, need to know that he first came from Genesis, and their early music was the best. Phil’s career was its most amazing when he was fresh from that band. A Trick of the Tail, the first Collins-fronted Genesis album, should be a no-brainer for any fan of fantasy lyrics: there are fawns, volcanoes, dreams, and other mythological creatures. But I digress.)

But these actors are not their parents, nor their former roles. Right now, they’re two young people portraying the great fantasy author of the twentieth century and the woman who meant the world to him. It’s well known that Edith was the inspiration for Lúthien Tinúviel—the Elf-maiden whose story, it should be noted, was begun long before The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Film-focused fans of Tolkien will probably think of Aragorn and Arwen first, and that’s fine, but those two owe their existence and their power to the original Tinúviel, who “was the fairest maiden that has ever been among all the children of this world.”

Not to mention a serious badass Elf princess.

Screenshot: Fox Searchlight

Now, I expect there will be embellishments to the story, but what matters most to fans of Tolkien is that the filmmakers are true to the man. You can only add so much extra drama without straining credibility. J.R.R. Tolkien was a man of good humor, but it was his imagination that was vast—not a life of adventure. His most defining experiences were in his youth: his upbringing, his losses, his clandestine courtship with Edith, and of course, absolutely, the Great War. So there is a lot of opportunity, and a lot to work with, here.

This trailer is more of a teaser. We see glimpses of Middle-earth’s development in young Tolkien’s mind. An explosion on the battlefield is likened to a demon of fire, and we see a cloaked warrior facing off against some form of Dark Lord. And heck, according to the IMDB, they’ve cast a Gandalf (no, not Ian McKellen). So we’re bound to have some kind of fantastical vignettes to garnish the real life tale. I look forward to all of these, but I do hope they’re placed in proper context. In Tolkien’s formative years he had not yet worked up the story that would one day become The Lord of the Rings; rather, he was hashing out the Silmarillion itself, chiefly in the stories that would become the groundwork for his entire legendarium. I’m talking Beren and Lúthien, the fall of Gondolin, and the children of Húrin. I’m a little worried the filmmakers will make too many parallels between (1) Tolkien’s early life and (2) imagery that they assume a movie audience—familiar only with Jackson’s adaptations—will find recognizable. For example, Tolkien hadn’t conceived of the One Ring as a mighty artifact of evil until he set to write the sequel to The Hobbit, for example. And he hadn’t started that book until the early 1930s. So if we see too much ring emphasis, they’ll be embellishing indeed.

In any case, I’m still largely optimistic. The film can take some license, but I hope the director and writers remembered that Tolkien’s life was one based in scholarship, a deep love (and mastery) for language and medieval literature, and the camaraderie of his peers. From the trailer, it looks like we might be seeing members of the T. C. B. S., Tolkien’s pre-Inklings club of peers, and I think it’s spot on to liken them to a fellowship as he conceived it.

Screenshot: Fox Searchlight

I also dearly hope they don’t shove Tolkien’s faith aside. I know this isn’t just a straight biography, but it was vitally important in his life and it’s layered deeply in his writing. The movie will include Father Francis Morgan—played by Colm Meaney, who’s been in like every film ever, usually playing some sort of cunning Irish character. (Is he best known for his Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine role?) Father Francis was a friend of the Tolkien family, and the Catholic priest who took charge of young Ronald and his brother when their mother died. It was he who mentored the boys in their academic lives for quite a while. Heck, it was behind Father Francis’s back that Tolkien clandestinely saw Edith—until they were discovered and forbidden from corresponding until he turned 21. Of course, Francis being in the movie might be little more than stage-setting for Tolkien’s meeting with Edith. It would be a disservice to leave out his Catholicism entirely.

Still, this movie does seem to be mostly concerned with the story of the future Mr. and Mrs. Tolkien, and I look forward to it. Will it be good? I want to believe. What do you all think?

One thing’s for sure: as an actor, Nicholas Hoult is sure to enunciate clearly and speak at a reasonable pace. In contrast, author Humphrey Carpenter, who met Tolkien in person (granted, later in his life) described the professor’s speaking manner in his excellent book J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography thusly:

He has a strange voice, deep but without resonance, entirely English but with some quality in it that I cannot define, as if he had come from another age or civilisation. Yet for much of the time he does not speak clearly. Words come out in eager rushes. Whole phrases are elided or compressed in the haste of emphasis.

So hasty that Tolkien was! Treebeard would have a thing or two to say about that.

Jeff LaSala is to blame for the long-winded Silmarillion Primer. Tolkien geekdom aside, Jeff wrote a Scribe Award–nominated D&D novel, produced some cyberpunk stories, and now works for Tor Books. He sometimes flits about on Twitter.

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