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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Write Stuff (originally published 2/02)

When an editor at Doubleday suggested to Isaac Asimov that he write an autobiography to mark the occasion of his 200th published book, he initally hesitated. Having written 200 books, he argued, he had scarcely had time to have a life away from the typewriter. Most writers, however, don't write anything close to 200 books in their lives, let alone the 470-odd books that marked Asimov's final tally. Despite all appearances, writers - Asimov included - do have lives. In fact, studying a writer's life can often provide fascinating insights into his or her published works, which is why literary biography is a genre with a long and distinguished history.

Films, too, have often portrayed the lives of literary figures. The recently released "Iris," for example, dramatizes the life of novelist Iris Murdoch, with Kate Winslet as the young Murdoch and Judi Dench as Murdoch toward the end of her life. For a sampling of earlier movie biographies of writers, look for these titles on video.

"The Barretts of Wimpole Street" (1934). Rudolf Besier's play about the courtship and marriage of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett became one of the high-gloss prestige productions for which M-G-M was known in its glory days. Norma Shearer and Fredric March star as Elizabeth and Robert, ably supported by Charles Laughton as Elizabeth's tyrannical father, who is bitterly opposed to their romance.

"The Life of Emile Zola" (1937). Biographical pictures were one of the specialties of the Warner Brothers studio. In particular, Paul Muni, who was under contract to Warners, made something of a personal specialty of the portrayal of historical figures, from Louis Pasteur to Benito Juarez. Here he plays French writer Emile Zola. Understandably, much of the film is dedicated to Zola's famous defense of Alfred Dreyfus, who was wrongly convicted of treason by the French army and sentenced to Devil's Island. The first half, however, shows Zola's rise from poverty and obscurity to wealth and fame, showing how much he was risking by taking up the cause of Dreyfus. Reproduced below is the film's original promotional trailer, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"Julia" (1977). Based on Lillian Hellman's autobiographical "Pentimento," this film parallels Hellman's early successes as a playwright with the early adulthood of her childhood friend, Julia. Hellman (Jane Fonda) admires Julia (Vanessa Redgrave), but worries that Julia's increasingly radical political views will get her into trouble. Eventually they do, and Hellman has to decide whether to stick out her own neck to advance her friend's idealistic crusade.

"Agatha" (1979). In 1926, mystery writer Agatha Christie caused a bit of a stir by disappearing for ten days. She then reappeared, seeming none the worse for her experience, and declined any comment on where she had been. She never did explain her absence, and, so far as anyone knows, took the secret of those ten days with her to her grave. This entertaining film offers a fictional explanation for her whereabouts during that period. Vanessa Redgrave stars as Christie, along with Dustin Hoffman as a journalist who tracks her down. The notion of a real mystery story involving one of our most beloved mystery writers is irresistible, and this entertaining movie makes the most of it.

"Heart Beat" (1980). This interesting and largely ignored little film dramatizes the relationship between Beat Generation novelist Jack Kerouac, Carolyn Robinson, and Neal Cassady, who inspired the character Dean Moriarty in Kerouac's "On the Road." Kerouac is played by John Heard and Cassady by Nick Nolte, but it is Sissy Spacek as Robinson who narrates the film. Robinson is ideally positioned to tell the story by virtue of her romantic involvement with both Cassady and Kerouac. In fact, the film shows them attempting a sort of three-way marriage.

"Cross Creek" (1983). In the late twenties, so this movie tells us, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of "The Yearling," left home and husband behind to move to a Florida farm and find herself. As portrayed by Mary Steenburgen, under the direction of Martin Ritt, she's a sort of distaff Thoreau without the politics. That's not quite how it happened, but it does make for a good story.

In fact, none of these films hesitates to sacrifice historical accuracy on the altar of good storytelling. Still, considering the subject matter, that might be for the best. The principle that good drama trumps good history would almost certainly be endorsed by every writer whose story is told in these films.

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