Bloats from a scan­dal

Why stuffy au­thor biopics are just bar­relscrap­ing ex­er­cises dressed up in tweed

The Guardian - The Guide - - Film - Steve Rose

You’ve read the books, you’ve seen the movies, you’ve bought the merch, now see the con­sid­er­ably less in­ter­est­ing life story of the writer be­hind … You could in­sert pretty much any lit­er­ary clas­sic next and chances are a pres­tige biopic has been made about the au­thor. In re­cent years, we’ve had Renée Zell­weger as Beatrix Pot­ter, Johnny Depp as JM Barrie, Anne Hath­away as Jane Austen and He­lena Bon­ham Carter as Enid Bly­ton. We’ve even had Life­time’s pre­dictably shonky Magic Beyond Words: The JK Rowl­ing Story.

You can see the ap­peal of lit­er­ary biopics. They come with built-in brand recog­ni­tion, an es­tab­lished fan­base and a vague lus­tre of high­brow re­spectabil­ity and awards-friend­li­ness (as with Ni­cole Kid­man’s Virginia Woolf). They are also another ex­cuse to re­visit his­toric Bri­tain at its most jolly de­cent and im­pe­ri­ally mighty, which never hurts. But in­vari­ably these biopics end up as heav­ily fic­tion­alised tales of imag­i­na­tion tri­umph­ing over per­sonal ad­ver­sity, du­ti­fully tick­ing off the events that in­spired the fic­tion. All the bet­ter if they’re a chil­dren’s au­thor since you can in­cor­po­rate a cute kid and jazz up the vi­su­als with flights of fan­tasy.

That’s pretty much what we get with the im­mi­nent Good­bye

Christo­pher Robin, which stars Domh­nall Glee­son as AA Milne, re­turn­ing from the first world war and work­ing his trau­mas into ther­a­peu­tic ur­sine whimsy. It prom­ises to be a sim­i­lar story with the Ni­cholas Hoult-star­ring biopic of JRR Tolkien, a man whose decades at an Ox­ford writ­ing desk were some­what at odds with his Mid­dle-earth sagas in the ex­cite­ment stakes. For all their tes­ta­ments to the power of the imag­i­na­tion, these movies of­ten rep­re­sent the op­po­site: the scrap­ing of the bar­rel of English lit­er­a­ture. Like the em­pire, our sto­ries once held sway over the world, but they’ve now been adapted and rein­ter­preted so many times we’re sick of hear­ing them.

Fewer more so than Win­nie the Pooh. Af­ter it ac­quired the rights in the 1960s, Dis­ney squeezed as much honey as pos­si­ble out of poor Pooh, via scores of movies, TV shows, cud­dly toys, lunch­boxes – you name it. All this teed up a decades-long le­gal bat­tle be­tween Dis­ney, the Milne fam­ily and the rights-hold­ing Slesinger fam­ily which got so toxic that peo­ple talked about “the curse of Pooh”. Fam­ily feuds, cor­po­rate skul­dug­gery, soft toys com­ing to life: for­get sen­ti­men­tal pe­riod drama, Win­nie the Pooh has all the mak­ings of a juicy hor­ror film. Now that’s the movie I

want to see

Good­bye Christo­pher Robin is in cinemas on 29 Septem­ber

Bio de­grad­ing Johnny Depp as JM Barrie; Domh­nall Glee­son as AA Milne; Renée Zell­weger as Beatrix Pot­ter

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