In the church circles I’ve been in, pastors and lay people alike love to talk about the friendship between J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and fellow Oxford don C.S. Lewis. Their friendship and fellowship not only led to some of the greatest fantasy writing, it also led to Lewis’ faith. In some ways, Tolkien is talked about more as Lewis’ sidekick.
But Dome Karukoski’s Tolkien, out in theaters this Friday, focuses on another story of friendship, that of the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (TCBS) which Tolkien was a part of during his education at King Edward’s School in Birmingham. The film tells the story of Tolkien’s early life as an orphan living in poverty and at the mercy of his benefactors, and the love and friendship he finds in spite of it. Tolkien is gorgeously shot and filmed with warmth, humor, and friendship.
I had the opportunity to speak with Finnish filmmaker, Dome Karukoski, the movie’s director (and Tolkien super-fan). This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Juliet Vedral, Sojourners: What made you want to tell this particular story of Tolkien’s life?
Dome Karukoski, Tolkien : There’s the reason of course, the passionate level of being a Tolkien fan since the age of 12 or 13. I found Tolkien’s works at the time when I was a loner. I was overweight, I was miserable, I was at that time growing up without a father who I got to know later in my life … and then I became a fan through the Lord Of The Rings books and The Hobbit. I read almost everything from him. And 30 years later, I found some stories where I found out that he had the same feelings at the same age when I found his books — you know he was an outsider at that time, at that age, growing without a father, needing some friends. When you grow without a father, you kind of grow a special bond with your mother. Your mother becomes more a friend than a mother figure. There were so many elements there I recognized.
Vedral: How did you prepare to tell the story?
Karukoski : When you’re dealing with a real-life character, you have to do as much research as possible. I read everything. I listened to all the interviews that there are online. I met with several different Tolkien experts. So what happens when you prepare yourself, you actually find your own inspiration of the character, who he was, what he was. And for instance, regarding faith, he himself said that Lord Of The Rings was made by his faith, very affected by his Catholicism. But others think it’s based more on Norse mythology. There are so many different stories out there and it’s difficult to kind of navigate through those voices and just find your own … and that takes time, that is emotionally time consuming.
Vedral : What is your favorite book out of all of Tolkien’s writing?
Karukoski : In my younger years, it was Lord Of The Rings, but now that I’ve grown older, it’s become The Silmarillion. In The Silmarillion, I find so much about society, about where we are. It’s about betrayal, it’s about the corruption of the mind, it’s about forming communities. It’s a very deep and multilayered story and that’s why it’s my favorite now.
Vedral : A lot of Sojourners readers are interested in putting faith in action when it comes to social justice and poverty. I appreciated how the movie threaded a needle of Tolkien and his brother growing up without their parents and at the mercy of relatives and their guardian and how his poverty drove him in terms of needing a scholarship. Can you talk a little about what that was like?
Karukoski : It’s wonderful that you picked it up. The theme of poverty was very strong. When I was young, even though Finland is not a poor country, we were poor. I was growing up with a single mom and we didn’t even have running water when I was 12, 13, and reading his books. And then finding out at this time, as you pointed out, he was poor and from a poorer class. It’s intriguing that I had this perception of him growing up from a very privileged background. I had this ideal of him being at Oxford and smoking a pipe and debating with C.S. Lewis … but this was not true, he actually had to fight his way through his classes and that was very touching to me on a personal level. And I think when you read more and more, he was actually motivated. All the books say that he was a professor and worked double the amount of everybody else because he loved his job so much. (Laughs)
I actually think that poverty drives him. Poverty becomes a manager. You don’t want to be poor, once you’ve experienced it and you feel you have a chance to rise above some poverty. I feel that so much. I work so much just because I don’t want my children to grow up in a similar environment that I did. So, I understand that about Tolkien. I understand that you work so hard because you want to save your family and family is very important.
Vedral : What do you hope that people will take away from this film?
Karukoski : It’s a film of warmth, of friendship. It’s a film for love and inspiration. I think that people come in and they see how important friendships are. Maybe they’ll be inspired to call a friend and tell stories, to get together, to be close. I think that’s something valuable. I want to be with those boys, running around, and just changing the world with art. I mean that’s so vital today. And how important love is to find among tragic stories. It’s a beautiful and tragic story of course, two orphans who find community together, which becomes a forbidden love story, an eternal love story. I think that’s something I hope people can take away.