As it is with most films based on real events, Tolkien isn't an exact or comprehensive account of J.R.R. Tolkien's life and career. While the most significant plot points are faithful to Tolkien's real-life story, there are embellishments, omissions, and even completely made-up events, which director Dome Karukoski intended to emphasize the emotions felt by Tolkien. Karukoski himself says making a biopic like Tolkien is "always a battle between fact and fiction," so here we'll take a closer look at this balancing act and go over the 5 things Tolkien changes from the real story and 5 things it leaves the same.
10 Same: Tolkien was born in South Africa
Despite J.R.R Tolkien being one of the most influential figures in British literature, the author was actually born in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Tolkien's father succumbed to rheumatic fever while Tolkien was away with his mother and brother on vacation. At just three years old, Tolkien was raised by his mother Mabel until her untimely passing from diabetes in 1904. That was when Tolkien was taken in by Father Morgan, or 'Father Francis,' as Tolkien called him, and enrolled in King Edward's School in Birmingham.
9 Different: Tolkien and Edith didn't say goodbye right before Tolkien left for war
A prime example of how Karukoski makes changes to the real story to clarify key emotions is when Tolkien and Edith share a touching scene just before Tolkien leaves for war. Tolkien and Edith confirm their relationship with a passionate kiss at the very last moment, and Tolkien sails away. However, this didn't happen in real life, and in fact, Tolkien had already married Edith before he set off for war at the age of 23. The decision to solidify the lovers' commitment to each other during their heartfelt goodbye dramatizes Tolkien's departure and impresses his love for Edith upon the audience as he goes into war.
8 Same: Tolkien and Edith made mischief with sugar-cubes
This one actually sits somewhere in the middle of fact and fiction, as Tolkien indeed made a pastime out of terrorizing people by lobbing sugar lumps into their hats, but the act was a lot more discreet in real life than what's portrayed in 2019's Tolkien. Instead of tossing sugar-cubes at fellow patrons while dining, it's reported that Tolkien and Edith enjoyed waiting atop the balconies of Birmingham teahouses for passersby and dropping sugar-cubes into their hats for a laugh.
7 Different: Samwise Gamgee wasn't based on any single soldier
Another detail fabricated, if not entirely devoid of truthful basis, is the character named Sam. It's a heartwarming thought that Tolkien might have formed some comradery during the war with a soldier named Samwise, but in truth Tolkien named Frodo's most loyal companion after a surgeon, Sampson Gamgee.
The name Samwise, as revealed in a letter Tolkien wrote to a fan, refers to his fellow soldiers in a more general sense. "'Samwise' is indeed largely a reflexion of the English soldier," Tolkien writes.
6 Same: Tolkien's relationship with Edith was forbidden until he was 21
What's a good adventure story without a good tale of unrequited love? While it might seem like a dramatic trope of romantic fiction, Tolkien was indeed forbidden from seeing and speaking to his long-time lover Edith Mary Bratt until he turned 21. Due to Edith being several years his senior and subscribing to the Protestant faith, Tolkien's mentor and legal guardian strictly forbade him from pursuing any form of relationship with Edith for fear of distracting his studying and because Father Francis deemed their relationship "altogether unfortunate." At 21, Tolkien wasted no time reconciling with Edith and quickly thereafter asked for her hand in marriage.
5 Different: Tolkien delayed enlisting until he had earned his degree at Oxford
In the movie, Tolkien is portrayed as a wholly dutiful English citizen who unflinchingly answers the call to enlist as a soldier in World War I along with several of his piers. But in fact, Tolkien delays enlistment, to the vocal dissatisfaction if his family, in order to wrap up his studies at Oxford University.
England declared war in August of 1914, while Tolkien vacationed in Cornwall, and it wasn't until June of 1915 that he was enlisted as a second lieutenant. And in June of 1916, he was sent off to Calais in North France to report for duty.
4 Same: Tolkien became an orphan at age 12
Tolkien really drives home that the young author was likely influenced to write characters like Samwise Gamgee, Meriadoc Brandybuck, and Peregrin Took, by the camaraderie he shared with his piers in school and fellow soldiers at war. However, perhaps equally influential to Tolkien's writing were the difficulties he faced in childhood, which included losing both his parents and being orphaned at age 12. The film does well to portray the struggles Tolkien and his brother faced early in their lives and the positive influence Father Francis had on Tolkien's education.
3 Different: Tolkien likely never hallucinated dragons and monsters during the war
Tolkien's hallucinations in the 2019 film were a visual treat and an exciting foreshadowing of the mythical beasts Tolkien would later bring to life in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. However, there's no evidence that the author actually experienced any of these symptoms during his time stuck in the trenches during World War I. In fact, it isn't well documented that trench fever, which the film attributes to Tolkien's visions, has ever given its victims hallucinations the likes of which we see in Tolkien.
2 Same: Tolkien really did steal a bus
Tolkien's portrayal of the author as a raucous, unruly young man is mostly accurate. As mentioned earlier, Tolkien used to take pleasure in landing sugar cubes into the hats of innocent pedestrians from a balcony. And as it turns out, he actually did steal a city bus during his first year at Oxford. Although a fact-check of Tolkien's biography never makes mention of women being aboard the bus as it's told in the film, Tolkien did manage to take some of his friends for a joy ride on his newly-acquired bus.
1 Different: He was a better student in real life
For such an acclaimed author and professor, Tolkien isn't portrayed as particularly gifted in academics in the 2019 film. In the film, a young J.R.R. Tolkien fails to impress the higher-ups at Oxford and therefore loses his scholarship, leaving his entire education at risk. However, fact-checking his biography reveals that Tolkien's academic standing was perfectly average at Oxford University, neither at the top of his class nor anywhere near the bottom.