Tolkien director: 'Battle between fact and fiction' in Lord of the Rings biopic

Director Dome Karukoski explains how he balanced reality with the imaginary in telling the real-life story behind Lord of the Rings.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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Lily Collins in the film Tolkien.
Fox Searchlight Pictures

The new movie Tolkien, in theaters now, combines the fact and fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien's life, exploring how real events and influences shaped his fictions.

It's interesting to see a biopic tackle the interplay between the actual and the made-up, because movies about real people always have to strike a balance between the two. A biopic dramatizes real events, potentially creating tension between showing what truly happened and telling a compelling story.

"It's always a battle between fact and fiction," explains Tolkien director Dome Karukoski, whose made two previous films about an actual person. "What the film tries to do is flush out the emotional truth of the character."

Like many readers, the Finnish director connected with Tolkien's work at a young age, and when we meet in London hotel he fluently reels off references to The Silmarillion. "I read Lord of the Rings when I was 12 or 13 and I was miserable," he remembers. "I was growing at that time without a father, I was bullied, I felt like an outsider, and then I found this book."


Director Dome Karukoski, center, with Tolkien stars Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins. 

David Appleby

Fans of Lord of the Rings will enjoy spotting allusions to Tolkien's stories as the young man is inspired by love, war and changing times. But screenwriter Stephen Beresford and the filmmakers decided not to make the film a parade of explicit references to The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. "He hasn't written the books yet, so you can't take things from the books directly," explains Karukoski, "but he is emotionally growing into that man who will. So what were the steps he was taking, or how did he find the instruments to play the music later?"

The film deftly interweaves Tolkien's real world with the fantasy world developing in his head. That actually required a lot of thought from the filmmakers and visual effects company One of Us. "It's a question of texture," explains Karukoski. "How does tweed cloth fit with CGI?" 

Karukoski's previous films include a biopic that profiled iconic gay artist Tom of Finland and an earlier movie inspired by an author who'd written a story based on her father. "I went to meet with the author," Karukoski says. "She said to me: You're the director; you do whatever you f***ing want. Just make it work! And that's been the guideline -- you make choices, you take artistic license, but you do it so you can flush out the emotional truth."

He points to a scene in Tolkien where the young author, played by Nicholas Hoult, and his sweetheart Edith, played by Lily Collins, meet just before Tolkien ships out during World War I. "That's fictional, but emotionally it happened -- just it happened in seven, eight scenes. We tried writing it, but it didn't move the film." Instead, events are condensed into one scene. "If I build it factually, the audience doesn't necessarily feel the same emotion ... what we see is emotionally how they felt, and it's told at an emotional level so that the audience can feel with them."


J.R.R. Tolkien bids farewell to his love Edith as the First World War interrupts their romance.

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Artistic license was also required for the scenes during the war, because we don't know exactly what Tolkien experienced during his time as a signals officer on the Western Front. "We know for a fact he did go over the top, and experienced that absurd way of fighting. But there's not that much documentation about his war era -- how many times did he hold the gun? How many times did he have to shoot? We don't have that information ... So it's not about fact, it's about emotion, the landscape of war, and the tragicness I believe he took out of the war."

Tolkien's family members have publicly distanced themselves from the film, issuing a statement that they weren't involved with the production. "I approached them and wanted to screen the film," says Karukoski, but with no luck. "It's kind of their way also of saying, please don't send your interview requests here," he says with a laugh. "I didn't take this as hostile ... I would love to watch the film with them and hear their thoughts and explain why certain artistic licenses have been taken."

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And what does Karukoski imagine Tolkien himself would say if they sat down together? "He said he's not a fan of biographies," the director admits, but he suspects the legendary author would appreciate a good story well told. "He was afraid people thought [his writing] would be boring. He wrote to people, was [his latest story] too boring? And I think as a storyteller he would appreciate the story we built."

Though he's currently turning down the many biopics he gets offered, Karukoski might consider looking closer to home. "There was a time in myself when I wanted to do my father's story," he says, "because I grew without him and I met him the first time when I was 14, so I entered his life from an outside perspective." His estranged father, George Dickerson, led a varied life as a poet, journalist and later an actor in Hill Street Blues and David Lynch's Blue Velvet. "There would be a story there," says Karukoski, "but I don't know how to narrow it. That's the trick of biopics -- how to narrow the time." 

Would it be too personal? "No, he passed away a couple of years ago and he would probably encourage me to go wild," Karukoski says, smiling. "He'd say don't make me look boring -- add sunglasses and a cigar in my hand so I look cool!"

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Originally published May 3.