Origin tales usually give us the backstories of beloved characters. “Tolkien,” by contrast, dramatizes the events that created a creator. The film is a biopic of J.R.R. Tolkien, the Oxford don who, in the middle years of the 20th century, imagined an entire other Earth that continues to hold readers in thrall well into the 21st.
You’d think such a movie would be an ancillary add-on to the massive franchise that “Lord of the Rings” has become in popular culture, thanks in part to Peter Jackson’s triumphant filming of the trilogy at the turn of the millennium (and, much less happily, his adaptation of “The Hobbit” into three endless slogs). But “Tolkien” is almost defiantly about humans rather than elves, orcs, wizards, and barrow-wights, and its very British decorum can’t hide the traumas its subject endured in both childhood and during World War I.
The Great War was the crucible in which the desperate emotional stakes of Tolkien’s writing were formed — that sense of epochal events turning on the actions of many. (“Game of Thrones,” to name just one pop artifact, wouldn’t exist without him.) Directed by Dome Karukoski (“Tom of Finland”) from a script by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford, “Tolkien” uses the 1916 Battle of the Somme as a focal point, looping from the horrors of the trenches back to the hero’s youth and young adulthood before whipping us back to the carnage.
It’s above all a story about loneliness followed by fellowship, a story of how young John Ronald Reuel Tolkien — called “Ronald” by friends — lost father and then mother and with a younger brother was brought up an orphan in a boarding house, attending King Edward’s School on a scholarship under the watchful eye of a guardian priest (Colm Meany, subtly pocketing every scene he’s in). It was there the young boy (played by Harry Gilby before maturing into Nicholas Hoult) met three friends with whom he would form a tight friendship — wryly dubbed the Tea Club and Barrovian Society — before the disaster of the war tore them apart.
“Tolkien” also dramatizes the sometimes embattled courtship of Ronald and his wife, Edith (played by Lily Collins as an adult), and the film is at its most quietly moving when it shows these two outsiders — Edith was also an orphan — creating their own privileged world.
Collins is charming and Hoult is shyly headstrong; the three friends, played by Patrick Gibson, Anthony Boyle, and Tom Glynn-Carney, are stalwart, and we get the sense of a rigid social system forcing artistic talents into the straitjacket of propriety. Derek Jacobi is enjoyable as the Oxford philology professor who recognizes the young Tolkien’s facility for declaiming invented languages (even while drunk) and who sets him on a scholarly path.
What “Tolkien” doesn’t seem very interested in, ironically, is the creative process itself — the urge that prompted J.R.R. Tolkien to almost helplessly build every aspect of an imaginary universe from history to language to myth to mapmaking. If you were lucky enough to have seen the exhibition of the author’s working papers at New York’s Morgan Library, which closes May 12, you may have come away with awe for the granularity of his creative impulse — how, for instance, Tolkien calculated distances and respective stride lengths of human, hobbit, and dwarf so that the journeys in his books would be more “realistic.”
In “Tolkien,” we see the hero scribble in his notebooks, post his drawings on his dormitory walls, and speak smatterings of Elvish, but the workings of the motor of his imagination, and what role unhappiness may have played, remain secret. Instead, the filmmakers bury Easter eggs for the fans: a doughty working-class trench guide named Sam (Craig Roberts), a glimpse of the inspiration for the Ents, and — in one of the movie’s few moments of kitsch — a battle scene with digitized touches of Sauron.
It is to be noted that the Tolkien estate and the Tolkien family — two of his children survive, including son Christopher, now 94 and the active keeper of the legacy — have published a statement to the effect that they haven’t authorized nor do they endorse the film, which no one in their camp claims to have seen. So it is certain we are watching a wishful invention in “Tolkien,” however true to the biographical facts. It was a quiet life after the war, except for the titanic events unfolding in the author’s head. “Tolkien” gives us the passing of a vanished England and the loss of a generation but not quite enough about what was won, by him for us, nor the mystery of how he won it.
★ ★ ½
Directed by Dome Karukoski. Written by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford. Starring Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meany. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, suburbs. 112 minutes. PG-13 (sequences of war violence).