top of page

Fantasy overwhelms fact in “Tolkien”

Updated: Aug 26, 2019


(1) J.R.R. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) says farewell to the love of his life, Edith Bratt (Lily Collins) as he leaves for service during World War I. (2) Ill with fever, Tolkien searches the trenches for one of his best friends during the Battle of the Somme. (3) Tolkien and his friends, Geoffrey Bache Smith (Anthony Boyle), Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Rob Gilson (Patrick Leo Kenny-Gibson). Together they formed a secret society, the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (“T.C.B.S.” for short). It was the beginning of the hobbits of "The Lord of the Rings" fellowship.

4K frame shots courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment


4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital code; 2019; PG-13 for some sequences of war violence; streaming via Amazon Video/Prime, FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play (4K), Apple (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)

Best extra: Deleted Scenes

FINNISH director Dome Karukoski, who made “Tom of Finland” (2017), and J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, share something in common. Both are orphans.

Karukoski details that fact throughout the commentary and extras on the Fox Searchlight biopic, “Tolkien.” There’s no doubt the great British author’s books and life struck a personal chord for him. There’s a lot of hero worship in the script written by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford. It’s generally easy to tell where truth dies and emotional transference/fantasy takes over.

Most every Tolkien fan knows the author was born in South Africa, where his British father, Arthur, was a bank manager. Early adventures – three years and below – include a nasty bite by a trarantula-like spider, and an unexpected overnight journey when a family servant, impressed with the child, took him to visit his village home. Cue panicked parents – but all was well the next day when John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was returned safe and sound.  

(1) Young Tolkien (Harry Gilby) learns his mother, Mabel (Laura Donnelly) is critically ill.  (2) Tolkien, his mother and brother Hilary, lived in the English countryside for a time, the inspiration for The Shire. He was heartbroken when they had to leave. (3) Young Tolkien dreams of King Arthur, the Round Table, and other heroic fantasies.

That early life is glossed over. His father died shortly after his wife, Mabel, and sons Ronald, as he was called, and Hilary, returned home to England for an extended vacation. When Mabel joined the Catholic Church, her family and her husband’s family withdrew all financial and emotional support, even though her health was problematic. Mabel suffered from diabetes, and came to rely on the church for help. And help they did. She  home-schooled her children, where Ronald was the star pupil. He loved stories of knights and heroic deeds, and spent hours drawing, writing, and making up languages. He made fast friends with boys his age, roughhousing in the English countryside. Moving on, as they frequently did, was heartbreaking to the young Tolkien, but the family had no control over their lodgings or future. They kept going with the assistance of Father Francis Xavier Morgan, played by Colm Meaney. He became the boys’ guardian just before Mabel died. Tolkien was 12-years-old.

Much of this is covered in Karukoski’s film, although following the story is difficult. It’s filled with flashbacks covering his youth, friendships, a budding romance with the lovely and intelligent Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), student years, and his experiences in WWI during the Battle of the Somme, where the fictional Private Sam Hodges (Craig Roberts), becomes Sam to his Frodo. Fantasy mushrooms throughout, especially in the battle scenes showcasing how events in Tolkien’s life inspired his Middle-earth mythology. Most of the film is a paean to the Master designed to remind viewers of Peter Jackson’s LOTR film trilogy.

The older, unbelievably restrained Tolkien is played by Nicholas Hoult, known for his role of Hank McCoy/Beast in the "X-Men" franchise. Tolkien as a boy is played by Harry Gilby.

(1) Young Tolkien lets his imagination run free in his room at school. (2) King Edward's School in Birmingham, England, where Tolkien met friends that inspired his Middle-earth mythologies. (3) The friendship begins with Tolkien and Rob Gilson, the headmaster's son, getting in to a fight on school grounds.

(4) The Fellowship begins. 

VIDEO “Tolkien” received a 51 percent approval rating on; fans liked it better at 78 percent. The Ultra 4K version is only available by streaming. The Blu-ray with digital code, and DVD, are available on disc. The 4K release continues the trend in which lesser titles get their 4K/HDR release on digital since the cost is minimal. In the past few months, "Missing Link," "The Curse of La Llorona," "Ugly Dolls," "All Is True," "The Intruder," "Fast Color," "Red Joan," "Tolkien," "A Dog's Journey," "Long Shot," "The Last Black Man in San Francisco," "Booksmart," "Ma" and "The Dead Don't Die" (Sept. 3) were exclusive 4K digital titles. They were available early, too, in order to scoop the disc-buying public. The 1080p disc in 2.39:1 aspect ratio is excellent, with a lush, warm palette and saturated color, and plenty of detail.

No details are available on IMDb about the type of digital cameras used or if it was mastered in 2K or 4K, but Finnish cinematographer Lasse Frank Johannessen clearly used digital (2.35:1 aspect ratio) for the numerous low light scenes. HDR toning extracts deeper blacks and more defined shadow detail during the war scenes, and flashbacks as Tolkien draws and writes in his bedroom. Facial tones are natural throughout in close up and distance shots. Overall sharpness implies it was mastered in 2K. 


Sound is delivered on a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 channel track. Dialogue is clear, while ambient effects from boys playing sports to the explosions, gunfire and zip of poison gas bombs thunder around the room.

There’s a charming scene with Tolkien and Edith at a Wagner opera. They’ve been refused entrance; tickets are sold out, but mostly they’re not dressed properly for the theater. They make their way backstage and act out the play in the costumes they find. It’s colorful, playful, and the sound is perfect. There’s nothing like Wagnerian opera to fill a room.

The original score is by Thomas Newman, who also composed the scores for “Skyfall,” “WALL-E,” and Hulu’s “Castle Rock.”

(1 & 2) The friendship between Tolkien and Edith begins to get serious. (3) Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney) is the Tolkien boys' guardian. He objects to the relationship between Tolkien and Edith because of their youth, and because Edith is not a Roman Catholic. (4 & 5) But their love for each other only grows. The Father forbids them to see or communicate with each other until they are 21.


Granted, I’m a Tolkien fan, but the reverence in Karukoski’s film is overwhelming. What works are the deleted scenes that can be viewed with or without Karukoski’s commentary. They are more animated and interesting, and might have made this a better film had they been used. 

A “First Look” feature has Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins, Fantine of the PBS Masterpiece “Les Misérables” miniseries, promoting the film, with behind-scene footage and interviews. There’s a “Gallery,” and a director’s commentary.

The Tolkien estate, managed by his son Christopher, has distanced itself from the film without having seen it. “Tolkien” could have been better, and perhaps one day there will be a more genuine biopic. It underperformed at the box office, a miss for Fox Searchlight, which released Oscar winners such as “The Shape of Water,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “Isle of Dogs,” and “The Favourite.”

Leave this one for diehard fans only; others should rent.

— Kay Reynolds and High-def Watch producer Bill Kelley III contributed to this review

Illness and fatigue create hallucinations of the evils of war that director Dome Karukoski uses to imply inspiration for Sauron, Mordor, the Nazgûl  and the dragon Smaug in Tolkien's fiction. 


Tolkien is returned to England, where he learns his friend died in the Battle of The Somme. He and Edith marry, and begin a family. Tolkien begins writing "The Hobbit" to entertain his children and expel his demons. 





bottom of page