Exclusive: ‘Tolkien’ biopic will look at origins of ‘Hobbit,’ ‘LOTR’


With Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” set to hit theaters, the work of J.R.R. Tolkien is again about to satisfy millions of moviegoers.

But what about the man who created it? Tolkien led a complicated and colorful life. Now a new Hollywood biopic looks to tell his story.

“Tolkien,” as the project is tentatively called, will examine the author’s life, particularly his formative years at Pembroke College and as a soldier in World War I, and how it influenced him and his work, according to a person familiar with the project who was not authorized to talk about it publicly.


David Gleeson, a Tolkien superfan and scholar of sorts about the Middle-earth creator, is currently working on the script. The movie will be produced by Peter Chernin ‘s Chernin Entertainment (“The Heat,” “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”) and set up at Fox Searchlight.

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Born in South Africa in 1892 and raised in England, Tolkien went on to serve in the Great War, where many of his closest friends were killed in combat. That experience affected him deeply, and he would come to channel both his friends and their fates into his writing and world-creation.

Gleeson, an Ireland-born screenwriter best known for writing and directing the 2003 indie “Cowboys and Angels,” will examine Tolkien’s life story and how these experiences led to and shaped his work. (The universe of Frodo, Bilbo et al. was of course also informed by influences as varied as “Beowulf” and Richard Wagner.)

There’s been no definitive biopic of Tolkien, though several stalled-in-development attempts in recent years, including “Mirkwood,” a fantastical look at his work as a codebreaker during WWII. That project ran into obstacles from the very private Tolkien estate (it’s unknown to what extent they will be cooperating on Gleeson’s movie).

If audiences love for Tolkien’s work is any indication, though, filmmakers on “Tolkien” will have a popular subject on their hands: Movies based on Tolkien’s literary output, including Jackson’s “LOTR” series, have grossed nearly $4 billion around the world, with “Smaug” expected to add significantly to that total.


In its view of a complicated creative genius and the personal struggles that helped shape it, “Tolkien” shares similarities with “Finding Neverland,” the 2004 best picture nominee about “Peter Pan” author J.M. Barrie. The project also comes at a time when the subgenre is back in the spotlight. “Saving Mr. Banks,” John Lee Hancock’s story of the prickly P.L. Travers turning her iconic “Mary Poppins” into a movie, has been garnering critical and awards buzz ahead of its release by Disney next month.


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