Director Michael Grandage’s movie Genius (trailer) about the relationship between legendary Scribners & Sons editor Maxwell Perkins and flamboyant author Thomas Wolfe had received generally tepid reviews. (while I’m delighted an editor is finally receiving 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 had already brought works to the public from other writers with outsized personalities and personal difficulties–notably Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
It’s easy to imagine the slammed doors that would greet an author today who showed up with a 5000-page manuscript as Wolfe did with his second book, Of Time and the River. The challenging task of turning this behemoth into a publishable manuscript epitomizes the editor’s dilemma: “Are we really making books better,” Perkins says, “or just making them different?” Getting 5000 pages down to a still-hefty 900 made Wolfe’s work different, for sure. And better, at least in the sense of more likely to be read.
Colin Firth, as Perkins, keeps his hat on during almost the entirety of the movie, symbolic perhaps of how his character tries to keep a lid on his difficult author. Jude Law as Wolfe is by turns outrageous, contrite, drunk, hostile, and sentimental. Pretty much like the novels, actually. His performance is consistently inconsistent and always interesting. He shows Wolfe as a man with a lot of words bottled up inside him who can’t always control the way they pour out.
It’s odd to see a mostly 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 required 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 has her own flair for the dramatic. The performances make the movie worth seeing.
The National Book Award-winning Perkins biography by A. Scott Berg was 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. Brody says a lawsuit and Wolfe’s unsavory political views played a part, and leaving them out does seem a mistake.
Portraying in cinema an intrinsically intellectual and abstract enterprise is difficult (The Man Who Knew Infinity struggles 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 departed before he could accomplish a judicious application of the brakes. Yet, he eventually realized who’d kept him on course, as his moving deathbed letter attests.
Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 48%; audiences: 56%.