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Colin Firth and Jude Law star as editor Max Perkins and author Thomas Wolfe in movie 'Genius'

Updated on January 1, 2017
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Thomas Wolfe and Max Perkins powerhouse team

Could legendary American novelist Thomas Wolfe ever have published his first novel Look Homeward Angel without the help of editor Max Perkins? That's one of the key questions the 2016 movie Genius poses from the opening scene in which Wolfe bursts into Perkins' office assuming the super editor has rejected the manuscript of what would morph into his first published novel. Jude Law, who portrays the writer, is emotional as he storms into the already famous editor's office, assuming his masterpiece has been rejected. Colin Firth, who portrays the brilliant editor, calmly informs the volatile author, he has accepted his book for publication.


Max Perkins top editor in America

Max Perkins was already established as the top editor in the United States when the unknown Wolfe stepped into his office at Scribner's Publishing. Perkins had discovered Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald before his new protege dropped a massive manuscript consisting of more than 1,100 pages on his desk. Wolfe was expecting another rejection when Perkins surprised him. The pre-eminent editor of his day would eliminate approximately 66,000 words before the book was published as a bestseller.

Conflict between Wolfe and Perkins

Although Wolfe was understandably grateful to Perkins when the acclaimed editor accepted his book for publication at Charles Scribner's Sons, conflict developed between the two as they worked together. Wolfe not only was opposed to eliminating words from his original draft, but he wanted to add even more. Perkins was aware Wolfe's original manuscript was three times the length of the average novel and insisted cuts had to be made. He was successful in persuading the undisciplined author, and the rest is history as the book made Wolfe's name in literary circles in 1929.

Wolfe's Second Novel

The conflict between Wolfe and Perkins escalated during the next years as editor and writer battled over the length of the writer's second novel, Of Time and the River (1935). Wolfe's original version of his second book was more than four times the length of the uncut version of his first book. It was ten times the length of the average novel at that time in the U.S. Editing was clearly needed. Perkins embraced the challenge of dealing with Wolfe and was deeply saddened when the two parted ways.

Wolfe's lover threatened by Perkins

Costume designer Aline Bernstein was Wolfe's lover and supporter during his early lean years. Portrayed in the movie by Nicole Kidman, she was 18 years older than the author. Bernstein attempted suicide by swallowing pills, according to the movie. In real life, Perkins rang the elevator bell to summon the building's night watchman, who contacted a dermatologist in the same building. The doctor determined all the pills were accounted for.

The movie portrays an ongoing conflict between Perkins and Bernstein. Perkins is intent on spending long hours with his author in an effort to cut words from his books, while Bernstein is bitterly jealous over her reduced role in Wolfe's life.

Movie Must See For Book Lovers

The movie Genius is a 2016 British-American biographical drama film directed by Michael Grandage and written by John Logan, based on the 1978 National Book Award-winner Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg. It was selected to compete for the Golden Bear at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival. Grandage did book lovers a major favor by creating this movie based on the fact it provides the audience with an inside picture of the collaborative effort required in the creation of many great books. While writing has been described as the most "solitary of professions" this film reveals the inner workings of the creation of some of the greatest works of American fiction as being a partnership between author and editor. One may infer that competition for who deserved the lion's share of the credit for Wolfe's second book led to the author's departure from Scribner and Son's. His exit from his first publisher also ruptured Wolfe's relationship with Perkins, who had discovered him. The volatile author signed up with Harper's for the rest of his career. Wolfe reportedly was angry at Perkins for the cuts he made to his manuscript while many observers opined the editor was largely responsible for the success of the book. The fact Perkins received credit from many in the industry only increased Wolfe's displeasure.

Colin Firth excels in role of Max Perkins

British actor Colin Firth delivers an exceptional performance as the reserved and intelligent editor Max Perkins who spends his days in the offices of Scribner's, wielding his red pencil to eliminate unnecessary words from masterpieces such as Hemingway's "A Farewell To Arms." It required a great deal of courage on Perkins' part as he repeatedly put his reputation on the line to exterminate words from many of the masterpieces of America's greatest writers of the twentieth century. The movie portrays him as spending his evenings taking the train home to a spacious home where his wife and five extremely literate daughters await him. Perkins' already extraordinary career takes on yet another dramatic turn on the day his office receives a ragged manuscript entitled "O Lost." The phrase which follows the title seizes the editor's attention. It is the words the "lost wandering lonely souls" that seize his attention.

Those who enjoy reading will find the exchanges in the film between Firth and Law as exhilarating. Logan's script "is invested in the craft of words like few other movies nowadays, even those ostensibly about writers," according to an excellent review by Glenn Kenny. Even those not particularly interested in writing will find the drama created by Nicole Kidman as Wolfe's lover and unofficial patron fascinating. Wolfe is portrayed as the son Perkins and his wife Louise (played by Laura Linney) wanted but never had. The drama increases as Perkins senses he may have transformed the humble writer into an ego giant. The movie provides interesting input from Hemingway (Dominic West) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce).


Movie Fifty Years In Development

This fascinating film about the man (Perkins) who changed the role of editors forever, actually had its genesis nearly half a century ago in the form of A. Scott Berg's 1971 Princeton undergraduate thesis. Berg said, "Before Perkins, book editors had largely mechanical jobs: signing the book and preparing the manuscript for the printer. This one person changed the course of great American literature by working closely with authors to shape their manuscripts."

Berg's odyssey toward Perkins actually began during his undergrad days with an interest in Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby. Berg was known at Princeton as "this Fitzgerald freak going through all the Fitzgerald stuff in the library." His interest soon veered to the editor though. He was fortunate enough to cross paths with English professor and Hemingway biographer Carlos Baker. Baker proved to be an invaluable mentor as he showed his student a drawer full of Hemingway-Perkins correspondence. He warned Berg, "If Mary Hemingway (the author's widow) ever hears about this, I will kill you."

Berg was further aided in his project when the Scribner publishing family gave most of their office archives to the Princeton library. It was there Berg found the gold mine which led directly to Berg's biography. Original letters Max Perkins sent his authors were included in the cache which inspired Berg.

Book Written on Smith-Corona typewriter

Berg's college thesis morphed into a book when one of his professors suggested, "This isn't really a thesis. This is the first draft of a book." After graduation, Berg moved in with his parents in Los Angeles and spent seven years with a Smith Corona portable typewriter writing his biography of Perkins. The book became a bestseller.

Perkins Or Wolfe More Significant?

The question remains at the end of this excellent film as to whether Wolfe ever could've gotten his outstanding manuscript published without the assistance of Perkins. The author had been rejected by every other publisher in town before he darkened Scribner's doorway and dropped the huge project on Perkins' desk. Of course, the book never would've existed without Wolfe's powerful writing. However, one wonders if the masterpiece would've ever found a niche in American literature without Perkins' patient guidance. Lovers of books definitely will enjoy this entertaining film.

Thomas Wolfe, author from Asheville, North Carolina

Thomas Wolfe shown in 1930.
Thomas Wolfe shown in 1930. | Source

Max Perkins.....best editor ever?

Maxwell Perkins....super editor for Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Maxwell Perkins....super editor for Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

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