Many fine actors, from Viggo Mortensen to Christopher Lee, have brought the characters of J. R. R. Tolkien to life in The Lord of The Rings trilogy (and more recently The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey). But what about Tolkien himself? With the Los Angeles Times reporting that a biopic about the English linguist – tentatively titled Tolkien, with a script being written by David Gleeson – is in the works, here are five men up to the task of portraying the late great writer.
Whereas Tolkien was a devout Catholic whose writings often drew unambiguous lines between good and evil, Cumberbatch is more of an expert at mining realms of moral ambiguity – all through 2013, he’s played villains and anti-heroes with questionable intentions, ranging from Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness to Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate. Still, if you look at photos of Tolkien as a young man, it’s not hard to imagine Cumberbatch in his place: All the English actor would need to do is straighten his curly locks, and he could be Tolkien’s spitting image.
Tennant is best known for his stint as the tenth Doctor of the British series Doctor Who, and in a recent online poll conducted by the U.K.’s Mirror tabloid, fans voted him as the overwhelming favorite of all the Doctors of the show’s 50 years. His popularity probably has something to do with his infectious, wild-eyed intensity, which could serve him well in portraying Tolkien – who, though reserved in public life, was more animated while teaching at Oxford, occasionally barging into his classrooms decked out in medieval-style armor and barking out lines to Beowulf.
Though Tolkien spent much of his time knee-deep in literature and linguistics, he got inspiration for some of his darkest tales while serving on the front lines with the British Army during World War I. There, he came down with a nasty case of “trench fever” while many of his best friends ended up getting killed in combat. It would take a special actor to portray the effects of these traumatic experiences, and Renner might just be the one – in addition to his role as Hawkeye in The Avengers, he played an Iraq war bomb squad veteran in The Hurt Locker and he possesses one of the better glossed-over, dead-eyed stares at the movies today.
If it’s a kid-Tolkien the filmmakers are after, Radcliffe has something to offer. Tolkien was intelligent right from the beginning – he knew how to read by the time he’d turned four, and in his teenage years, he and his cousin and friends amused themselves by inventing a language called Nevbosh. As the star of the Harry Potter movies, Radcliffe could probably relate to this unrepentantly nerdy upbringing, having himself spent his formative years on set at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Sir Ian McKellen
Yes, McKellen has already done a wonderful job playing Gandalf, one of Tolkien’s greatest characters, and it’d be weird to imagine him stepping outside the Hobbit universe to become the man who created the Hobbits. But even if McKellen never donned Gandalf’s cape, he’d be an ideal candidate for the job: he’s played both Hamlet on the theatrical stage and Magneto on the big screen, and his facial expressions are full of life – just like Tolkien’s.