J.R.R. Tolkien is best known as the beloved fantasy author who wrote The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, but a new biopic chronicles the impact that male friendships had on his formative years growing up in the early 19th century. What’s essentially an intellectual bromance offers a potential cure for the toxic masculinity of the modern world.
For director Dome Karukoski, a story like Tolkien is important in 2019 not just so casual fans of Middle-earth can finally learn more about the famed author, but because the film’s perspective on wholesome male friendship makes fraternal intimacy and brotherly love cool again.
“We haven’t had a film in awhile that tells this story about male friendship,” Karukoski tells Inverse. “I was thinking about films like Dead Poets Society, and not the kind of toxic way you see in the Hangover films. You have these kinds of male friendship films, but not with the sensitivity the characters in Tolkien have.”
Orphaned at a young age, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (he went by “Ronald”) attended King Edward’s School in Birmingham, England. With painter Rob Gilson, poet Geoffrey Bache Smith, and composer Christopher Wiseman, Tolkien formed a semi-secret society called the “T.C.B.S.” (Tea Club and Barrovian Society). Tolkien pays special attention to how these friendships grew through the formation of this delightfully nerdy secret club. Their not-so-humble goal was to “change the world through art,” and they frequently shared their work with one another. It’s clear how Tolkien’s friends influenced his eventual ambitions as the 20th century’s greatest fantasy author.
“In a patriarchal era, these people were inspired by each other,” Karukoski said. “They were all outcasts that came together because they were so similar in their thoughts and emotions.”
A desperately lonely and isolated Ronald finds a new family in the T.C.B.S. and a sense of brotherhood that obviously inspired the Fellowship of the Ring. Tolkien, Gilson, Smith, and Wiseman all support and encourage one another through their teenage years into college and beyond on the battlefields of World War I.
While Gilson and Wiseman attended Cambridge University, Tolkien and Smith went to Oxford, and the school’s campus provides a beautiful backdrop for the entire middle section of Tolkien. In one relatable scene, a drunken and distraught Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) shouts from a quad in the middle of the night. He’s just received a letter that the love of his life is engaged to someone else. Smith (Anthony Boyle) finds him and just cradles his friend in his arms to let him weep. The scene borders on the melodramatic, but it communicates something important and oftentimes missing in modern male friendships: that it’s okay for men to be vulnerable.
When the two young men chat about Tolkien’s hangover the next day, they have an earnest discussion ruminating on the poetic nature of unrequited love. When three fully grown men wake up in Las Vegas with much worse hangovers in The Hangover, we get a much more toxic vision of masculinity.
What exactly is toxic masculinity? In a New York Times story, researchers defined it as “suppressing emotions or masking distress, maintaining an appearance of hardness, and violence as an indicator of power (think: “tough-guy” behavior).” The Hangover films have all these characteristics in spades as a bachelor party in Las Vegas goes awry.
Stu Price (Ed Helms) is presented to us as a meek cuck completely beholden to a domineering girlfriend, but he’s perhaps even more emasculated by the domineering presence of his friend Phil Wenneck (Bradley Cooper), who’s constantly urging him to “man up.” None of these men are comfortable with any real intimacy, so as the socially inept Alan Garner (Zach Galifianakis) tries to connect with them, they’re all creeped out. Granted, Alan does accidentally roofie everyone, but if you pay close attention to Phil’s reaction every time Alan tries to bond, there’s a clear aversion to intimacy — even before the drugs kick in.
Lowbrow comedies about drinking don’t necessarily have to go in this direction. Superbad, which came out two years prior to The Hangover, follows two high-schoolers who go on one more epic night out before graduation. By the end of the night, the two characters drunkenly profess their friendship love for one another in a way that’s really endearing, marking an important entry in the “bromance” genre. The relationship between Evan (Michael Cera) and Seth (Jonah Hill) and Superbad isn’t all that different from that of Frodo and Sam in Lord of the Rings, which was obviously inspired by Tolkien’s real-life friendships.
The Hangover shows us a toxic vision of how many modern men behave, but Tolkien reflects on how they should act with one another, especially after World War I claims the lives of two T.C.B.S. members, including Geoffrey Bache Smith, who’s presented as Ronald’s best friend in Tolkien.
Shortly after the Battle of the Somme, Smith was hit by shrapnel. Before his death several days later, he wrote Tolkien a prophetic letter: “May you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them,” he wrote. Tolkien didn’t start work on Lord of the Rings until many years later, but the impact his friendships had on his stories is profound.
“Tolkien recognized a kindred spirit in him, someone who was a soul mate for him,” Anthony Boyle, who plays Smith in Tolkien, tells Inverse. “I think when you look at his last act on Earth: he was hit with shrapnel and what he chose to do is write a letter to Tolkien. I think that is the most beautiful act of love there is. If you were dying, who’d be your first call? That was his, and I think there’s something really special about that.”
The male friendships presented in Tolkien were the real-life inspiration for the most important fantasy novels ever written. What did the male friendships in The Hangover ever do for anybody except lead to more hangovers?
Tolkien is now in theaters.