Tolkien Director Dome Karukoski on Telling the Story of the Man Behind Middle-earth

In 1937, J.R.R. Tolkien changed fiction by releasing The Hobbit, the first story set in the world of Middle-earth. The Hobbit led to a trilogy sequel, The Lord of the Rings, and all of these books remains popular today. But who was Tolkien before 1937? An orphan, an aspiring academic in a creative community, and a soldier in World War I. These early years of Tolkien's life are explored in the new film Tolkien, a biopic from director Dome Karukoski.

Karukoski spoke to over the phone about crafting this story around Tolkien's life, and why it was more important to speak to seek emotional truth than factual truth.

You can check out the full interview below!

Tolkien movie I thought the way the movie ended was interesting, with Tolkien taking out that pipe and sitting down to write the opening to The Hobbit. It felt very much like a natural lead into reading or re-reading The Hobbit. Was that something you were attempting to do with this film? To make feel of a piece with Tolkien’s own work, almost a “book zero?”

Dome Karukoski: I think the emotion you are having at the end, that is pretty correct, and the emotion you want to deliver. I think, for me, myself, I can only speak about myself, and how I felt about reading about these boys, and now still watching the film, is that there's a sense of that inspiration, if I understood correctly your question, that I love about them. They are inspired, and they're looking at life, and wanting to write, wanting to change the world with art, and I think I did set out to flush out an emotion, so when you watch the film, you can feel that as a young man or as a young woman, looking at your life, and feel inspired, and feel energetic, and invigorated when you're watching the film.

What were you hoping to say or illuminate about Tolkien through telling his own story that couldn’t be gathered by reading his work? Was it that sense of wanting to create and change things?

I became a fan at a very young age, a very instrumental time in my life when I became a fan, and my vision of him or my image of him was this professor, almost like a privileged person smoking a pipe, and being at Oxford, and debating with C.S. Lewis in The Eagle and the Child about elves. What strikes me, maybe what I also wanted to achieve with the story is to bring people closer to — Actually, in this story, especially in this segment of his life, is in bringing people closer to his stories, and understanding that, no, he wasn't that privileged professor. He fell. He actually struggled. He actually fought. Went through very dark times.

And I think that when you now read — we kind of reread his books when we were in production — I understand those books more. There is an additional layer in those, which is a very emotional layer, because I can read him and his voice even more strongly through those books. I think that for those people who haven't read his books, I think seeing this film and then reading the books, I think that's a very inspirational and emotional experience, and then for those people who have read the books, I think it's an eye-opener on many things.

Biopics can be a dangerous genre, in that there are a lot of cliches that it can be easy to fall into or to, and it can be too easy to fawn over or lionize the subject. Were there any specific pitfalls that you were aware of and actively trying to avoid while you were making this movie?

One of the things which I hate about biopics is that the band is walking in the street, and then an exhaustion pipe blows, and then they walk to the studio, and they make their greatest hit ever based on that explosion. Tolkien himself was very adamant about that he didn't really have direct, one-on-one inspirations, except only a few. Like in the film, we see Edith dancing. That actually inspired the Beren/Luthien story. But there's only a few elements there, and so it's more like the pitfall that I wanted to avoid was trying to claim that they were exact inspirations, but to me more like so you more inherently in him, who he is, and how his imagination unfolds.

And the second thing is not try to be too factual. I think the second pitfall in biopics is that it becomes more like a Wikipedia film, where you just go through years and events. Oh, this has to be in it. This scene and this event has to be in it, because it was so pivotal in a historical sense, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's emotional. So rather, I've done a couple real-life stories, and I've also written a couple that never became films, and the first rule, based on that, of how to go against the biopic genre is to stay in the emotion, in the character's emotion, as psychologically as possible, and then nothing else should interfere with that. And I think that's the way to avoid the kinds of biopic fails, as I say.

A really good example, for instance, would be how Edith and Tolkien got married. They got actually married before the war, and he actually met with the fiance of Edith, and I really tried to be factual. I really tried to do it so that it would be exactly factual how it happened, right? But then it didn't work. It felt like, OK, it feels more like you're reading on Wikipedia, or an exhibition in a museum rather than actually flushing out the emotion, how the character felt, you know what I mean? That's how a 20-minute segment is rewritten as five minutes, but I can be closer actually to Tolkien's emotion in those five minutes than I would've ever succeeded in the 20-minute factual version. That's kind of the way you are. That's a great example of how you avoid the biopic fail.

The Tolkien family chose not to endorse the film. They didn’t offer any particular reason why. Do you have any thoughts or feelings about that?

Well, of course, they haven't seen the film. They haven't seen it. That announcement came before they had seen the film, and it wasn't that hostile. At least that isn't how I felt about it. No, they have their right to do whatever they want, and they have the right to feel whatever emotion, and understand that it's a film made about Tolkien without them. But I also want to believe, and I actually have approached them to offer to watch the film with me, but also believe and hope that when they see the film, that they understand that it's done with respect, and it's done with love.

Nine out of 10 of biopics are usually done without the estate or heirs, and the reason, of course, is a little bit what I just touched upon, which very easily, you start with the nicest and kindest estate ever. You start servicing them, and not perhaps the best possible film. You easily start debating about years and actual events, whereas you should always debate with yourself what is the best emotion, how does the drama work best. And I think the film is a labor of love. It is, in my mind, the best possible dramatization of his life, the younger years. For sure, there's another film waiting there with C.S. Lewis, but this is the part that I emotionally felt very attached to, and I think it's the best possible version of that era.

One of the things that set the film apart from other biopics is the use of fantastic visuals. You actual recreate some of Tolkien’s creations, like Sauron and the Nazgul, on the screen. Was there a lot of discussion around whether the film should blend fantasy into reality that way, or was it always part of the plan?

No, that was something I very much brought into this, and the reason why that, of course, as a Tolkien fan, I felt that ... Even if you are not a fan, you've come to watch a film about Tolkien, you want to see how the imagination works. And then the idea of that was none of these elements are finished yet, you know what I mean? They are ideas. He's kind of seeing the Nazgul. They're not a Nazgul yet. He's kind of seeing an image, idea, but he doesn't know yet what it is, that he later on uses. And the idea was actually to touch them so that they are coming from psychology.

So, for instance, you mentioned Nazgul. In a chronological time sequence, he first sees a vision of a white knight coming out of the story that the mother reads, the story of Sigurd. And then he sees a white knight as a child, and you see, a naïve child at that time. You envision this purity of a hero, but when he's in war and he sees all this bloodshed and turmoil, that's when that same white knight kind of falls into darkness. The knight's mind and Tolkien's mind gets corrupted, and then he becomes a black knight, a fallen knight. And then it becomes an internal battle between evil and good inside him.

And then that way, I was trying to show this idea, to show how his mind picks on stories, or creates, or deepens them. This, I think, was so relevant about Tolkien. What we often don't realize is that almost all of his characters had a very deep-rooted history, or a background, like his languages had. And I think that was something that I wanted to show.

I’m asking this as someone who is only familiar with the broad strokes of Tolkien’s life outside of this film: the film seems to imply that Geoffrey Smith, the poet, was in love with Tolkien. Is that something that you discovered in researching these lives? Why did you want ot highlight or insert that into the film?

It's actually one of our writers, Stephen Beresford. He's gay, and he's done a film called The Pride, and won a BAFTA for it. He read everything from Geoffrey Smith, and he was very, very adamant, and felt like Geoffrey Smith was gay. You couldn't claim that, of course. We can't say because of the real-life character, but how I read the character was that I don't know, regardless if that's true or not, I think that they had a very intimate — I'm not talking a romantic sense. I'm talking about a very, very close friendship because, like the story The Making of Middle-earth book tells during Oxford, Geoffrey Smith became the best friend, which is natural. The other TCBS members were at Cambridge, so they would only leave during weekends like they do in the film, and then Geoffrey was there always. He was probably the first person to go to when Tolkien got the letter from Edith that she was engaged, so they had a very, very close relationship, and just that beautiful thought of Geoffrey Smith, that one friend you want to write to when you are thinking that you're going to die was Tolkien.

I think there's a level of closeness that I approach. I didn't approach it from a romantic level, but I think it does justice to Geoffrey Smith how it's done, and show that those who want to read it as a romantic relationship, and if that's true, then it can be read that way. But if it's not true, it can also be read just as the beauty of friendship, and how actually close they were.

Tolkien’s work has transcended its genre and found new audiences across generations, from hippies to Millennials. As someone who has been a fan for a long as you have been, and has now worked on his life in a unique way, why do you think his stories continue to thrive, remain relevant, and find new audiences the way they do?

It's something I experienced at a younger age because there's different levels in it. The younger age, it was more like an adventure for me. It was an escape. I didn't touch on this aspect. When Tolkien entered my life, basically, I was alone. I was being bullied. I was, at that time, growing up without a father, so those stories became an escape place for me. A place to escape. So, for me, as a younger person, it was an adventure, an escape.

But then, as an older person, I read a very deep-layered, thoughtful work of humanity, and how society works, and how we war with human beings. And that's why it stands up during decades and decades, because there's a superficial level, a plot level in those, but yet there's a very much deeper, psychological level in the writings.

And, secondly, especially when you read them in English, his original language, you can see the love of language, and the passion for language. It is actually very well written to be adventure stories. I think those are the reasons why it stands out after decades and decades.


Tolkien is now playing in theaters. You can read our review here.



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