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

Before Dungeons and Dragons, there was Tweed and Trees. Nicholas Hoult plays young JRR Tolkien in <em>Tolkien</em>.
Fox Searchlight
Before Dungeons and Dragons, there was Tweed and Trees. Nicholas Hoult plays young JRR Tolkien in Tolkien.

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

Nottaking 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 likehim 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 Mondenewspaper 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 Ringstelevision 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.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.