When, one day in 1929, writer Thomas Wolfe decided to keep the appointment made by Max Perkins, editor at Scribner's, he had no illusions: his manuscript would be turned down as had invariably been the case. But, to his happy amazement, his novel, which was to become "Look Homeward, Angel," was accepted for publication. The only trouble was that it was overlong (by 300 pages) and had to be reduced. Although reluctant to see his poetic prose trimmed, Wolfe agreed and was helped by Perkins, who had become a true friend, with the result that it instantly became a favorite with the critics and a best seller. Success was even greater in 1935 when "Of Time and the River" appeared, but the fight for reducing Wolfe's logorrheic written expression had been even harder, with the novel originally at 5,000 pages. Perkins managed to cut 90,000 words from the book, and with bitterness ultimately taking its toll, the relationships between the two men gradually deteriorated. Wolfe did not feel ... Written by
A Movie That Deserves Better Reviews - Acting is Tops!
Director Michael Grandage's movie Genius about the relationship between legendary Scribners editor Maxwell Perkins and flamboyant author Thomas Wolfe has received generally tepid reviews. I for one am delighted an editor is finally receiving some screen time! Wolfe was an author whose moods, enthusiasms, and output were not easily corralled, even by someone with Perkins's experience. After all, he'd brought works to the public from other outsized personalities and authors with personal difficultiesnotably Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
It's easy to imagine the slammed door that would greet an author today who showed up with a 5,000-page manuscript as Wolfe did with his second book, Of Time and the River. The challenging task of turning this into a readable manuscript epitomizes the editor's dilemma, as Perkins puts it, "Are we really making books better, or just making them different?" Getting 5,000 pages down to a still-hefty 900 made it different, all right. And better, at least in the sense of more likely to be read, too.
Colin Firth, as Perkins, keeps his hat on during almost the entirety of the movie, symbolic perhaps of how his character tried to keep a lid on his difficult author. Jude Law as Wolfe is by turns outrageous, contrite, drunk, and sentimental. Pretty much like the novels, actually. His performance is consistent and always interesting. He shows Wolfe as a man with a lot of words bottled up inside him who couldn't always control the way they poured out.
It's odd to see an all-British and Australian cast playing so many titans of American literary history, including Perkins and Wolfe, Guy Pearce as Fitzgerald, and Dominic West as Hemingway. (The Hemingway scene necessitated an ending credit for "marlin fabricator.") The women in the lives of the protagonists are Laura Linney as Mrs. Perkins, perfect as always, and Nicole Kidman, who believably portrays the obsessed Mrs. Bernstein. She's left her husband to cultivate and promote the much younger Wolfe and is not lacking a flair for the dramatic herself.
The movie is based on the National Book Award-winning Perkins biography by A. Scott Berg, transformed into a screenplay by John Logan. New Yorker critic Richard Brody dings the script for its departures from the detailed and more richly peopled original, including the book's fuller explanation for the rupture between Wolfe and Scribners. While I disagree with some critiques of the filmed story, Brody says a lawsuit and Wolfe's unsavory political views played a part, and leaving the latter out seems a mistake. A fuller exploration of the break-up could have put some meat on the bones.
Portraying in cinema an intrinsically intellectual and abstract enterprise is difficult (The Man Who Knew Infinity struggled with the same challenge.) Like me, reviewer Glenn Kenny at Roger Ebert.com apparently had not read the book, so did not have Brody's reservations. Kenny found "the exchanges between editor and author exhilarating. Logan's script . . . is invested in the craft of words like few other movies nowadays, even those ostensibly about writers." Wolfe blasted onto the American literary scene like a runaway train and left it before he could accomplish a judicious application of the brakes. Yet, he eventually realized who'd kept him on track, as his moving deathbed letter attests.
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