'Mary Shelley' and nine illuminating author biopics

09 Jul 2018 BY Joe Ursell

5 mins
Mary Shelley image
Mary Shelley image

Arriving in cinemas this week is Mary Shelley, director Haifaa Al-Mansour's account of the life of the gothic novelist, focusing on her romance with poet Percy Shelley and culminating in the publication of her masterpiece, Frankenstein, when she was just 20 years-old. An impressive first English language feature for Al-Mansour following her acclaimed Saudi drama Wadjda, Mary Shelley is one of a number of films to take inspiration from the lives of the most acclaimed and important writers throughout literary history.

As well as shedding intriguing light on the personalities behind the works, these films can also serve to illuminate the texts themselves, often in unexpected ways, providing a historical context, and adding complexity to our interpretation of particular characters or events. For many, they can serve as the path towards opening up the world of a book in ways the reader may have struggled to reach with the text itself, before allowing them to return to the work with fresh insight and perspective. As such, they can be the ideal companions for studying literature in the classroom. Here are nine other fantastic author biopics we recommend as great films in their own rights, and also valuable materials to accompany any study of their work.

The Happy Prince

In cinemas at the moment is actor Rupert Everett's directorial debut; a retelling of the final years of Oscar Wilde's life, following his release from prison after being incarcerated for "gross indecency". Framed by Wilde's own fable The Happy Prince, as recounted to his two sons from his sick bed, the film follows Wilde as he travels around Europe with his wealth diminished and his health rapidly deteriorating. Dealing with Wilde's complex relationship with his dashing but cruel on-off lover, Bosie, the film is at turns witty, camp and histrionic, but also heartfelt and moving, impressively balancing these contrasting tones.

Saving Mr Banks

Mary Poppins creator P.L. Travers was famously sceptical of Walt Disney's vision for the big-screen version of her beloved character, particularly when talk began to turn to animated sequences and lavish musical numbers. This charming comedy drama tells the story of her experiences in America and the unlikely meeting of minds that resulted in one of the most enchanting family films of all time. But amidst the frivolity is a sadder story about the distressing experiences Travers was witness to as a young child due to the alcoholism of her father.

The Hours

A brilliant novel can have the most extraordinarily profound impact on people's lives, and the truly great impact across generations. This is demonstrated in The Hours which tells the story of three women, in 1923, 1951, and 2001, whose lives are in some way altered through Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway. One of the women is Woolf herself, and the film is an emotional, poignant and proudly melodramatic account of the creative process and the tragedy that can underpin it.

Capote

American writer Truman Capote is captured in all his brilliant, witty and often infuriating genius in an Oscar®-winning performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman. The film focuses specifically on the murderous events that inspired Capote's true-crime masterpiece In Cold Blood, and the complex, often disturbing relationship that developed between Truman and one of the accused. As well as this, the film also captures something of the lifelong friendship and affection between Capote and To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee. The character of Dill in Mockingbird is based on a childhood Truman.

Sylvia

Few 20th century poets have struck a chord with generations of young readers as Sylvia Plath, writer of The Bell Jar and Ariel. This biopic tells the story of her tragically short life, focusing on her often tempestuous relationship with fellow poet Ted Hughes. Publishing her first poem aged just eight years old, Plath struggled with depression for many years, an illness that international success, marriage, and a family all failed to quell. The film is illuminating for any readers studying both Plath and Hughes.

I Am Not Your Negro

This documentary brings to vivid life the words of celebrated and influential writer James Baldwin. In his unfinished book, Remember This House, Baldwin expands on the impact of the murders of three prominent figures in the US civil rights movement: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. The film uses this concept as a starting point to explore Baldwin's ideas and apply them to the present day, assembling a visual archive of America throughout the 20th century and up until today, selecting footage and images to give maximum impact to Baldwin's words.

The Motorcycle Diaries

Revolutionary left-wing hero Che Guevera has inspired generations of young people. No matter where you stand on the man behind the myth, this adaptation of his own written memoirs is an affecting coming-of-age road movie that chronicles his time travelling through Latin America with his friend on a battered motorcycle as a young man. His experiences on the trip informed the direction the rest of his life and politics would take, but the film captures a more universal yearning for adventure, and a developing of empathy that all young people are likely to take inspiration from.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol has enchanted readers and audiences around the world for generations. The novel is a staple of the curriculum, remaining a favourite of school assemblies and bedtime reading. The story has been adapted countless times for television, radio and theatre, with at least twenty film versions, dating back to 1901 and the earliest days of cinema. This the story of how Dickens overcame writer's block to produce one of the most enduring seasonal stories of all time, forever changing the way we celebrate the holiday.

Bright Star

This exquisite drama, directed by Jane Campion and starring Ben Whishaw, centres around romantic poet John Keats and his romance with Fanny Brawne, in the weeks and months before illness brought about his death at the age of just 25. The pleasure of hearing actors of such quality speaking Keats' sublime verse, as well as the story of aching heartache that inspires it, draws even the most reluctant of poetry readers into its spell.

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Film Curator

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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