Tolkien: Formative Years of Renowned Author’s Life

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.

Directed by Dome Karukoski (Tom of Finland), TOLKIEN is written by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford, and stars Nicholas Hoult as J.R.R. Tolkien with Lily Collins as his future wife and muse Edith. The film also stars Colm Meaney, Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson, Tom Glynn-Carney, Craig Roberts, Derek Jacobi, Harry Gilby, Adam Bregman, Albie Marber, Ty Tennant, Laura Donnelly, Genevieve O’Reilly and Pam Ferris. TOLKIEN is produced by Peter Chernin, p.g.a., Jenno Topping, p.g.a., David Ready, p.g.a., and Kris Thykier p.g.a. Dan Finlay and Sarada McDermott serve as co-producers. The filmmaking team includes director of photography, Lasse Frank, DFF, production designer Grant Montgomery, film editor Harri Ylönen, costume designer Colleen Kelsall, music supervisor Sarah Bridge and music by Thomas Newman.

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.

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.

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.”

Hoult took great pleasure in getting to know a side of Tolkien he’d never encountered before: “Though I’ve loved Tolkien’s novels since I was a boy, I knew nothing about this time in his early life, which is so intriguing and illuminating. I never knew about his personal losses, tragedies at love and at war, or about the foundational friendships that meant so much to him. Or that he found a great love and had it taken away and struggled to find it again. I loved Dome’s approach to the story, the idea that through each of these light and dark experiences, Tolkien gained the voice to create the stories we’re more passionate about than ever now.”


The Tolkien No One Knows

“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.”
– Dome Karukoski

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. Much as he loved the soaring legends of The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings, he 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.

“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.”

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.”

There was the challenge 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.”