From Text(s) to Screen: Adapting Genius.
A. Scott Berg, while still at Princeton, was inspired to tell the story of the reticent editor who had played a crucial, but largely unrecorded, role in the publication of important twentieth-century American writers. The resulting book, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, was published in 1978--and encountered by John Logan "in '83 or '84" when he was "a starving playwright in Chicago." The book "stayed" with him, and--in the late 1990s--he used money earned from his first film script to fly to Los Angeles to meet Berg and convince him to sell the movie rights outright (qtd. in Matheou). Logan would not trust the script he hoped to write with studio executives; he required ownership. Having determined to "protect" the story of Wolfe and Perkins from Hollywood, Logan worked closely with Berg. Fifteen years on, he had completed the screenplay for Genius (Kellogg).
Shaping a film from pages of print requires serious condensing. In cutting the material down to size, Logan focused on one among Perkins's many relationships with writers: that with Thomas Wolfe. Although Hemingway and Fitzgerald figure prominently on the bookshelf in Perkins's office and in the editor's life, they occupy the film's periphery. Why did Logan choose Wolfe? As a playwright, he "immediately saw a dramatic potential with those two characters, Tom and Max" (qtd. in Kellogg). The contrast between exuberant Southerner and buttoned-up New Englander--and the ferocity of their shared devotion to language and literature--was the stuff of drama. Berg's book highlights the intensity of the work the men did together and the all-but-tragic arc of their friendship. The strength of the bond between Wolfe and Perkins, the pain of their estrangement, and the shocking finality of Wolfe's early death all contribute to the passion written into the screenplay and realized in the film.
More notably relegated to the periphery even than other authors are the women of the story: the film reduces Zelda Fitzgerald to a wordless shade, Aline Bernstein to an embittered paper doll, and Louise Perkins to an artistically stymied housewife. Most striking to the viewer who is also reader is the total erasure of Elizabeth Lemmon. In Berg's biography, Lemmon figures as a central influence, a beacon, the idealized love of Perkins's life: "He adored her. She became an oasis of warmth and understanding in an increasingly difficult marriage" (74). In Genius Lemmon merits no mention, makes no appearance. The marginalizing of women sharpens the focus on Wolfe and on creativity as a masculine preserve. Possessive sexuality (embodied in Nicole Kidman's Aline) and dutiful domesticity (represented in Laura Linney's Louise) are tolerated on screen only as unworthy antagonists, impediments to the male homosocial project.
A writer who chooses to adapt is likely to share the temperament and/or interests of the earlier creator (Hutcheon 105-11). In the case of Genius, Berg's exploration of the creative process struck a responsive chord in Logan: "... Scott's book was the best presentation I'd ever read of what it is to create anything" (qtd. in Matheou). The two men fought through the script as Perkins and Wolfe had fought. In Berg's words, "... we were having the same fights Max and Tom were, and they were not personal; they were about the words.... about making the work better" (qtd. in Kellogg). Having worked on "a couple of plays," including Red, with theatrical director Michael Grandage, Logan realized he had "met [his] artistic brother"--someone to whom he could entrust his script (qtd. in Matheou). In agreeing to direct Genius, Grandage undertook what would be his first film.
By the time Genius found Grandage, its thematic focus was established. As all involved testify, the film explores creativity shared by men who work closely together and hold each other dear (a theme similar to that of Red). In Genius, Grandage saw reflections of the creativity intrinsic to theater. As he has stated, he was attracted by the insight the screenplay offers into "what directors do" (qtd. in Matheou), "the parallels ... between director and editor" (qtd. in Fleming). Immediately, Grandage identified with Max Perkins, who, like a director, was confronted with artistry that needs direction.
Genius was shaped through processes characteristic of British theater. Grandage himself is up front about this. On casting Jude Law, for instance, he says, "I wanted a theatre actor, somebody to dare themselves to be as big and as larger than life [as] it's possible to be ..." (qtd. in Fleming). Crucially also, a preliminary two weeks were devoted to rehearsal--and so to forming an acting ensemble, a concern essential to theater but alien to cinema. Both Grandage and the actors mention the rehearsals as essential to the making of Genius ("Jude"). Additionally, a respect for words, for text, not common to the movie world marks the film--a concern "shown" in numerous shots of text on page, writing made visible. This device, if Variety's Peter Debruge can be credited, did not work for all viewers: "... it's nobody's idea of interesting to watch someone wield his red pencil over the pile of pages that would become Thomas Wolfe's 'Look Homeward, Angel,' ..." It could be argued, however, that the spectacle of words slashed through in red does convey the violence of cutting a work of art.
Beyond palimpsests of book and screenplay, Wolfe's own texts, as absorbed by writers, director, and actors, add depth to Genius. First Berg and then Logan read Wolfe; later Grandage, Jude Law, and Colin Firth prepared for making the film by reading Wolfe's fiction--all the more attracted to it because, in contrast to their familiarity with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, they had known nothing of the writer or his writing ("Jude"). Both Law and Grandage speak of "immersing" themselves in Wolfe's works; Grandage attests to Wolfe's writing having been "always there for us." Law talks about declaiming passages as he worked on his role: "you can hear him if you read his work aloud"; you can learn "what it was like to be in the room with the guy" ("Jude"). This literary bent put the British makers of Genius in tune with Perkins and Wolfe--although perhaps less so with some twenty-first-century moviegoers.
As Linda Hutcheon notes in A Theory of Adaptation, an important dimension is context (141-67). First of all, there is the cultural atmosphere into which the film is launched--the world of the audience. Recently, it has been observed, movies have been "getting bigger, louder, more colorful, and faster, faster, faster" (Allen 624). Thus Genius may be alien to the culture it attempts to engage. A second context to consider is the world inscribed in the film--in the case of Genius : Jazz Age New York. The physical environment in which the characters live and interact is identified by street scenes with old cars, dimly lit interiors, cigarettes. An arresting instance of attention to contextual detail was divulged in Grandage's account of finding an old photograph of a crowd of shod feet walking on a New York sidewalk ("Jude"). In the film this photograph, rain added (possibly because the New York streets had been re-created in Manchester and Liverpool), is brought to life in the opening scenes, shown first in black and white and then gradually infused with muted color. The black and white marks the "pastness" of the action to follow, and the color indicates that what is past to us was present to those whose story unrolls before us.
Social context in Genius is suggested by contrast between posh Manhattan locales and impoverished corners of Brooklyn: notably in a scene showing a long line of unemployed men waiting for handouts of coffee and donuts. Wolfe, newly returned from Europe, pauses at the sight and asks: "What's happening to our country, Max?" This shift from what had been an exuberant mood widens the film's scope from "the making of art" to include concern with the societal collapse of Depression-era America. Given the claims of those involved in the film to having read Wolfe, one assumes that Wolfe's views (and the tension between the political attitudes of Wolfe and Perkins) underlie this scene.
In discussing "adaptation" as the translation of material from one form into another, Hutcheon resurrects the showing/telling dichotomy--movement from the "telling" of text to the "showing" of cinema involves transcoding: "... description, narration, and represented thoughts must be transcoded into speech, actions, sounds, and visual images. Conflicts and ideological differences between characters must be made visible and audible ..." (40). Although "interiority" is often considered "the Terrain of the Telling Mode" (56)--of narrative--Hutcheon argues that even beyond voice-over, "film can and does find cinematic equivalents" (58). Well aware of the difficulties, Michael Grandage has described his challenge as director as "how to convey an internal life on screen" ("Jude").
On the simplest level, "External appearances are made to mirror inner truths" (Hutcheon 58). Max Perkins, for instance, was apparently so taciturn that his attitudes and feelings had to be conveyed in the interstices of speech. Conveniently, his character-driven habits of dress are on record, and it was simple enough to "show" him dressed in well-cut but self-effacing suits and wearing a hat, indoors and out. The hat, though, is grist to the cinematic mill; it impresses itself upon us as viewers much more than as readers, never more than when, at last, Max removes it as he reads Tom's final farewell.
In an essay in a recent issue of The Hudson Review, Brooke Allen praises films that "tell their stories ... at a startlingly unhurried pace." Citing Loving, Moonlight, and Manchester by the Sea, she points to what she hopes may prove a trend: "The Slow Movie movement is bringing silence and reflection back to the moviegoing experience. It is also, in the process, rediscovering the human face" (624). Partaking of such slowness, Genius offers its own rediscovery of the human face in the many closeups that characterize Perkins. The camera frequently lingers on Colin Firth's all but impassive face, revealing the subtle gradations of expression that Perkins allowed himself. (Law's Wolfe, by contrast, is more often photographed so as to allow for impressions of his body in motion.)
Striking in the use of close-up to convey interiority are the almost "talk-less" scenes of Perkins reading the typescript of a revised O Lost as he commutes to Connecticut and back to the city next morning. The camera plays on Max's face as he reads, passing time signaled by landscape whizzing by, sounds of the speeding train, glimpses of light turning to dark, shots of pages from successive sections of the work. Minutes pass with minimal speech on Max's part--and only restrained movement. The camera concentrates on a man concentrating. When at last, "The End" is reached, Firth's face betrays the merest glimmer of Max's satisfaction.
In a film about shaping language and in which major roles are assigned actors accustomed to Shakespeare, voice-over, as used in the sequence described above, is appropriate and effective. Although twice we hear Firth's Max reading Wolfe's work, in most instances the "voice" is Law's: we hear Tom speaking his own written words. Perhaps the most striking voice-over comes near the end: A gravely ill Wolfe is seen laboriously writing, and several scenes later Max opens an envelope from beyond the grave; his eyes scan the enclosed page and we hear the message as if spoken by Tom.
In dramatically realizable contrast to the restrained Perkins, Wolfe attracted Logan because of his size and energy, as "one of those great flamboyant Shakespearean characters ..." (qtd. in Kellogg). In regard to largeness, the decision to cast Jude Law may seem curious. Law's height (somewhere between 5'10" and 6 feet) is, after all, modest relative to Wolfe's overpowering stature. Although bulk often figures in evocations of Wolfe's presence, these theatrical Brits do not concern themselves with literal realism. Other moviemakers might not have been content to forego the visual shock of actual size--to trust acting and the words of the script to convey outsized presence. To the creators of Genius, however, Wolfe's largeness is more of temperament and talent, of intellect and creativity, than of physical dimensions. As Logan envisions him, Wolfe was "a tempest, a whirlwind" (qtd. in Kellogg), and, in contrast to the stillness of Firth's Max, kinetic energy infuses Law's portrayal. Even the writer writing is rendered as movement: the sight of Law at that familiar refrigerator frantically filling pages with scrawl and tossing them aside offers visual correlative to Wolfe's stormy composing process. To Berg, "It's action painting"; to Logan, Wolfe is "the Pollock of writers" (qtd. in Kellogg).
The choice of what is cut out--persons, happenings, ideas--both defines and is defined by any adaptation's thematic thrust. More revealing still are elements that seem invented from whole cloth. A striking interpolated scene takes place in a Harlem jazz club. Besides fleshing out the social context, this scene dramatizes the clash of Perkins's puritanism and Wolfe's presumed hedonism. The depiction of Wolfe as attracted to African American women may awaken echoes of Eugene Gant's experience with Ella Corpening in Look Homeward, Angel. The Corpening episode racializes sensuality as does Monk Webber's harping on Jewishness in his interactions with Esther Jack in The Web and the Rock and You Can't Go Home Again--an obsession relegated to a single remark in Genius.
The lively club scene near the middle of a rather quiet film accentuates the element of music. In the words of Laurence Kramer, music "connects us to the spectacle on screen by invoking a dimension of depth, of interiority borrowed from the response of our own bodies as we listen to the insistent production of rhythms, tone colors, and changes in dynamics" (qtd. in Hutcheon 60). Adam Cork, composer of the Genius score, aspired to create music that could "breathe within both period and place without being slavish to either." In addition to reflecting context, the music needed to function "in the literary world of the story." Cork's solution was two-fold: on the one hand he used a four-note motif, answered by its inversion, to "represent the call and response of writer and editor." On the other, he expressed the temperaments of the two principal characters through contrasting "instrumental colour," assigning the clarinet to Tom and the violin to Max (qtd. in Chamboredon).
Whereas the score functions more or less as atmosphere in earlier parts of the film, in the jazz club it moves front and center. In this scene, music enacts the relationship at the film's heart. Wolfe, anxious to involve Perkins in the spirit of jazz, asks him to name a favorite song for the ensemble to play. Max selects "Flow Gently Sweet Afton," an air familiar as setting for a Christmas carol as well as for the verses by Robert Burns. After the trumpet plays the melody in unadorned solo, the musicians improvise--creating riffs on the tune. Soon there is under-the-table foot-tapping, and then smiles and laughter disrupt Max's usual composure. Thematically, the transformational blending of traditional melody and jazz improv provides the film's Wolfe a correlative to how his own writing works: "The whole thing about jazz is that these fellas are artists. They interpret the song, lettin' the music pour out, riff upon riff, just like I do with words. To hell with standard forms. To hell with Flaubert and Henry James."
In the Harlem scene, music conveys that elusive "interiority" by embodying the conflict of impulse and restraint both between and within Wolfe and Perkins. Echoes of contrasting melodies--"Flow Gently Sweet Afton" and an "imaginary song with imaginary lyrics" associated with "Jude Law's brilliantly manic ... Thomas Wolfe" (Cork, qtd. in Chamboredon)--embody thematic elements throughout the rest of the movie. As the film concludes, the strains of "Flow Gently Sweet Afton" take over the soundtrack, this time in a choral rendition that restores words to music.
Significantly, the evocation of the Afton serves also to underscore the thematic emphasis on the river as emblematic of the search for the father. Early in the film, this connection comes up in conversation at the Perkins family dinner table. As Tom's death draws near, it is stated explicitly by the film's Julia Wolfe: "When Tom collapsed out west, they brought him back here for the surgery. Best place for it, they said. Right here in Baltimore. His father died in this very hospital, just along the hall. It's like Tom's whole life was leading him, like a river, back to his father."
Genius is a "slow movie," a work created over time by men engaging with each other to pay tribute to the creative process. In this cinematic meditation, the makers of Genius have retraced and relived the personal and artistic interaction of Maxwell Perkins and Thomas Wolfe. Whatever the verdicts of reviews or box office, those who made Genius made the movie they wanted to make. The film, like the story it tells, celebrates men making art.
Works Cited and Consulted
Allen, Brooke. "Slow Movies." The Hudson Review, vol. 69, no. 4, Winter 2017, pp. 624-30.
Berg, A. Scott. Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. E. P. Dutton, 1978. Burns, Robert. "Afton Water." Poetry Foundation, www.poetry foundation.org/poems/43799/afton-water.
Chamboredon, JC. "Q&A with Adam Cork (Composer of Genius)" Milan Records, 20 June 2016. milanrecords.com/qa -adam-cork-composer-genius/.
Debruge, Peter. "Film Review: 'Genius.'" Variety, 16 Feb. 2016, variety.com/2016/film/reviews/genius-film-review -1201706276/.
Fleming, Mike, Jr. "'Genius' Helmer Michael Grandage on Filming 'Guys and Dolls' and the Kinship between Lit Editors and Stage Directors." Deadline Hollywood, 13 June 2016, deadline.com/2016/06/michael-grandage-guys-and-dolls -genius-colin-firth-jude-law-nicole-kidman-1201771688/.
Genius. Screenplay by John Logan, directed by Michael Grandage, performance by Jude Law, Colin Firth, Laura Linney, and Nicole Kidman. Desert Wolf Productions, 2016.
Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. 2nd ed., with Siobhan O'Flynn, Routledge, 2013.
"Jude Law, Laura Linney, & Michael Grandage on 'Genius.'" Interviewed by Ricky Camilerri, AOL Build, 6 June 2016, www .buildseries.com/video/575609a5e4b0a8cb35dbcaae/.
Kellogg, Carolyn. "Duos of 'Genius': A. Scott Berg and John Logan, Colin Firth and Jude Law, Maxwell Perkins and Thomas Wolfe." Los Angeles Times, 3 June 2016, www.latimes.com /books/jacketcopy/la-ca-jc-genius-berg-logan-20160523 -snap-story.html.
Matheou, Demetrios. "Berlin Film Festival: Michael Grandage and John Logan Talk 'Genius.'" IndieWire, 16 Feb. 2016, www.indiewire.com/2016/02/berlin-film-festival-michael -grandage-and-john-logan-talk-genius-174964/.
Reeves, Paschal. Thomas Wolfe's Albatross: Race and Nationality in America. U of Georgia P, 1968.
Wolfe, Thomas. Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1929.
--. O Lost: A Story of the Buried Life. Edited by Arlyn Bruc coli and Matthew J. Bruccoli, U of South Carolina P, 2000.
--. The Web and the Rock. Harper & Brothers, 1939.
--. You Can't Go Home Again. Harper & Brothers, 1940.
Anne Zahlan is Professor Emerita at Eastern Illinois University, where she taught twentieth-century British literature, postcolonial fiction, and the literature of the American South. Zahlan has published articles on British and American writers such as V. S. Naipaul, Lawrence Durrell, Vardis Fisher, Anne Tyler, and Thomas Wolfe. Having served as editor of The Thomas Wolfe Review 2001-2013, she was subsequently named Editor Emerita. She is currently vice president of the Thomas Wolfe Society.
Caption: Belles Lettres--Anne R. Zahlan
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||Belles Lettres|
|Author:||Zahlan, Anne R.|
|Publication:||Thomas Wolfe Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2017|
|Previous Article:||Enough to Go all Around: Morton Teicher, 1920-2017.|
|Next Article:||Tracking the Significance of Thomas Wolfe's "Writing and Living" Purdue Speech: A Detective Story.|