When she walks into an imposing library, Meryl Streep’s Sophie in Sophie’s Choice (1982) asks for helping in finding the works of Emile Dickens. The snooty librarian barely disguises his contempt when he tells her the author she has in mind is Emily Dickenson.
The reclusive American poet returns to cinemas this week, but this time in her own biopic, A Quiet Passion. She’s not the only one. Pablo Larraín’s Neruda, the story of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s time on the run because of his membership of the Communist Party, is released on the same day. It’s not his first appearance on the big screen: Oscar winner Il Postino (1994) looked at his time in exile on a Sicilian island and his poems appear in a number of films, most notably Anthony Minghella’s Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990), as well as in Neruda itself.
Writing may be a solitary profession, but the more colourful authors have proved to be natural subjects for movie makers. The flamboyant appeal of Truman Capote was so strong that two films, both about the writing of In Cold Blood, were made at much the same time. Bennett Miller’s Capote (2005) was first out of the blocks and got all the attention, mainly because of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s extraordinary performance as the author, which won him almost every award going that year.
By the time Infamous (2006) arrived, there was little interest in another film about the notorious murder of the Cutter family in 1959. It was almost overlooked and, while as a film it doesn’t live up to its predecessor, Toby Jones’ Truman Capote gave Hoffman more than a run for his money. Daniel Craig also made a pre-Bond appearance as one of the killers, Perry Smith, with whom Capote was depicted in both films as having formed a relationship.
While a good handful of Charles Dickens’ novels have been made to the big screen – Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, David Copperfield, numerous versions of A Christmas Carol and Little Dorrit (Christine Edzard’s two parter) are just a few – Dickens himself has been surprisingly absent. On stage, actor Simon Callow cornered the market in playing him but, despite Dickens’ social conscience and complicated private life, he wasn’t the subject of a film until 2013 in The Invisible Woman. Although Ralph Fiennes had intended just to direct, he was persuaded to play Dickens in the story of his relationship with the young actress, Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones). Their affair was a closely guarded secret: had it become public at the time, it would have destroyed both his reputation and career. Even his discarded wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlon), kept it quiet.
The Beat Poets of the 50s were nowhere near as discreet. Jack Kerouac’s most famous piece, On The Road, was made into the film of the same name in 2012 and The Big Sur followed in 2013. The man himself was portrayed by Jack Houston, in a comparatively minor role in Kill Your Darlings (2013), alongside Daniel Radcliffe and the chameleon-like Ben Foster as Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs respectively. They were all brought together in their student days in the 40s because of a murder in John Krokidas’ highly charged directorial debut. It wasn’t the first time Ginsberg had been brought to the screen: James Franco played him in Howl (2010).
There’s plenty more examples. Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters (1985): Julia (1977) with Lillian Hellman helping a friend in Nazi Germany (Hellman herself put in a shadowy appearance in the film): and Wilde (1997), the second movie about Oscar Wilde’s relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas and its disastrous consequences. And there are many, many more. Some are about their personal lives, some concentrate on their work and some refuse to be categorised. But when it comes to being the subject for a movie, authors are most definitely the write stuff.
Neruda and A Quiet Passion are both out now in select UK cinemas.