In his essay on Richard Eyre’s Iris Murdoch biopic Iris for the Guardian, Martin Amis claims that ‘very broadly, literature concerns itself with the internal, cinema with the external.’ These supposed opposites meet, on occasion, when a film is made to dramatise writers’ lives. As Dome Karukoski’s Tolkien is released this week, an evaluation of how other recent author biopics have fared in representing the ‘internal’ world of literature is due.
The first hurdle faced by biopics is how to entertain without offending an audience with invented scenarios. We are fascinated by the behind-the-scenes lives of all our cultural obsessions, and the personal lives of authors can come to feel like public possessions just as much as their works. It is this sense of ownership that can risk conflict over cinematic adaptations of real lives. Tolkien has made headlines after the author’s estate separated itself from the film, releasing a statement affirming they ‘did not approve of, authorise or participate in the making of this film.’ More than a dismissal, the statement reads as an acknowledgement of the tension between fact and fiction inevitable in the world of the biopic. Artistic license is bound to play its part, because biopics tread a tricky line between fact and fiction, not promising anything too truthful, but still “based on”, sometimes “inspired by”, true events.
Some biopics are more fantastical than others: Channel 5’s made-for-TV film Agatha and the Truth of Murder imagines what happened when detective novelist Agatha Christie disappeared for eleven days in 1926. It is a work of total fiction, representing a beloved literary figure without any pretense of biographical fact. For this reason, it would be hard for Agatha to offend anyone. The premise works for another reason, too: Christie’s fiction is wonderfully easy to televise. Many of us know her work from their endless adaptations rather than the original novels. Detective fiction is fun like that; it is plot, not style, that draws us in, and a film can bring that kind of story alive with ease. Telling a truthful story might be important to a biopic’s reception, but the way it represents its subject’s writing is just as central to a story about the written word.
Not all writing, or writers, are easy to bring to the screen. Eyre’s Iris attempts both to celebrate Murdoch’s writing and to represent her life with fair adherence to truth. The film is based on Murdoch’s husband John Bayley’s memoir of their marriage. Since we see her and her writing through her husband’s eyes, the film does not attempt to delve too deeply into her philosophical works or career as a novelist. Iris showcases Murdoch’s eloquence and intellect in short scenes depicting her speeches and interviews, but her identity as a writer is conveyed principally through Bayley’s sense of a ‘secret world’ that she inhabits, from which he is cut off. The idea that Murdoch retreats into a separate and private place is Bayley’s justification for her secretiveness with her work, but later becomes a metaphor for her illness – Murdoch was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1997, and died two years later. The tragic irony of a writer and philosopher losing her ability to think clearly is at the film’s heart, set bathetically alongside flashbacks to her youthful romances and literary origins.
Iris deals with the conflict between, in Amis’s terms, the internal and external worlds of writing and film by establishing Iris’s mysterious internal life as an almost magical gift, using which she creates enchanting worlds and ideas. Her writing need not be explicitly described, portrayed or adapted, since we see her and her work through her husband’s eyes – a man who, for all his love for her, is only ever on the outside. Eyre presents writing as a mythical and poetic art, in perfect contrast to the fragility of our physical lives.
Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is as much about corporeal limitations as it is about the freedom of the mind. The film is a biopic of the French journalist and author Jean-Dominique Bauby, who developed locked-in syndrome after a stroke that left his body completely paralysed apart from his left eye. The film is an adaptation of Bauby’s memoir of the same title, which he dictated by blinking, via a system developed by his speech therapist. Much of the film is shot from Bauby’s perspective, the camera lens as the single eye that connects him to the external world. Between the swaying images of nurses’ faces and hospital scenes, we see into Bauby’s fantastic imagined worlds: ice caps collapsing into polar waters; dramatic aerial views of misty mountains; passionate moments with his girlfriend in Martinique. ‘Other than my eye, two things aren’t paralysed. My imagination, and my memory. They’re the only ways I can escape from my diving bell. I can imagine anything, anybody, anywhere.’ Bauby wrote about the events of his life, but also about the internal worlds he visualised as an escape from his paralysis. Cinema is the perfect medium to give life to his words, and Schnabel’s film imagines beautifully what Bauby might have been seeing in his thoughts.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly explores the internal by exploring the point of view of someone trapped within their body, while Eyre’s shows its protagonist’s internal world through the eyes of an outsider trying to find a way in. Bennett Miller’s 2005 biopic Capote depicts the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s during the period of writing his ‘non-fiction novel’ In Cold Blood. The book emerged as Truman Capote became fascinated by murderer Perry Smith after reading an article about the brutal murder of a family of four in Kansas. The relationship between writer and killer forms the central part of the narrative, while Capote begins work on a book that would eventually take him six years to complete. As Capote opens up to Smith, the audience are given a view into the inner workings of his charismatic but troubled mind. At the end, an intertitle ominously claims that after In Cold Blood Capote ‘never finished another book.’ It is a film about what Capote sacrifices in his fixation on the story, but also shows how his interest in the crime and the perpetrator leads him to write a book that became incredibly successful. In one scene, Capote reads to a vast audience from the work in progress, smiling coyly as he receives a standing ovation from the crowd. The beauty of Capote’s writing, featured in this way, is notable in contrast to the brutality of the crimes. Miller gives us plenty of context, so it is easy to recognise the impact In Cold Blood must have had. Capote was obsessed with the internal workings of Perry Smith, but the biopic effectively chooses to focus on the external effects of this obsession rather than its intimate details.
These films share a balance between adaptation and biography in their narratives, but they also all feature memorable lead performances. We learn more about Capote’s writing from Philip Seymour Hoffman’s wonderful performance than we do from the brief extracts we hear in the film. Iris Murdoch’s ideas are exhibited in much of her dialogue with others, but again, the dual performances of Kate Winslet and Judi Dench are the real focus. It is clear that being a great writer may not be enough for someone to make a film about your life – you have to be a rather unusual individual in your own right to warrant 90 minutes of screen time. Jean-Dominique Bauby’s astonishing situation, and patience and commitment to telling his story, are of course as central to his biopic as his writing. There are many more biopics of authors out there: Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, John Keats, Allen Ginsberg, Oscar Wilde, Pablo Neruda and many others have had their stories told to greater or lesser acclaim. We need, though, more biopics about writers of colour, whose lives are undoubtedly stories worth telling without any need for fabrication or embellishment.
It will be interesting to see how Karukoski brings J.R.R. Tolkien to the screen in light of these other biopics’ approaches to storytelling. His novels have already proved to be highly adaptable for cinema, but it may be that Middle Earth pulls focus away from its author, whose personal life may not turn out to be as riveting – unless the screenwriters have chosen to inject some fantasy into it after all.