Genius: It’s More Complicated than That

I loved watching Genius, the new film about the relationship between novelist Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) and his legendary editor Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth). At the same time, I wasn’t completely satisfied with it.

I admit that this lack of satisfaction may not be entirely the fault of the movie itself. I am a Thomas Wolfe fan and scholar and have loved his work for almost 30 years, so it’s possible that nothing less than about a 9-hour movie would have been enough to satisfy me.

Perhaps my overall reaction to the film can best be summed up by a comment I kept making to my wife as she and I sat in a coffee shop right after the movie and discussed our responses. She has not read Wolfe or A. Scott Berg’s book on which this movie is based, so as she mentioned scenes that stood out to her and asked if that’s what really happened, I kept saying, “Well, yes, but it was more complicated than that.”

Any film on this subject would have to oversimplify some things, of course. Perkins became one of the greatest editors of 20th century American literature, as he helped establish not only Wolfe’s career but also that of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and others. He was a complex figure, as Berg’s book, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, brilliantly shows. Wolfe was equally complex, and the relationship between him and his editor, both when it was working well and when it was crumbling, is hard to capture in any movie of a couple of hours. Throw in other elements such as Wolfe’s tempestuous affair with his lover Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), and Perkins’ relationships with his wife and daughters, and you have enough material for a min-series rather than a movie.

Still, even though as I watched it I kept thinking, “Wait, slow down, there’s more to show about that incident,” I still enjoyed the movie overall and strongly recommend it. Here are a few moments that stand out:

• The opening 10 minutes alone made are worth the price of the whole movie for me. An editor plops the huge manuscript of Wolfe’s O Lost (which would eventually become Look Homeward, Angel) onto Perkins’ desk and asks him to read it. Perkins promises to give it a quick look, but in the following minutes, as we hear voice-over passages from the book, Perkins is mesmerized by the novel over the next few days as he rides the train, ignores the greetings of his family at home, or sits at his desk and combs through page after page. The beauty of the writing itself is what Perkins was masterful at recognizing, and this scene captures it.

• Colin Firth gives the best performance in the film. He embodies Perkins’ reserved but in-control personality that served him so well as an editor and that comes through so forcefully in Berg’s book. Perkins was able to modulate his responses to the needs of the very different personalities of his authors. He did not participate in the foibles of those men, but he didn’t turn away from them because of those flaws either. He was the true father-figure, strong and steady.

• Even though some of the factual details of how Wolfe and Perkins worked together on Of Time and the River are altered, the film brings to life the creative collaboration of these two men as they spend hours arguing and editing and wrestling the manuscript into shape.

• Even some of the small moments make the film memorable—stacks of Look Homeward, Angel appearing in the bookstore window at the novel’s release, Perkins reading the book to his daughter when she misses Tom, the moving reading of Wolfe’s final letter to Perkins (even though some details of its composition and delivery are altered).

For many of us who love Wolfe’s writing, our hope has been that this film would bring Wolfe the renewed attention we think his work deserves. We hope readers will want to go out and read one of his novels. I believe this movie may have that effect. As the film ended, I heard a woman behind us tell her friend she hadn’t read any of Wolfe’s novels, but she sounded as if she wanted to. I hope she does. I was ready to go home and read one of them again myself.

17 thoughts on “Genius: It’s More Complicated than That

  1. I’m glad that the movie got some things right, and that you endorse it, Joe. I certainly want to see it now. I loved reading _Look Homeward, Angel_ as a grad student, and also his short story, “The Lost Boy.” My uncle, growing up in the 1930s, loved Wolfe’s novels and influenced me to pay attention to him. I hope more people read his work now.

  2. Tom, you should definitely see it. I think you would especially enjoy the way it shows the creative process with two brilliant minds working together. It may make you want to read even more Wolfe too!

  3. Excellent review. I’m probably too old to get through the Wolfe canon again, though I gobbled it up enthusiastically as an undergrad back in the Middle Ages. But your review kindles that desire, though I know Wolfe was right that “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Thanks for the refresher.

    • Thank you, Donn. I just started reading “The Web and the Rock” again, which I haven’t read for a long time. I read a few pages here and there whenever I have time. It is really powerful. For me, Wolfe never gets old.

  4. A fine and balanced review, Joe, and one that should stimulate all people, not simply Wolfeans, to see the movie. Jean and I plan to go see it now that it is showing in our neighborhood theater. After so many basically negative reviews, it is refreshing to read one that compliments as well as criticizes meaningfully. Thanks, Joe.

  5. I’m not the literary genius by any stretch of anyone’s imagination, but I read about Max Perkins 25 years ago. Your review gives credence to the impression I developed way back when. The impression grew to the point where I started looking for a Max. Don’t know that I’ve “found” him/her yet, but the challenge keeps me going. Thanks for reviewing this movie. It will make a good choice over most of Hollywood’s offerings.

    • Thanks for your comment, Warren. I think the Max Perkins type of editor is rare today. Most editors simply don’t have the time to do what Perkins did for Wolfe. That’s why Wolfe was so fortunate to have someone like Perkins championing his work and helping him bring it to fruition. I do think we can still find good mentors among the editors and agents out there, but few of them will be quite so hands-on as Perkins.

  6. Great drama! Not perfect (especially the script), but the acting is excellent and the costumes and sets are good too. It was really jarring listening to Jude Law, though- I felt like he did a poor version of a Southern accent- his accent sounded like a British accent trying to be American. Other than that, good movie! 4 stars. thanks for the article

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