Infinite Possibility: 5 Authors In Need of Biopics

Source: word&film / By Tobin Mitnick / Photo By Brigitte Lacombe /

Joan Didion / Photo By Brigitte Lacombe


This week, with “The End of the Tour” and “Paulo Coelho’s Best Story,” we see the emergence of two long-gestating films that belong to a marvelously fraught genre of cinema – the writer biopic. While it may be true that there are the usual amount of hits and misses here, there’s also a particular vexation with which a multitude of would-be life-adapters must contend: Should the film mimic the particular style of the writer that it chronicles in an effort to visually reflect a fractured mind, or should it stick to a tried-and-true formula? Will it be a product of ambition or convention? If you opt to tell a simple biographical narrative through a chronological sequence of events, will it be enough for the fanboys who want to see the 4,000-word sentence of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy somehow transposed onto real events? Alternatively, if you lay out Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s childhood like a magical realist dreamscape, will accusations of pretense surely follow?

It seems as though “Paulo Coelho’s Best Story” may have fallen victim to something else: the over-sensualization of a life. Told via flashbacks, early reviews describe this chronicle of the life of the beloved author of The Alchemist as missing the mark, preferring to document the evolution of Coelho’s inspiration in clichéd spats of drugs and sex, with the occasional paper-based temper tantrum.

“The End of the Tour,” on the other hand, may just prove to be a turning point in the careers of all parties involved. Told over five days, allowing for David Foster Wallace-esque detail without burdening a wider audience, “The End of the Tour” represents a shift to an older demographic for director James Ponsoldt – this adaptation of writer David Lipsky’s book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, chronicling Lipsky’s experience joining Wallace on the last leg of the press tour for 1996’s Infinite Jest, is his first real Oscar contender. For Jesse Eisenberg, his portrayal of Lipsky shows a rare bit of relaxed humanity for an actor so accustomed to tackling socially awkward geniuses, while at the same time wrestling with painful questions of mediocrity. And, of course, with Jason Segel, who has been receiving near-universal acclaim for his portrayal of Wallace, we may be bearing witness to a harbinger of the second period of his career.

David Foster Wallace seems to be getting his due in good form (though not without controversy from his embattled estate). Here are a few other writers who have yet to get theirs:

Jack London
By the time he actually sat down to do any writing, Jack London had already lived a life enviable to most adventurers – from being a homeless sixteen-year-old to sailing a sloop on the high seas, to participating in the gold rush before doing a stint as a war correspondent for the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, London packed up several lifetimes of experience that he would later explicate in his work. His early years are the stuff of legend, and he deserves a newer and better treatment than the 1943 version that boasted “the true report of the first American Prisoner of the Japs.”

Joan Didion
One of the most beloved short stories for those experiencing any kind of geographical change in their lives, Joan Didion’s Goodbye to All That will finally be getting a film adaptation. Chronicling Didion’s years in Manhattan before her eventual move to Los Angeles, it makes perfect biopic material – filled with love, longing, regret, and one of the sharpest accounts of nostalgia ever committed to paper.

Vaclav Havel
As the most visible of the Eastern European dissident writers, Vaclav Havel spent many years in prison in several different terms before assuming the presidency of the newly created Czech Republic in 1993. While a great deal of documentary work has been dedicated to his life, Havel remains a blind spot for Hollywood; he led an impossibly dramatic life that proved to be one of the most telling signs that the artistic suppression of the Soviet Union during the Cold War had finally come to an end.

Kathy Acker
Kathy Acker’s work was met with both virulent criticism and staunch support from the feminist community, but Acker’s literary portrayals of societal taboos and sexual violence came from a life lived to the extreme: Before her career took off, Acker worked as a stripper, a secretary, and even as an adult performer, giving her unique and caustic insight into a world often relegated to a voiceless existence.

Geoffrey Chaucer
Curiously, a definitive biopic on Chaucer has never been made (apart from Paul Bettany’s rakish performance in “A Knight’s Tale”). Chaucer’s life is ripe for the picking – from his decision to use the vernacular in his poetry to being a ransomed prisoner of war to speculations upon his meetings with Boccaccio and Petrarch, the right filmmaker could hit this one out of the park.