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Dome Karukoski's Tolkien is a fictional account of J. R. R. Tolkien's early years told over the course of approximately two hours. It covers (briefly) time spent with his brother Hilary and his mother, through some time in the 1930's when he is married and has all four children.

If I have time later this week, I will write up a comparison between the events as they are depicted in the movie vs. the factual biographical information available in print - for example, the excellent Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth, and Tolkien: The Authorized Biography by Humphrey Carpenter. For now, I'll just mention that the end credits do say "This motion picture is inspired by actual persons and events. However, some characters, names, businesses and certain locations and events have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes." I think some and certain are being used in that sentence "for dramatic purposes" too. 😉

Accuracy aside, how does Tolkien succeed as a fictional movie? I think it is broadly successful. Sometimes it feels a little too pat in making obvious connections between specific events and Tolkien's works of fiction. There are painfully direct connections made between Tolkien's group of school friends and the Fellowship, incidents on the battlefield to Black Riders and the Dead Marshes, to more subtle ones like the green waistcoat Tolkien sports briefly. For someone with no prior knowledge of Tolkien's life, I feel the movie will be quite entertaining.

As a work of art, Karukoski has given us an impressionist painting rather than a photograph. Details and facts are blurred (intentionally I assume) to convey the emotions of loss, friendship, love and loss again. The World War I scenes are all stated to be while Tolkien is suffering greatly from trench fever, and all of his nightmarish visions (clearly echoing Peter Jackson's film visuals) are almost all drawn from earlier moments where Tolkien is seen watching shadowplays, sketching in his notebooks, or elsewhere, so the feeling I got was that Tolkien's inspirations were not directly "flamethrower becomes dragon" but more a stirring of his prior imaginings when he couldn't think clearly.

The two main threads interwoven are the relationship between Ronald and Edith, and the friendship between the four members of the TCBS (Tea Club and Barrovian Society). The love story is reasonably well told though the factual shuffling of dates and locations were personally distracting, but I felt the stories of friendship were not given enough time to develop. Christopher Wiseman seems to be always fighting or in a disagreement with Tolkien, and Tolkien rarely seems to show much warmth to Geoffrey Bache Smith when onscreen (though plenty is shown when Smith is not present).

Overall I do recommend the film (as art, not biography) as I enjoyed it in spite of how fictional it was. If you see it and enjoy it, definitely add Tolkien and the Great War to your summer reading list, as the (actual) story is even better.

Tolkien opened on May 3rd in the UK, and will have a sneak preview tomorrow (May 7th) in the USA, and a wider release on May 10th in many markets, and later summer release in some international markets. See this facebook post for a list of release dates for your particular country.