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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