Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

From Text(s) to Screen: Adapting Genius

Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

From Text(s) to Screen: Adapting Genius

Article excerpt

"Genius is about people actually making art," states John Logan, author of the film's screenplay (qtd. in Kellogg). This cinematic exploration of the synergy between Thomas Wolfe and Maxwell Perkins took shape through a succession of collaborative adaptations. The metamorphosis of text--written, typed, printed--into cinematic sights and sounds came about through the masculine creativity that is the heart of 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. …

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