By ERIN ROLL
If there was one thing that the audience —- both inside the Wellmont Theater, and watching from movie theaters around the country — took away from Tuesday night’s Q&A with the stars of “Tolkien,” it is this: J.R.R. Tolkien’s name is not pronounced Tol-kee-en, or Tol-ken. It’s Tol-keen.
The Q&A, which took place after a screening of the film, featured “Tolkien” stars Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins (daughter of drummer/singer/actor Phil Collins), who play Tolkien and his wife Edith, respectively, and director Dome Karukoski.
“Tolkien,” released on May 3 in the United Kingdom and on May 10 in the United States by Fox Searchlight Studios, is a dramatized account of Tolkien’s life. It starts in his early teens, continues through his romance with future wife Edith Bratt, his wartime service in World War I, and shows his nascent career as a professor-turned-author. All of this, the film hints, influences Tolkien’s literary work, including “The Hobbit,” “Lord of the Rings,” and “Beren and Luthien.”
The correct pronunciation of Tolkien’s name — a venial sin that much of the audience was likely guilty of — was a running joke during the Q&A. “I’ve been pronouncing my idol’s name wrong all my life, so I’m the biggest criminal,” Karukoski lamented.
Stephen Colbert, himself a longtime Tolkien aficionado, presided over the Q&A that followed the screening in Montclair.
The talk was broadcast live to movie theaters across the United States. “Which makes it, obviously, the largest audience in the history of the Montclair Film Festival,” Executive Director Tom Hall said at the start of the screening.
For Karukoski, Collins, Hoult and Colbert, the Q&A offered an opportunity to reflect on Tolkien’s legacy as a storyteller and inventor of worlds and mythologies; the concepts of war, religion and friendship; and the sheer cultural impact of “The Hobbit” and Lord of the Rings on generations of fans.
“What does Tolkien mean to someone who grew up in Finland?” Colbert asked.
Karukoski discovered “Lord of the Rings” at about the age of 12 or 13. “I was a very miserable young man, as many are at that age,” Karukoski said recalling that Tolkien’s stories provided him a much-needed escape.
Collins was a big Tolkien fan in elementary school. “I used to run around the woods pretending there were elves and fairies and magical creatures,” she recalled.
Hoult had fond memories of playing “Lord of the Rings” trading card games as a young boy.
And Colbert said he has been devoted to Tolkien’s work from an early age. He talked about lying on the sofa, reading a pivotal scene in “The Two Towers.” “I hadn’t realized I hadn’t been breathing for an entire page,” he said, joking that he would need a snorkel.
But Tolkien’s work becomes a much-needed refuge for him when the world becomes too crazy.
“It’s your happy place,” Collins said.
“It’s my beautiful place,” Colbert concurred.
Collins became an actor due to her parents bedtime stories when she was little. Her father, Phil Collins, could create many different voices as he read stories to her. It was like “making a movie in your head.
“And then I started doing that for myself, reading Tolkien and Harry Potter,” Collins said. “What a wonderful form of escapism.”
It’s a gift, she said. “I get so much joy out of it because I learn so much about myself as [I do about] the characters I play.”
For Hoult, one of the aspects of the film that resonated the most was the concept of friendship, represented by Tolkien and his three school friends: the Tea Club and Barrovians Society, or the TCBS.
The film has not been without controversy, however; Tolkien’s estate disavowed any connection with the film.
The subject of Tolkien’s estate and its objections to the film did not come up directly in the Q&A. But the panel talk did turn briefly to Tolkien’s own intentions on how his literary work should be viewed, and the almost mythical quality of certain aspects of his life.
Hoult commented that aspects of Tolkien’s life, including his romance with Edith, had a certain fairy tale quality; “unless you know it’s a true story, it doesn’t quite seem that way on the page,” he said.
Colbert said that Tolkien didn’t want his stories to be seen as an allegory on war or on religion or on any other subject, and that he wanted his stories just to be seen as stories.
And yes, Karukoski said, a certain bit of artistic license was taken. “Is the story now interesting?”