Had John Ronald Reuel Tolkien never written a word, let alone a series of high fantasy novels beloved the world over, the sweeping story of his life would still be worth telling in a film like Tolkien.
Born in Bloemfontein in South Africa in 1892 to a family of clockmakers of Prussian descent, Tolkien’s banker father died when he was three, leaving his mother Mabel to raise him and his brother in Birmingham, England, until her own death due to diabetes in 1904. At 16 he met Edith Bratt, a pianist and fellow orphan living in the same boarding house who would become the love of his life, but his guardian disapproved and separated the couple, prohibiting any contact between them until Tolkien reached 21.
Portraying the young lovers presented unique challenges for actors Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins. Says Hoult, “You look at videos of Tolkien in later life and recordings and all these things where you can say that’s exactly what it was like, but earlier… you don’t have that. What I love about this story is that you’re focusing on these formative years, so working backwards you’re not doing an impression of someone, but you can delve into their loves and the relationships they were inspired by and then try to create from that.”
Having less historical material about Edith to work from meant Collins had to take a different approach. “I’ve played a couple of real people but this was different because I couldn’t meet and talk to her and I was left having to do research, but there just wasn’t much known about her story. So I got to mould bits of what I imagine her to be like as well as the little information I did have,“ she says, going on to explain how the works of J.R.R. Tolkien also played a part. “What was so great is knowing Edith was very much someone who almost prophesied what could be, and so, being someone now who knows the end result, the books and the movies, it was interesting to see the kind of character she influenced and created, then go back and go, ‘Okay, well, she had an elvish quality and a magic quality.’ It helped create a character where she wasn’t fully-rounded.”
That familiarity with their characters’ real-life inspirations shapes a pivotal scene of Tolkien and Edith performing their own version of Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung. “The basics were choreographed and we knew how much space we had but then the props were just on the day, “ Collins says. “So I just kept picking things up, and I spotted the ring and I thought ‘Oh my God, it’s like the Ring! Let’s play with the ring!’ We really got to improv a lot which is always fun with someone like Nicholas Hoult because he’s always so giving and so very much in the moment.”
This wasn’t the film’s only improvised moment. Tolkien and his close companions Geoffrey Smith, Christopher Wiseman and Robert Gilson, form the Tea Club and Barrovian Society where they discuss their artistic aspirations and affectionately refer to Tolkien’s later work and its adaptations with one of the film’s best jokes. “That was all improvisations, it came out of nowhere,” explains Tom Glynn-Carney (Wiseman). “There wasn’t that much discussion about it, because the novels didn’t exist at that point in Tolkien’s journey, so it was a case of being very subtle and dropping in those little things.”
The portrayal of the friendship between the characters emerged quite naturally on set, aided by the way the actors bounce off one another. “It took serious acting…” jokes Patrick Gibson (Gilson). “I think we all liked each other and it just worked, we met on the first day and gelled together. I think we all had a similar sort of humour,” says Anthony Boyle (Smith). Glynn-Carney adds, “It was never a conscious effort to try and bond, it just happened organically, which is why I think it translates so well.”
Because the film deals with different periods of the characters’ lives, there was also a younger cast playing the roles, which lead to some sneaky collaboration. “We watched them do their thing, just to try and take strands from them and allow it to feed us with some notion of who we were and what sort of idiosyncrasies we had,” says Glynn-Carney. “They didn’t know we were there, we were hiding behind the wall,” adds Boyle, “that was a good craic.” Glynn-Carney agrees: “They had so much energy, and definitely we fed off that, like, “Okay, the bar’s there now, we’ve got to lift it up.””
They clearly had fun, especially on the film’s billiard room set. “We were just chucking the balls at each other…” recalls Glynn-Carney. “We broke one of them!” Boyle interrupts. “The set decorators came in and they were, like,“Lads…”” Glynn-Carney laughs.
The film uses Tolkien’s experiences in World War I as a framing device but not every principal actor shot on the film’s Somme set, which gave rise to mixed emotions. “It looks fun,” says Gibson, “and then you realise that they’re just sitting in cold water.” Says Boyle, “As an actor you don’t have to do much work because it’s all done for you, you actually can’t walk in the sludge. They’d built these trenches and there was no acting required, you were just struggling.”
Hoult’s recollections of the Somme set and the giant bomb crater full of blood are similarly mixed. “What was wonderful about the war scene was the colours, because WWI images are black and white so you don’t recognise the colours of the gases or the bottom of the trenches filled with this red murky chemical/blood mixture. That was a particularly grim day, though, because I remember getting to the set and they were cracking the ice off the top of the water before saying “Right, Nick, jump in!” and I was, like, “Well, that’s definitely going to be cold, it’s frozen over!”
The members of the T.C.B.S. set out to “change the world through the power of art”, and it’s a motto that resonates with Hoult. “That’s a beautiful sentiment in this film, these young boys banding together and inspiring each other,” he says. “Tolkien realises post-WWI, losing that fellowship, that tight-knit band of friends, that at a time like that the world needs healing and escapism. When you see a great movie or read a brilliant book or hear a song that you love and feel uplifted and inspired… yeah, that’s definitely the power of art changing the world.”