Let’s be clear, I’m a very intermittent cinema goer and I was never a big Elvis fan, but sometimes its good to get out and so I went last week s to Baz Luhrmann’s biopic which I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed. It also made me think what a popular film genre the biopic is and compare it to the prose version, the biographical novel, which is how I sometimes describe my last novel In the Blink of an Eye and a format I’m following for my work in progress. Why is the label so much less used or understood than the cinematic version? Do we need something new and snappy like ‘biofic’. Or is there some innate difference between the two?
Fact or Fiction?
A biopic is a film which aims to tell a life story, usually of a historical figure and/or or celebrity in one sphere or another. The most popular examples include Ghandi, Lawrence of Arabia, Malcolm X and Schindler’s List, with The Theory of Everything, Raging Bull and Amadeus also featuring. You could claim they are filmed biographies, or set out to be.
Biographical novels (think Tracy Chevalier, Robert Harris, Paula McLain, Irving Stone whose Lust for Life was so memorable filmed) fall squarely in the category of fiction, rather than biography, but surely films follow the precepts of fiction too. Was Col Tom Parker as awful as Tom Hanks in the movie? Was Elvis quite so vulnerable as the wonderful Austin Butler portrayed him? Like novels, a film reproduces scenes and conversations that are only guesses at what may have happened, scenes chosen to convey the story the director is laying out to form the satisfying arc he/she has chosen. However factual the content, artistic licence comes into play.
Possibly the most outstanding literary example I missed from my list is the Mantel Thomas Cromwell Trilogy, and many ‘biofics’ are from the distant past. However I don’t tend to think of a study of a long-ago monarch or hero in the same way as a biopic which is often someone closer to our own age, someone with whom we feel some sense of connection if only through our forebears.
Point of view
Both films and novels do sometimes take the less obvious point of view (Salieri, Colonel Parker) to add a new dimension to what we know and it’s certainly a favourite approach in fiction. Naomi Wood’s Mrs Hemingway is an outstanding example of this, although Nancy Horan and Paula McLain have used the same device of inhabiting the character of the famous man’s wife. Prose fiction will sometimes import totally fictional characters to carry or enhance the story, perhaps not so common in biopics.
Finding the real story in a slice of history is a big challenge and I have to disagree with this Guardian writer https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/27/top-10-fictitious-biographis-jonathan-gibbs-nabokov who thinks a biographical novel is an easy option. For my current WIP I have read three full biographies of R. L. Stevenson (only four more to go!) two books about his wife, two volumes of original correspondence and countless books, articles and websites on topics ranging from homosexuality in Victorian England to the history of the London Underground. That’s more than two years of research. And the reading is only the beginning! A constant preoccupation is that you will upset the shoal of experts and die-hard fans by meddling with their preconceptions of your subject.
A good film or a good read!
Why exactly did I enjoy Elvis so much? He died when I was 24 and I’d perceived him mostly as a white-suited has-been. The film showed me a boy with enough raw talent to rock the world but hopelessly unprepared for success and vulnerable to its many pitfalls and predators. I also learned a lot about the historical and artistic context.
So give me a biographical novel which engrosses me completely in its time and place and challenges my existing perceptions without ever straining credulity. In fact, give me any novel with those attributes and I’ll be happy. Maybe labels aren’t important after all.