Bloats from a scandal
Why stuffy author biopics are just barrelscraping exercises dressed up in tweed
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