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Interview: 'Tolkien' director Dome Karukoski

Interview: 'Tolkien' director Dome Karukoski

Dome Karukoski may not be a household name in the U.S., but that general anonymity may change with his new biopic Tolkien.

Prior to Fathom Events’ May 7 advance screening of the film — which includes a live conversation between the cast and J.R.R. Tolkien super fan Stephen Colbert — and its May 10 wide release, Karukoski spoke with Asheville Stages about the complexities of bringing the author’s untold early history to the screen, pretending like Peter Jackson doesn’t exist, and watching the film with hardcore Tolkien fans.

Karukoski and Tolkien had similar childhoods…

30 years ago when he was a 12-year-old living in Finland, Karukoski says he was “a miserable young boy” who was bullied and felt like an outsider. Then a teacher gave him a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring and he quickly devoured the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy.

“It was instrumental and important for me,” Karukoski says. “I was alone and those stories became — I had friends, but not on the level you see in [Tolkien]. Friends who inspired me, but the words also inspired me. I started playing Dungeons and Dragons and creating my own stories, so it was instrumental for me as young man. I have a deep passion for his work.”

…but the director knew little about one of his favorite author’s pre-fame life.

Karukoski was familiar with such elements from Tolkien’s life as his professional kinship with C.S. Lewis and The Inklings, and thought of him as he’s often depicted in photos, as “a gentleman smoking a pipe and drinking a beer in a pub while debating elves.”

Beyond his realm of knowledge, however, were the author’s “dark times and turmoil of [WWI] coming.” Fascinated by the elements that shaped Tolkien as a writer, Karukoski set about artfully conveying those influences with help from screenwriters David Gleeson (the recent thriller Don’t Go) and Stephen Beresford (the terrific 2014 gay rights dramedy Pride). He notes that while Tolkien’s posthumously published novel The Silmarillion was inspired by outside stories and the author’s wife Edith Bratt inspired the elvish-human love story Beren and Lúthien, Tolkien’s life otherwise was not allegorical — and making a one-to-one correlation wasn’t something he wanted to do.

“I hate those things. Even though they’re factual, there’s naiveté in that. It’s not so simple — artistry derives from subtle things,” Karukoski says. “The best way to describe it is that he’s creating his own music and beams of light. He’s slowly getting instruments and voices and sounds and building it together into an anthology. He sees fantasy images or he hear trees talking, but that’s not yet the Ents talking. Nothing there is finished yet. He hasn’t written the books yet. He’s shaping his imagination, so we’re finding ways to lure the audience in and feel how his imagination grows.”

Tolkien has much in common with star Nicholas Hoult’s last turn as a beloved author, but the differences define the actor’s latest work.

When Karukoski and Hoult first met, the latter’s turn as J.D. Salinger in Rebel in the Rye was completed but hadn’t been released. The director knew Hoult was the right person to play Tolkien because he’s “witty, intelligent, and playful,” but didn’t inquire about his experience playing the Catcher in the Rye author and says it never came up as a comparison point, despite both films being about young men who go to war and become famous writers upon their safe returns home.

“There are some similarities. It’s a WWII film, but this is about WWI, so that’s much different there. The Salinger film is about that vivid, New York City jazz club life and our film is more about friendship and love — especially the [Tea Club, Barrovian Society aka] T.C.B.S. friendships,” Karukoski says.

“The Salinger film is also about the struggles of dealing with war trauma, but also about getting published. Ours is firmly about friendship and love, and [Hoult’s and my] discussions were more about how we feel about our friends and how we inspire each other with our friends instead of just two authors.”


Also a non-factor? Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations.

It’s difficult to approach Tolkien without thinking about Jackson’s Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings trilogy or his subsequent three-film telling of The Hobbit. And yet, Karukoski purposefully abstained from referencing the now iconic realizations Jackson and his crew created. Also nixed were Rankin/Bass’ animated versions of the films, which Karukoski didn’t see until he was 15 and rented them from the one VHS rental store in his Finnish village.

“The Nazgûl, it’s not yet that or the Black Rider. It’s a story of heroes and voices from the saga.  [Tolkien] envisions that hero as a gallant warrior, but when his mind is corrupted it becomes a fallen dark knight,” Karukoski says. “The visuals resemble it, and it’s inspired by Tolkien, but it doesn’t derive from any specific elements of visualization or inspirations. We’re trying to be as unique as possible on the way to what Tolkien inspired.”

In crafting the battlefield scenes where those dark hallucinations occur, Karukoski didn’t have much documentation about Tolkien’s war experiences from which to work. He praises John Garth’s book Tolkien and the Great War, but points out that little is known about the future author’s everyday life.

“We don’t know how many times he held a gun. He was an officer, a lieutenant, so he probably didn’t hold one much, but we know he went over the top and experienced that horrifying method of war and went through the German trenches with his battalion,” Karukoski says. 

“There’s not that much documentation, so I approached it as a dream and an emotional experience. I thought, ‘What if he was lying in the hospital in Southampton, dreaming about the war? How did he feel the war?’ It helps that we’re not trying to be historical, but emotional. It helps flesh out the experience of his feeling in the war, so it’s kind of a dreamscape in that way — of true emotion.”

Karukoski has already seen the film roughly 85 times, many with Tolkien fans, and wants to repeat that communal experience as often as possible.

The director loves seeing Tolkien with audience members dressed as elves or, in one case, a dragon whose outfit took four hours to assemble. Though these attendees see the film out of their fondness for the author and his creations, Karukoski particularly enjoys the film’s depiction of male friendships, which focuses on the sensibilities of “a group of boys who want to change the world with art” instead of taking a stereotypical masculine perspective. He also responds to the film’s representation of “how the mind of a genius flourishes,” though his chief desire is for Tolkien to have some real-life reverberations. 

“I hope people walk out and call a friend and ask to meet and talk and enjoy our time together as long as we have in this life,” he says. “I hope it’s a valuable, healing experience.”

(Photos: Fox Searchlight Pictures)

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