October 13, 2014
Colin Firth will edit your manuscript now
by Sal Robinson
Though Hollywood regularly makes movies about writers, with regularly dicey results, it rarely turns its gaze to editors. Which is fair enough: since most movies about writers could safely be retitled “Frowning & Scribbling,” I understand why producers would be loath to back a movie that lacks even the scribbling part.
A newspaper or magazine editor will turn up from time to time, made momentarily dramatic by a deadline or a controversy: William Shawn (played by Nicholas Woodeson) cautiously trying to suggest edits to Arendt (Barbara Sukowa)’s articles on the Eichmann trial for the New Yorker in last year’s “Hannah Arendt” was a recent instance.
But book editors don’t get much screen time. With one notable upcoming exception: filming is underway on “Genius,” a movie based on A. Scott Berg’s biography of the legendary Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins, Editor of Genius.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, the movie, directed by British theater director Michael Grandage, “will chart the real-life relationship between literary giant Thomas Wolfe and renowned editor Max Perkins, who developed a tender, complex friendship that changed the lives of both men forever.” Wolfe will be played by Jude Law (after Michael Fassbender dropped out) and the role of Perkins has been taken by Colin Firth.
Perkins, who had discovered and published F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, received a draft of Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel (then called “O, Lost”) in 1928 and immediately recognized Wolfe’s talent, writing in his first letter to Wolfe that “it is a very remarkable thing, and no editor could read it without being excited by it and filled with admiration by many passages in it and sections of it” (quote from Editor to Author: The Letters of Maxwell Perkins). This was just the start of one of the most famous 20th-century editorial tug-of-wars: Perkins would go on to cut 90,000 words from the book, and he had to wrestle Perkins hard to keep his next novel, Of Time and the River, at a manageable size.
So how will this all be dramatized? Since this looks like a classic lit pic, I expect there will be a sequence of shots of Law/Wolfe typing page after page, followed by scenes of Firth crossing things out, followed by scenes of Law raging and kicking things. Though Wolfe was tempestuous (and eventually came to resent Perkins’s editing, and the fact that the success of his book was at least partly ascribed to it), Perkins was a Yankee and therefore low on emotional expression. Faced with the particular demands of this role, though, I hope that Grandage and Firth don’t shy away from the reality of the situation and would like to suggest here a few appropriate scenes:
- Max Perkins receives a manuscript from a Mr. Thomas Wolfe. He reads it on the train. He’s very excited by it and shows his excitement by pressing extra-hard on the typewriter keys when he writes back.
- Perkins presses his colleagues at Scribner’s to acquire the book—it is, he tells them, a “fine, fine book and Mr. Wolfe one of the most promising young authors I have encountered recently.” When they give him the go-ahead, he smiles, but it looks like a lot like a grimace. Perhaps it is a grimace.
- Mid-editing: a five-hour sequence where Perkins re-reads the MS for the fourth time, taking careful handwritten notes. Shot of one of the notes: “a bit too much here.” Shot of his dog, asleep.
- The book is about to be launched in-house: his heart is in his throat. He makes a list of adjectives. Crosses them all out. Makes a list of adverbs, throws it away. Stares at the description he wrote for This Side of Paradise: it should be like that, but greater, somehow. He has to go for a walk.
- Perkins reviews proofs. Near the end, he notices a consistency issue. Should he read it again, just to be sure? Yes. He reads it again. His dog gives him a foul look.
- He considers potential cover designs. Oh god, how can prose be represented in an image! How can anything be represented in anything! He goes for a different walk.
- The Times reviews the book, and it’s a rave. Wolfe is in ecstasies. Perkins buys a copy of the paper, pats it, whistles a few bars from “See, The Conquering Hero Comes” in double time.
- Perkins is at his desk, a stack of correspondence before him. He picks up the first envelope, slices it open, unfolds the letter. It begins “Dear Max, I am writing a new book and will send you the first eight hundred pages by mail immediately….”
Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.