Considering The Poetic Biopic

It’s a good time to be a dead poet with aspirations for movie fame. Apparently Hollywood has decided that nothing says “serious filmmaking” like biopics about famous poets. Movie studios appear to be hopeful that the combination of film and poetry will also result in a shower of awards – and, in some cases, they might be right and the awards well deserved.

Translating poets’ lives into dramatic film might not be an idea that immediately leaps to mind – after all, poetry is a quiet, contemplative business, not particularly engaging to the outside eye. But, the figure of the tortured, brooding poet still has enough cultural cache to be of interest. In lieu of explosions and car chases, one might expect alcoholism, broken hearts, sordid love affairs, and the thrilling drama of writer’s block.

In recent years, there has been a spurt of films about dead British poets, in particular:

  • Pandaemonium (2000), about Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth
  • Sylvia (2003), about Sylvia Plath (whose Britishness is debatable, I admit)
  • The Edge of Love (2008), about Dylan Thomas

None of these films were particularly well reviewed, and The Edge of Love was excoriated by critics.

The new film, Bright Star, directed by Jane Campion, about the relationship between John Keats and Fanny Brawne, appears to succeed where its predecessors have failed. This lovely film captures something about the beauty of Keats’ poems (and poetry as an art form) without becoming a didactic lesson on “why Keats matters.” Campion brings a light touch to the material and allows Keats’ counterpart, the fascinating Miss Brawne, to show as much depth of character and spirit as the poet himself. (View the trailer.)

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The internet is abuzz with rumors about another forthcoming poetic biopic: a film about Robert Burns, starring Gerald Butler.

And, in case the Americanists are feeling neglected, coming next year: a film titled Howl about Allen Ginsburg, starring James Franco.

While I continue to bemoan the lack of a great film about Walt Whitman (and have to make do with Levis’ commercials and films borrowing their titles from his poetry), there is a lot of interesting work being done to bring the lives of poets to life for the modern movie-watching audience.

For a much more thorough discussion of poets on film go to “Writers and Poets on Film” (2007) from GreenCine or Stacey Harwood’s Poetry in Movies: A Partial List” from Poetry.org.

– Desiree Henderson

Published in:Desiree Henderson |on September 27th, 2009 |No Comments »

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