The Tale Of Young 'Tolkien' Adopts The Language Of A Standard Biopic | WYPR

The Tale Of Young 'Tolkien' Adopts The Language Of A Standard Biopic

May 9, 2019
Originally published on May 10, 2019 6:57 pm

Let's specify right at the start that movies are not history, and that biopics take liberties.

Not taking liberties would mean not shaping the material of life to make it dramatic, so you'd never get a scene like, say, the one in which a young Tolkien and his college buddies declare undying devotion — declaring their friendship "a fellowship."

I'm gonna guess that that particular coinage didn't happen like that.

But if you know that this guy would later write a book called The Fellowship of the Ring, it's a conversation you might like him to have had in college.

The film connects dots a bit literally for a story about a guy whose imagination it's championing, but it's reasonably accurate about the facts of Tolkien's early life: He was was born in South Africa and home-schooled in England by his mother after his father died. He was eventually accepted at Oxford, where he had to beg Joseph Wright (Derek Jacobi) to let him into a class on linguistics.

Director Dome Karukoski films all this in saturated colors, with Edwardian wallpaper, and bric-a-brac so ornate it starts to seem a character in itself. That's a sharp contrast to the World War I trenches from which the screenplay has Tolkien remembering his younger days, feverish and hallucinating, so that flame-throwers become dragons, and trees are gnarled enough to look like Ents in training.

The film is full of such Middle-Earthian shoutouts — as much to the Peter Jackson films as to the books. Also: wry little jokes. When Nicholas Hoult's Tolkien says he's going to take his opera-loving future wife to hear Wagner's Ring Cycle, one of his pals snorts derisively "it shouldn't take six hours to tell a story about a ring."

All of that said, it's perhaps understandable that the Tolkien estate isn't interested in being associated with this biopic — and not just because it simplifies and fudges, as biopics do.

The estate didn't like the Peter Jackson movies either. Seven years ago, just as the first of three films based on The Hobbit came out, the author's son Christopher, railed against the commercialization that he said was reducing the "aesthetic and philosophical impact" of his father's literary works.

He told France's Le Monde newspaper that, "Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed by the absurdity of our time."

True enough, though that absurdity didn't keep the estate from selling Amazon the rights for a new Lord of the Rings television series for a quarter of a billion dollars. Nor did it keep the author's great-grandson Callum from playing a soldier in the trenches ... in the movie Tolkien. Nor should it keep you from reading the novels, the breadth and brilliance of which isn't likely to be captured in any dozen biopics or film treatments.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

"Tolkien," a new movie about the author of "Lord Of The Rings," is opening today without the approval of the Tolkien estate. Last month, the family issued a statement saying it did not approve of authorize or participate in the making of this film. Critic Bob Mondello says that is not necessarily a bad thing.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Let's specify right at the start that movies are not history and that biopics take liberties. Not taking liberties would mean not shaping the material of life to make it dramatic. So you'd never get a scene like, say, the one in which a young Tolkien and his college buddies declare undying devotion.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOLKIEN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As characters) We are your brothers. This is more than just a friendship. It's an alliance.

NICHOLAS HOULT: (As J.R.R. Tolkien) A fellowship.

MONDELLO: I'm going to guess that that particular coinage didn't happen like that. But if you know that this guy would later write "The Fellowship Of The Ring," it's a conversation you might like him to have had in college. So is a chat over tea that the film imagines for him in the future Mrs. Tolkien. He's made up a word - cellador. And she decides that it's the name of a princess who is...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOLKIEN")

LILY COLLINS: (As Edith Bratt) Bored, bored of cakes and muffins and exquisite china.

HOULT: (As J.R.R. Tolkien) No. It's not a name.

COLLINS: (As Edith Bratt) What?

HOULT: (As J.R.R. Tolkien) Cellador - it's not a princess's name. It can't be. It's a place, an ancient place, impossible to reach except by the most treacherous climb through a dense, dark forest.

COLLINS: (As Edith Bratt) Oh, is it now?

MONDELLO: The film connects dots a bit literally for a story about a guy whose imagination it's championing, but it's reasonably accurate about the facts of Tolkien's early life - born in South Africa, home-schooled in England by his mother after his father died, eventually accepted at Oxford, where he had to beg Joseph Wright - played by Derek Jacobi - to let him into a class on linguistics.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOLKIEN")

HOULT: (As J.R.R. Tolkien) Professor. Since childhood, I have been fascinated with language - obsessed with it. I've invented my own full, complete languages. Look. This is - it's everything.

DEREK JACOBI: (As Professor Wright) Are they drawings?

HOULT: (As J.R.R. Tolkien) I made stories.

MONDELLO: Director Dome Karukoski films all this in saturated colors with Edwardian wallpaper and bric-a-brac so ornate it starts to seem a character in itself. That's a sharp contrast to the World War I trenches from which the screenplay has Tolkien remembering his younger days, feverish and hallucinating...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOLKIEN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Tolkien.

MONDELLO: ...So that flamethrowers become dragons and trees are gnarled enough to look like ents in training. The film is full of Middle Earthian shout-outs, as much to the Peter Jackson films as to the books - also, wry little jokes. When Nicholas Hoult's Tolkien says he's going to take his opera-loving future wife to hear of Wagner's "Ring" cycle, one of his pals snorts derisively. It shouldn't take six hours to tell a story about a ring. All of that said, it's understandable that the Tolkien estate isn't interested in being associated with this biopic, and not just because it simplifies and fudges, as biopics do.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOLKIEN")

COLLINS: (As Edith Bratt) Tell me story in any language you want.

MONDELLO: The estate didn't like the Peter Jackson movies, either. Seven years ago, just as the first of three films based on "The Hobbit" came out, the author's son Christopher railed against the commercialization that he said was reducing the aesthetic and philosophical impact of his father's literary works. He told France's Le Monde newspaper that Tolkien has become a monster devoured by his own popularity and absorbed by the absurdity of our time.

True enough, though that absurdity did not keep the estate from selling Amazon the rights for a new "Lord Of The Rings" television series for a quarter of a billion dollars in order to keep the author's great grandson Callum from playing a soldier in the trenches in the movie "Tolkien." Nor should it keep you from reading the novels, the breadth and brilliance of which isn't likely to be captured in any dozen biopics or film treatments. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.