Genius is a movie about the relationship between writer Thomas Wolfe and editor Maxwell Perkins and is based primarily on A. Scott Berg’s biography, “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius” (Riverhead Trade). Perkins worked for Charles Scribner’s Sons for over 30 years. Like Canada’s Ellen Seligman, Perkins was an exacting editor. Like Seligman, his meticulous attention to story was responsible for many bestsellers and book awards.
The film, however, is rife with little inaccuracies and some bigger ones. Perkins never met Zelda Fitzgerald, much less had her over for supper, and the “deathbed” letter was written before Wolfe’s death (he never regained consciousness). But Colin Firth, as Perkins, reading the letter and taking his hat off for his writer, makes for good drama. In addition, the film confused or conjoined Perkins’s editing of Look Homeward, Angel, and Of Time and the River. At one point, the friend I went with asked: “What book are they talking about now?”
There’s another problem. The late film critic Roger Ebert once said, “Each film is only as good as its villain.” Using Wolfe as the bad guy to Perkins would have destroyed the father/son angle. Using Perkins as the bad guy to Wolfe would have negated the notion that he was a genius. (Despite Jude Law overacting and taking over every scene from Colin Firth, it was supposed to be Perkins’s story.) The film tries to solve the problem by making villains of the two women in their lives — Wolfe’s older lover and Perkins’s wife — but that doesn’t work. The viewer is sympathetic to both characters right from the start.
Dare I say it? The story needed an editor.
What this editor got out of the film was a feel for the editing profession of its time and all the things Perkins stood for, from his dedication to sitting on his hands for the first reading of a manuscript, even if it was a thousand pages, to his use of the tree metaphor to describe to writers what they and he were doing together, to the question he always asked himself, and which every good editor should ask: “Did I make the book better, or did I just make it different?”
I highly recommend Editor to Author: The Letters of Maxwell E. Perkins, edited by John H. Wheelock, for a chance to read about the real Max Perkins working with his authors and to have a better understanding of his relationship (both good and bad) with Wolfe.
Melva McLean’s previous post on the movie Genius: It’s Our Turn at the Box Office.
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