June 15, 2016
Maxwell’s Silver Screen: The editor in film
by Ryan Harrington
If you’re, let’s say, a star quarterback, or a teacher in an underprivileged school, maybe a drug dealer, a superhero, or any number of other occupations, I bet that you’ve seen your profession represented in a big Hollywood movie and thought, “Hmmm, that’s not really what it’s like to be me.” While exceptional in most other ways, book editors are no exception to this particular feeling of estrangement.
But perhaps we’ve finally found our on-screen surrogate in Colin Firth’s portrayal of Maxwell Perkins, editor to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and many others during his iconic career at Charles Scribner’s Sons. A new Perkins biopic, Genius, centers on the story of Perkins discovering and editing the often long-winded and unpolished Thomas Wolfe (played by Jude Law).
While I’m skeptical that any film carrying a weak PG-13 rating could accurately depict the daily life of a book editor, Halimah Marcus of Electric Literature writes that the film brings the profession to life in a new way. It does so, she says, by making the act of reading look engaging on screen. Of this near-impossible filmic feat of the “reading montage” (complete with Jude Law voiceover), she writes:
Colin Firth’s expression is implacable yet rapt as he takes in the words. Then, as if to confirm that the physical world still exists, he turns to the look out the window. As a reader who has been engrossed, I know this feeling. Coming up for air. He gazes briefly out, then Wolfe’s voice starts up again and Perkins turns back to the page as if caught, or pulled. That moment — the text of the novel chiming in a beat before the eye — is one of the better depictions of reading on film, the grown-up version of the sandwich that gets saved for later in The Neverending Story.
While an inter-author squabble eventually separated Perkins and Wolfe, and ended a friendship forged in red pencil, Perkins did come around to edit Wolfe’s third, posthumous novel.
Based on A. Scott Berg’s National Book Award-winning biography, Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius, the film was released on June 10. In addition to making reading look like a fun, attractive thing to do, Genius may also give us a portrait of that rare editorial temperament. Marcus writes, “Though Genius may inspire some, including me, to revisit Wolfe’s work, it’s Maxwell Perkins that emerges as the story’s true hero, the platonic ideal of an editor: firm yet compassionate, brilliant and devoted.”
Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.