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Genius: History vs. Hollywood

Starring Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Laura Linney | based on the book 'Max Perkins: Editor of Genius' by A. Scott Berg

Colin Firth
Born: September 10, 1960
Grayshott, Hampshire, England, UK
Maxwell Perkins
Born: September 20, 1884
Birthplace: New York City, New York, USA
Death: June 17, 1947, Stamford, Connecticut, USA (pneumonia)
Jude Law
Born: December 29, 1972
Lewisham, London, England, UK
Thomas Wolfe
Born: October 3, 1900
Birthplace: Asheville, North Carolina, USA
Death: September 15, 1938, Baltimore, Maryland, USA (tuberculosis of the brain)
Nicole Kidman
Born: June 20, 1967
Honolulu, Hawaii, USA
Aline Bernstein
Born: December 22, 1880
Birthplace: New York City, New York, USA
Death: September 7, 1955, New York City, New York, USA
Guy Pearce
Born: October 5, 1967
Ely, Cambridgeshire, England, UK
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Born: September 24, 1896
Birthplace: St. Paul, Minnesota, USA
Death: December 21, 1940, Hollywood, California, USA (heart attack)
Vanessa Kirby
Born: April 18, 1988
Wimbledon, London, UK
Zelda Fitzgerald
Born: July 24, 1900
Birthplace: Montgomery, Alabama, USA
Death: March 10, 1948, Asheville, North Carolina, USA (died in hospital fire)
Dominic West
Born: October 15, 1969
Sheffield, Yorkshire, England, UK
Ernest Hemingway
Born: July 21, 1899
Birthplace: Oak Park, Illinois, USA
Death: July 2, 1961, Ketchum, Idaho, USA (suicide by gunshot)
I wanted most desperately to live and still do, and I thought about you [Max] all 1000 times, and wanted to see you all again, and there was the impossible anguish and regret of all the work I had not done, of all the work I had to do. -Thomas Wolfe, Deathbed Letter to Max Perkins, August 12, 1938

Questioning the Story:

Did Thomas Wolfe really struggle to get his first novel published?

Yes. Like in the Genius movie, the true story confirms that Thomas Wolfe's manuscript, which was over 1,100 pages (roughly three times longer than the average novel), was turned down by a number of publishers before it was read by Max Perkins and accepted at Scribner's. Unlike what is seen in the movie, Perkins initially dismissed the book until the enthusiasm of colleague Wallace Meyer caused him to change his mind. Perkins cut some 66,000 words before it was eventually published as Look Homeward, Angel. -North Carolina Digital History

The real Thomas Wolfe (left) is portrayed by British actor Jude Law (right) in the Genius movie.

Did Thomas Wolfe change the title of his first book in a moment of enlightenment?

No. According to Editor of Genius author A. Scott Berg, Max Perkins and colleague John Hall Wheelock chose the new title "Look Homeward, Angel" from a list that Thomas Wolfe had given them.

Which famous authors was Maxwell Perkins responsible for publishing?

Following his graduation from Harvard College in 1907, Maxwell Perkins was employed as a reporter at The New York Times. In 1910, he took a job at the respected publishing house of Charles Scribner's Sons. He married Louise Saunders that same year (portrayed by Laura Linney in the movie). At Scribner's, he focused on courting younger writers, discovering F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby) and Ernest Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms). Like in the movie, his greatest struggle as an editor came when he met Thomas Wolfe, a genius who lacked discipline as a writer.

Perkins worked with many other notable authors over the course of his career, including John P. Marquand (The Late George Apley), Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (The Yearling), Alan Paton (Cry, the Beloved Country), James Jones (From Here to Eternity), and others.

Did Thomas Wolfe really have a problem keeping the size of his novels within reason?

Yes. Fact-checking the Genius movie confirmed that Thomas Wolfe's tendency to not want to cut anything from his novels and to continually want to add more pages, presented a challenge for his editor, Max Perkins. At the insistence of Perkins, Wolfe reluctantly agreed to cut 90,000 words from his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel (1929).

The publishing of Thomas Wolfe's second novel, Of Time and the River (1935), was the result of a two-year long battle that saw Wolfe continually trying to add pages while Perkins struggled to make edits and hold his stance on size. The original version of the book was four times as large as the uncut version of his first novel, making it approximately ten times the length of the average novel. Indeed, editing was needed and in an odd way, Perkins welcomed the challenge. Constantly trying to contain the size of Wolfe's novel became a sort of obsession for Perkins. -Max Perkins: Editor of Genius

How much older was Aline Bernstein than Thomas Wolfe?

In real life, costume designer Aline Bernstein, portrayed by Nicole Kidman, was 18 years older than her lover, author Thomas Wolfe.

Did Wolfe's lover Aline Bernstein try to commit suicide?

Yes, but the movie suggests that Aline Bernstein had swallowed at least some of the pills before Tom Wolfe could slap them from her hands. In real life, Max Perkins rang the elevator bell to summon the building's night watchman, who got them to a dermatologist working late in her office. The doctor called the pharmacy and determined that all the pills were accounted for. -Max Perkins: Editor of Genius

Did Max Perkins turn down an invitation to go fishing with Ernest Hemingway because of his struggle with Thomas Wolfe?

Yes, the Genius true story reveals that author Ernest Hemingway, who had been discovered by Max Perkins, indeed invited the editor to go on a Key West fishing excursion with him. Perkins turned him down, stating, "I am engaged in a kind of life and death struggle with Mr. Thomas Wolfe still, and it is likely to last through the summer." He is referring to the struggle of having to constantly try to edit Wolfe's second book, Of Time and the River, to keep the size down. It was a colossal task because Wolfe continually submitted more pages and argued against any cuts. -Max Perkins: Editor of Genius

Why did Thomas Wolfe cut ties with Charles Scribner's Sons and editor Max Perkins?

In a November 1936 letter to Maxwell Perkins, Thomas Wolfe addresses his decision to sever ties with the publishing house of Charles Scribner's Sons, thereby ending his working relationship with editor Perkins. Wolfe cites their "differences of opinion and belief" and "the fundamental disagreements" that they openly and passionately had discussed "a thousand times." In the end, he felt Scribner's had reshaped his second book, Of Time and the River, into a standard assembly-line novel that no longer resembled what he had written. Some critics suggested that the editor Perkins, not the author Wolfe, was responsible for most of the book's success, a notion that upset Wolfe and left him wanting to prove otherwise.

In addition, Scribner's was insisting that Wolfe settle a $125,000 lawsuit brought by his ex-landlords, who claimed that Wolfe had libeled them in various passages of his novella No Door. Wolfe adamantly opposed the accusation. The suit (not mentioned in the movie) was settled but Wolfe felt that in turn Scribner's had betrayed him. He parted ways with the publishing house in January 1937. -The American Reader

The real Max Perkins (left) and British actor Colin Firth (right) in the movie.

Was Thomas Wolfe and Maxwell Perkins' relationship in any way romantic?

Though the movie at times edges on a near-romantic relationship between Wolfe and his editor Perkins, others have described the real Max Perkins as being more of a father figure to Wolfe. Indeed there was a special bond between the two men, as evidenced in Wolfe's letters to Perkins and Perkins' own remarks about Wolfe, calling their friendship "one of the greatest things in my life" (Publishers Weekly). Despite some speculation, there is little doubt that the two were just very close friends.

Are any of the actors portraying Americans in the movie actually American?

For the most part, no, and this has been a slight point of contention for some critics and viewers. Colin Firth, who portrays Maxwell Perkins, is British. Jude Law is British. Dominic West (Hemingway in the movie) is British and Guy Pearce (F. Scott Fitzgerald) is Australian. As for the women, Australian Nicole Kidman portrays costume designer Aline Bernstein and Brit Vanessa Kirby is Zelda Fitzgerald. Of the actors in lead roles, only Laura Linney, who portrays Perkins' wife Louise, is American.

Genius Movie Trailer

Watch the Genius trailer for the film starring Colin Firth and Jude Law as Max Perkins and Thomas Wolfe. The movie preview highlights the turbulent working relationship between the editor and author.

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