Tolkien is set to hit theaters this weekend, but the film screened early for an audience at the Montclair Film Festival on Tuesday. As an extra nerdy prize for fans of The Lord of the Rings, the screening was followed by a Q&A with director Dome Karukoski and stars Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins, moderated by Tolkien super-nerd Stephen Colbert.
EW was there to witness the discussion — here are the five nerdiest takeaways from what we saw.
How to pronounce ‘Tolkien’
The new film comes down very hard on the topic of how to pronounce J.R.R. Tolkien’s name — and funnily enough, it’s at odds with how nerds like Colbert always thought: It’s toll-KEEN, not toll-KIN.
Colbert has more in common with Hoult and Collins than not knowing how to pronounce Tolkien’s name, however. He, too, has appeared in a movie based on Tolkien’s work: He had a small cameo as the Lake-town spymaster in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy (to say nothing of the EW covers where he dressed as Gandalf, Legolas, and Bilbo). This led to a temporary role reversal, when Hoult started asking Colbert about how his role came about. The story was hilariously nerdy.
“This isn’t about me tonight, but I don’t hide my love for Tolkien under a bushel,” Colbert said. “Peter Jackson knew I loved the books and loved his movies so when he was making The Hobbit he sent a note to me through someone I saw at a wedding. I was officiating a wedding, and a friend of the bride and groom came up to me and said, ‘This is from Peter Jackson.’ She handed me a tube and I unrolled the scroll. It was a piece of stationery that had Tolkien’s illustration for Smaug at the top and it said, ‘Come down and play! Bring your family! Be in the movie! We’ll have fun!’ So we flew down a month later, he put us in clothes, and we were on Esgaroth, the men of the lake who live on the island and serve the Master.”
The joys of hobbit songs
The first thing Colbert said on stage was in Tolkien’s elvish language, but he is also fluent in the culture of hobbits. He’s not the only one; when Colbert asked the panelists which Middle-earth character they’d like to be, Hoult said a hobbit — “not any specific hobbit, but in terms of Tolkien’s mannerisms: The pipe, comfort, liking to eat a lot.”
But unlike Hoult, Colbert has memorized many of the songs and poems that hobbits sing across the pages of The Lord of the Rings.
“Like Tolkien, I consider myself something of a hobbit,” Colbert said after reciting lyrics to the “hobbit walking song” written by Bilbo Baggins: “The Road goes ever on and on / Down from the door where it began. / Now far ahead the Road has gone / And I must follow, if I can / Pursuing it with eager feet / Until it joins some larger way / Where many paths and errands meet / And whither then? I cannot say.“
Colbert said he saw echoes of his own life in the song: “It’s so true. ‘Wither then? I cannot say’ because I get to do some amazing things in my job, and this is one of them.”
How World War I built Middle-earth
Tolkien spends a lot of time in World War I. Even as the film tells the chronological story of the young Tolkien’s upbringing and early friendships, it constantly cuts back to his traumatic experience on the Somme in one of the worst battles of World War I. The first great war does not loom particularly large in American minds, but as Colbert and the panelists discussed, it played a large role in shaping Middle-earth.
“I think he actually said in a letter that the Dead Marshes, from The Two Towers, are the Somme,” Colbert said. “It is the pools of dead bodies who couldn’t be removed from the battlefield. They would just be all around, in the water, and you couldn’t do anything for them. That haunting imagery is directly from his experience on the Somme.”
Karukoski also pointed out that the recurring Middle-earth motif of good people valiantly standing against overwhelming evil (as the elf Glorfindel did against a fearsome Balrog in The Fall of Gondolin, or as Gandalf did in The Lord of the Rings) derives from the Somme as well.
So often in his stories there’s a vain battle against something ultimate, like Gandalf against the Balrog,” Karukoski said. “There are so many. So he must have felt that going over the top, which he did, is that. It’s something you do in vain. You know you’re gonna get killed, you can’t beat this battle.”
“Everyone who fights a Balrog dies,” Colbert added. “Three people fight Balrogs and they all die, including Gandalf.”
For reference: The third character who died fighting a Balrog was the elf Fëanor, who originally crafted the Silmaril jewels at the heart of The Silmarillion.
Florence makes the best elven dance music
The real-life gravestone for Tolkien and his wife Edith (nee Bratt) calls them “Beren” and “Lúthien,” respectively. As Tolkien the film shows, their romance had a lot in common with the star-crossed human and elvish princess who fall in love in The Silmarillion‘s best story.
“There’s something about their relationship that seems almost mythical in itself,” Colbert said. “The idea of orphans who go through great suffering and at the end of it find love and happiness with each other, as if it was destiny that they should be together.”
To play up the parallels, there are several shots in the film of Collins’ Edith dancing in a sunny forest — just as Beren sees Lúthien for the first time in The Silmarillion. In order to get in the right headspace, Collins said the best music for “elven dance” was Florence + the Machine.
“I got to pick what I listened to, so I chose ‘Dog Days Are Over,'” Collins said. “I saw her live at Coachella years ago and she was barefoot, she had long curly hair, tassels on and lots of colors, and she was just in with nature. I felt like she was ethereal to me. So we played her music and I kept dancing, and dancing, and dancing.”
Later this summer, Hoult will appear in the X-Men movie Dark Phoenix, reprising his role as Hank McCoy, a.k.a. Beast. Preparations for that movie and Tolkien overlapped slightly, leading to an amazing photo where Hoult is sketching Tolkien-style illustrations in full Beast makeup. Many such illustrations by Tolkien (from Middle-earth watercolors to Father Christmas letters he made for his children) were recently on display in the Morgan Library’s Tolkien exhibit.
“That wasn’t something I knew he did, in terms of the maps and illustrations, so I thought there must be something in there artistically that would connect something in my brain to him,” Hoult said. “It’s not something I would think about during scenes, but hopefully subconsciously it helped.”
Karukoski was certainly impressed.
“To be clear, I didn’t ask for this,” the director said. “I was very impressed when he sent the picture of himself in the Beast mask, doing a Tolkien illustration. I realized you’re actually at an actor. At that moment I was like wow, this guy really digs into roles!”