Director Dome Karukoski’s portrait of the man who wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings tells three intertwining tales. The first and most artful of these gives us the making of a writer: an orphan whose mother taught him to love language before she died, a nature lover forced into the brimstone-belching industrial world, a boon companion who loses friends to the horrors of the First World War. The second — blunter, sometimes clumsier, but not without worthwhile points and pleasures — gives us the making of the works themselves. It may be a bit on the nose to translate the mortar bursts and mustard gas of The Battle of the Somme directly to the blasted monstrosities of Mordor, but when your subject spends a good part his literary energy mourning the violent destruction of a civilization, some allowance may perhaps be made. And the third? The gradual, sometimes wince-worthy, but ultimately gratifying making of a man, as he learns to love a woman. Tolkien casts a spell: it’s not difficult to imagine some viewers proving utterly impervious to its peculiar magic. But some others will be enchanted and even transported by its charms.
Interview with Tolkien director Dome Karukoski
Matthew Lickona: Why make this film, both from a personal and cultural standpoint? I can imagine a cynic seeing it as an attempt to retcon Lord of the Rings back into its author’s life story, just to give fans pleasant little jolts of recognition.
Dome Karukoski: I think someone actually wrote that it’s just the work of a studio trying to find some money. But it’s really a passion project that derives from my own childhood, when I was introduced to Tolkien’s works. I was 12 or 13, a miserable bullied kid growing up without a father. We were poor; I felt like an outsider. When I found The Lord of the Rings, I got to escape through those stories. Then I started playing Dungeons & Dragons and started creating my own campaigns, my own stories. It was instrumental in making me who I am as a storyteller. Then flash forward 30 years, and I’m reading about how he experienced so many similar elements in his own life: being poor and without a father, being an outsider. Culturally, I hope the film can introduce more people to his writing and his love of language. It wasn’t just fantasy literature to him: it was poetry, something deep-rootedly beautiful.
ML: Fair enough, but you do include scenes from Tolkien’s time in the trenches of World War I, where the horrors of battle transform into visions of things we encounter in Lord of the Rings: the Nazgul on their black horses, the smoke-and-flame Balrog. Was that in the script, or was that you?
DK: That was very much me. I was finishing my Tom of Finland biopic when they sent it to me, and my first thought was, “Not another biopic.” But because I was a Tolkien fan, I read it, and found that it wasn’t really a biopic, but a story of friendship and love. Much more internal and focused psychologically than Tom of Finland, which is the story of an artist struggling to become famous. But as a fan of Tolkien, if I was going to do the film, I wanted to delve into the mind of a genius. None of the books had been written during the part of his life covered in the film. He was slowly building the legends. So we couldn’t take direct inspiration from the books. I thought about how I was privileged to read the books before the films arrived, and thought about my first images — before the internet took away the ability to imagine for yourself — of what his worlds looked like. I took two steps back and asked, “How does the character get to those images?” For example: the battle he sees between the white knight and the black knight. He envisions this white knight taken from the story of Sigurd and Fafnir. But then when he sees the bloodshed and destruction of war, his mind gets corrupted, and that white knight turns into a black knight. It becomes a battle of good and evil within him that he can use in his mythologies: the idea of a fallen king or fallen knight. It’s not a Nazgul yet. I was trying to show his imagination at work: one idea inspiring something else and building a world.
ML: All the same, I was glad you didn’t show any Ents, but instead stuck to filming trees in a way that communicated Tolkien’s love for them without making a show of it.
DK: The trees had to be in the texture of the film. He once wrote about a willow hanging over a mill pond that he would climb, and they cut it down, and he saw it lying there, dead because of nothing. You can understand from that the emotion and affection he felt toward trees. It’s so evident in his mythologies that trees have a life of their own, and that had to be shown through visuals. But I also liked that scene at the café with Edith, showing how his mind worked. He gets an idea from a word, “cellar door,” and then builds a story around that. And his first idea is to build a story on the trees. And then later, it evolves.