A Genius for Literary Friendship

A New Film Shows the Editorial Process on Screen

Occasionally bogged down by clichés and overzealous music cues, Genius, a new film based on A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius and directed by Michael Grandage, manages to find authentic, original, even stirring moments in representing a profession so often done a disservice by Hollywood. The film focuses on the real-life relationship between Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth) — editor of such classics as The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises — and literary “‘genius” Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law), who, during the height of his career in the late 1920s and 30s, was considered a peer of Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. During a discussion following the screening, Berg shared that his book had been optioned even before its publication in 1978. Despite interest from Paul Newman the project was stuck in development for two years, until the script got in the hands of a studio head who killed it after reaching page three, once he learned that it was about a literary editor. Who could blame him for being worried? If depicting writing on film is hard then depicting reading is harder, and editing harder still.

Genius opens with cinematic longing for an older New York: the hats and shoes of working men tromping through, the lighting gray and solemn. Meanwhile Wolfe, as-yet-unpublished, stands against a lamppost, smoking and staring up at the headquarters of Charles Scribner’s Sons. Upstairs Perkins is busy taking his pencil to Hemingway (later played in cameo form by Dominic West, a.k.a. McNulty — see Appendix A. Guy Pearce also appears as F. Scott Fitzgerald — see Appendix B. Both are welcome treats.). The sound of Perkins’ every red line echoes through the dusty hallway, until he is interrupted as a manuscript is slammed onto his desk. According to the courier it’s been rejected by every other publisher in town. (In non-Hollywood reality, it was the literary agent and woman Madeleine Boyd who brought Wolfe to Perkins’ attention). “Is it any good?” Perkins asks. “Good? No,” the courier answers. “But it’s unique.”

Appendix A — Hemingways in Hollywood

Dominic West in Genius (2016), Corey Stoll in Midnight in Paris (2011), Clive Owen in “Hemingway & Gellhorn” (2012)
Chris O’Donnell in In Love and War (1996), Adrian Sparks in Papa Hemingway in Cuba (2015)

A reading montage follows. Perkins at his desk. Perkins on the train. The voiceover — that inelegant bridge between novels and films — begins. Jude Law drawls with his North Carolinian accent, as if it were always the author’s voice that a reader hears in her head: “A stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf door. And of all the forgotten faces… ”

But reading isn’t meant to be filmed. It’s the story inside the book that wants to be depicted, not the face absorbed by it. The rare films that do pull this off (The Princess Bride, The Neverending Story) use reading as transportation. To show someone reading is like showing a clouded mirror, rather than what it reflects.

And yet, if we have to look at a mirror it might as well be the face of an actor who is capable of subtlety. Colin Firth’s expression is implacable yet rapt as he takes in the words. Then, as if to confirm that the physical world still exists, he turns to the look out the window. As a reader who has been engrossed, I know this feeling. Coming up for air. He gazes briefly out, then Wolfe’s voice starts up again and Perkins turns back to the page as if caught, or pulled. That moment — the text of the novel chiming in a beat before the eye — is one of the better depictions of reading on film, the grown-up version of the sandwich that gets saved for later in The Neverending Story.

In Perkins’ introduction to the 1957 edition of Look Homeward, Angel — the novel submitted to Colin Firth at the beginning of the film — he characterized Wolfe as a prolific writer, one who “knew that cutting was necessary. His whole impulse was to utter what he felt and he had no time to revise and compress.” Grandage and screenwriter John Logan are savvy enough to take full advantage of the editorial relationship that forms between Perkins and Wolfe. For the audience this means another montage, as editor and writer tackle the opening passage to Wolfe’s second novel and only American bestseller, Of Time and the River. Perkins describes the process in his aforementioned introduction: “So then began a year of nights work, including Sundays, and every cut, and change, and interpretation, was argued about and about.” Grandage, a theater director making his cinematic debut, stages these arguments in locations across the city: in bars, on streets, even the platform at Grand Central Station. There are more shots of red pencil. But these marks matter, we know, because they are the hard earned results of a rigourous discussion about language and narrative, one operating at a much higher level than Finding Forrester’s “Punch the keys!”

First edition, 1929

As for depicting the writing process, Grandage and Logan were fortunate in their choice of author: the physicality of Wolfe’s habits offer them far more material than most. Unlike Proust, who famously wrote from bed (and whose In Search of Lost Time, incidentally, Wolfe sought to emulate with Of Time and the River), Wolfe, at six foot five, used his refrigerator as a standing desk, writing atop it in longhand. Shots of him scribbling away over the icebox are something to behold, as is the eventual deterioration of his friendship with Perkins. Like everything Wolfe does in Genius, their falling out is impassioned, exuberant, and drunken. Reflecting after Wolfe’s death, Perkins blames the riff on the dedication Wolfe wrote to Of Time and the River, which he made out to “a great editor and a brave and honest man.” According to Perkins, this had the effect of

“[giving] shallow people the impression that [he] could not function as a writer without collaboration, and one critic even used some such phrases as, ‘Wolfe and Perkins — Perkins and Wolfe, what way is that to write a novel’ … No writer could possibly tolerate the assumption … that he was dependent as a writer upon anyone else. He had to prove to himself and to the world that this was not so.”

Their brewing confrontation eventually comes to a head after Wolfe berates F. Scott and the ailing Zelda Fitzgerald at a dinner party, finally pushing Perkins, a decent and respectful man, over the edge. (As Nan Graham — former Editor-in-Chief at Scribner’s and its current Senior Vice President and Publisher — quipped in the post-screening discussion, “There are rules that editors live by: make friends of your authors but don’t make authors of your friends; don’t publish spouses. And, I would add, don’t invite competing authors to the same dinner party.”)

Appendix B — Fitzgerald in Hollywood

Gregory Peck in Beloved Infidel (1959), Richard Chamberlain in The Last of The Belles (1974), Jeremy Irons in Last Call (2002)
Guy Pearce in Genius (2016), Tom Hiddleston in Midnight in Paris (2011)

Perhaps the most interesting question Genius raises comes from the comparison between Perkins and Mrs. Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), a married woman who also supported Wolfe’s writing and with whom the author had a turbulent affair. (Although she was twenty years Wolfe’s senior, in the film they appear to be the same age.) In her final scene Kidman recovers a chilling performance from what has been, despite her character’s significance to his life and writing, a disappointingly one-dimensional role. During an unstable visit to the Scribner’s office she sums up the dedication she was given in Look Homeward, Angel as a “Thank you and good-bye,” warning Perkins that his will amount to the same. The question is whether Perkins, despite his personal relationship to Wolfe, can find stronger footing in his professional capacity as editor and literary gatekeeper, or if, like Bernstein, he will be locked into a role of servitude and end up abandoned.

Time turned out to prove Bernstein right. Wolfe ultimately left Scribner’s for Harper, though he died of tuberculosis of the brain before his third novel could be published. In a poetic and historical twist — omitted from the film — it was the spurned Perkins who wound up editing Wolfe’s posthumous manuscripts.

In the last half century Thomas Wolfe has faded from prominence, his work is rarely taught in college or even graduate classrooms, and many confuse him with his white-suite wearing homonym Tom Wolfe. After the film ended, my viewing companion leaned over said, “That ending was a real shock for me. I expected Wolfe to grow old and write The Bonfire of the Vanities.” Though Genius may inspire some, including me, to revisit Wolfe’s work, it’s Maxwell Perkins that emerges as the story’s true hero, the platonic ideal of an editor: firm yet compassionate, brilliant and devoted. Near the end of the film Wolfe shows up on Fitzgerald’s stoop to apologize, and Fitzgerald admonishes him for abandoning Perkins. “The man has a genius for friendship,” he says. A writer should be so lucky.

Genius opened Friday, June 10 in Manhattan.

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