In Depth

Why J.R.R. Tolkien’s family is not endorsing new biopic

Estate of Lord of the Rings writer says it does not support upcoming film ‘in any way’

The family of Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien have publicly disowned an upcoming biopic about his life.

Opening in UK cinemas on 3 May, Tolkien charts the relationship between the writer, played by Nicholas Hoult, and his wife and muse, Edith (Lily Collins), reports The Guardian.

According to the film’s makers, it explores “the formative years of the renowned author’s life as he finds friendship, courage and inspiration among a fellow group of writers and artists at school”.

The movie also tackles the outbreak of the First World War, which “threatens to tear their fellowship apart” and inspires Tolkien to “write his famous Middle Earth novels”, says studio Fox Searchlight.

What has Tolkien’s family said?

In their first public statement about the biopic, directed by Finnish filmmaker Dome Karukoski, the family said this week that they do not endorse or support the project “in any way”.

“The family and the Estate wish to make clear that they did not approve of, authorise or participate in the making of this film,” the statement added.

As CinemaBlend notes, it is “not uncommon” for the family of a biopic subject to be critical of the film. “It can frequently happen after a movie has been released and it is seen just how the movie takes license with the real life story,” says the entertainment news site.

However, in this case, nobody in the Tolkien family has seen the upcoming movie, says The Hollywood Reporter.

“Instead, this appears to be a more preemptive move,” says CinemaBlend. “Nobody from the Tolkien family was consulted or gave approval to have the movie made in the first place and the family is simply putting this fact on record now.” 

The author’s surviving relatives are “fiercely protective of his legacy” and have rejected a number of approaches to make an “official” film about his life, The Times reports.

John Garth, author of Tolkien biography Tolkien and the Great War, told The Guardian that he believes the estate’s response to the film was “sensible”, as “biopics typically take considerable licence with the facts, and this one is no exception”.

What have the filmmakers said?

A Fox Searchlight spokesperson told the NME that the biopic is a “tribute to the author” and that the studio is “proud” of the film.

“While we did not work with the Tolkien Estate on this project, the filmmaking team has the utmost respect and admiration for Mr Tolkien and his phenomenal contribution to literature,” the spokesperson said.

Did the family approve of Lord of the Rings?

Owing to a financial decision taken by Tolkien in the 1960s, his family did not make any money from the movie franchise and were not required to give consent to its creators.

The Times reports that Tolkien sold the movie rights for his Lord of the Rings books in 1969 for £100,000 in order to settle an outstanding tax bill. The films, made in the early 2000s, went on to gross more than $2bn (£1.54bn) worldwide.

The paper suggest that the family’s decision to publicly distance themselves from the upcoming Tolkien film “may be partly informed by commercial considerations”. In 2017, the estate approved a $250m (£193m) deal with Amazon Prime Video for a series set in Tolkien’s fictional world of Middle Earth.

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