The Editor's Epic: Maxwell Perkins Makes For An Unlikely Big-Screen Hero

Jun 11, 2016
Originally published on June 11, 2016 10:49 am

Screenwriter John Logan has worked on some big films. From Skyfall to Gladiator, Logan has learned well how the movie business works. So he knew his latest film, Genius, would be a tough sell.

"This movie is the worst Hollywood pitch in the history of the world," he admits.

That's because it's about editing books.

The idea began germinating in the 1980s, when John Logan read A. Scott Berg's biography of Maxwell Perkins, the editor famous for discovering Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But the screenwriter was more fascinated by the relationship between Perkins and a brash young writer from North Carolina, Thomas Wolfe.

"Max Perkins was a buttoned-down staunch, quiet, controlled Yankee. Thomas Wolfe was an unbridled tiger, ragingly dramatic and operatic with every emotion he ever felt," Logan says. "So put those two into a room together, and I think you are going to get drama."

Logan arranged to meet Scott Berg and eventually told the biographer he wanted to buy his book. Before agreeing to sell the book to the screenwriter, though, Berg ordered him to read all of of Wolfe's novels starting with Wolfe's first, Look Homeward, Angel.

Wolfe is not widely read now, says Berg, but back in the '30s he was a literary giant.

"Thomas Wolfe was considered the Dostoevsky of America. This was the new Walt Whitman, This was the greatest American voice writing."

The problem was, Thomas Wolfe couldn't stop writing. His manuscripts were handwritten and thousands of pages long. If ever a writer needed an editor, says Berg, it was Thomas Wolfe.

"I think it would have been utterly impossible for Thomas Wolfe to have edited himself, and I don't just mean words on paper. He could not edit himself in life. He was bigger than life, he ate too much, he drank too much, he talked too much. Everything was too much, he was totally uncensored."

In the film, when Wolfe, played by Jude Law, meets Colin Firth's Perkins for the first time, the manuscript that would eventually become Look Homeward, Angel has already been turned down by a lot of publishers. Even so, the author signals his resistance to making any changes — a resistance Perkins eventually breaks down.

The two eventually begin the arduous task of shaping Wolfe's book into the best-selling novel it would become.

"Thomas Wolfe said every time that red pen or pencil cuts across the page, it's like opening a vein," Logan says. "It was a very painful process to him."

Logan wanted to bring the creative process to life. He wanted the audience to understand what it is like to edit a book.

"I find editing and books and paper and pencils and pens very exciting, very sexy, because that's what I do for a living. And I know what it is to open a pad and take out a pen and cross out a line. To me, there's something visceral and passionate and emotional about that."

The film condenses the editing process into a fluid montage of scenes that show Wolf and Perkins working on the book in his office, in bars, in trains. It's a scene that really captures the editing process, biographer Scott Berg says.

"You are actually able to see thinking on the screen. And you see how literary choices are made, and you see them right before your eyes and it's very exciting," Berg says.

Both Berg and Logan hope this film will lead to renewed interest in Wolfe's work. He is a challenging writer, says Berg, but well worth the effort.

"If you believe in the romance of literature," says Berg, "you will take Thomas Wolfe with you for the rest of your life."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Screenwriter John Logan has worked on some big films, from "Gladiator" to the James Bond movie "Skyfall," so he knew his latest film, "Genius," was going to be a tough sell.

JOHN LOGAN: This movie is the worst Hollywood pitch in the history of the world.

SIMON: That's because it's about editing books. But he thought the story of a feisty relationship between an editor and a writer still had some cinematic qualities. NPR's Lynn Neary reports.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: The idea for "Genius" began germinating in the 1980s, when John Logan read A. Scott Berg's biography of Maxwell Perkins, the editor famous for discovering Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But the screenwriter was more fascinated by the relationship between Perkins and a brash young writer from North Carolina, Thomas Wolfe.

LOGAN: Max Perkins was a button-down, staunch, quiet, controlled Yankee. Thomas Wolfe was an unbridled tiger, ragingly theatrical and operatic with every emotion he ever felt, you know, fully and dramatically. So put the two of those people in one room for two years editing a book, I think you're going to get something like drama.

NEARY: Logan arranged to meet Scott Berg and eventually told the biographer he wanted to buy his book. Before agreeing to sell the book to the screenwriter, Berg ordered him to read all of Wolfe's novels, starting with his first, "Look Homeward, Angel." Wolfe is not widely read now, says Berg, but back in the 1930s he was a literary giant.

SCOTT BERG: Thomas Wolfe was considered the Dostoyevsky of America. This was the new Walt Whitman. This was the greatest American voice writing.

NEARY: The problem was Thomas Wolfe couldn't stop writing. His manuscripts were handwritten and thousands of pages long. If ever a writer needed an editor, says Berg, it was Thomas Wolfe.

BERG: I think it would've been utterly impossible for Thomas Wolfe to have edited himself. And I don't mean just his words on paper. He could not edit himself in life. He was bigger than life - he ate too much, he drank too much, he talked too much. Everything was too much. He was totally uncensored.

NEARY: In the film, when Wolfe meets Perkins for the first time, the manuscript that will eventually become "Look Homeward, Angel" has already been turned down by a lot of publishers. Even so, the author signals his resistance to making any changes.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GENIUS")

JUDE LAW: (As Thomas Wolfe) You can't kill the deep roots by cutting off a few top branches. And the roots go deep, Mr. Perkins. And they are unassailable.

COLIN FIRTH: (As Max Perkins) Mr. Wolfe, we intend to publish your book.

NEARY: With those words, Perkins and Wolfe begin the task of shaping Wolfe's book into the best-selling novel it would become. Screenwriter Logan says it was an arduous journey.

LOGAN: Thomas Wolfe said every time that red pen or pencil cuts across the page, it's opening his vein. That's what he likened it to. It was a very painful process for him.

NEARY: Creating anything is difficult, says Logan. And the screenwriter wanted to bring the creative process to life. He wanted the audience to understand what it's like to edit a book.

LOGAN: I find editing and books and paper and pencils and pen very exciting, very sexy because that's what I do for a living, you know? And I know what it is to open a pad and take out a pen and cross out a line. And I - to me, there's something visceral and passionate and emotional about that.

NEARY: The film condenses the editing process into a fluid montage of scenes that show Wolfe and Perkins working on the book in his office, in bars, in trains.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GENIUS")

LAW: (As Thomas Wolfe) Every word matters.

FIRTH: (As Max Perkins) No, it doesn't.

LAW: (As Thomas Wolfe) They're vital.

FIRTH: (As Max Perkins) Nonsense.

LAW: (As Thomas Wolfe) Vital.

FIRTH: (As Max Perkins) You're losing the plot. He's falling in love. What was it like the first time you fell in love, Tom? Was it cornstalk yellow and pompous Chesterfield?

LAW: (As Thomas Wolfe) It was a lightning bolt.

FIRTH: (As Max Perkins) And that's what it should be, a lightning bolt, save all the thunder.

LAW: (As Thomas Wolfe) I got you. Cut that. Cut that.

NEARY: That scene, says Scott Berg, really does capture the editing process.

BERG: You're actually able to see thinking on the screen. And you see how literary choices are made. And you see them right before your eyes, and it's very exciting.

NEARY: Both Berg and Logan hope this film lead to renewed interest in Wolfe's work. He's a challenging writer, says Berg, but well worth the effort.

BERG: If you believe in the romance of literature, you will take Thomas Wolfe with you for the rest of your life.

NEARY: Reading Thomas Wolfe, says Berg, will change the way you look at the world. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.