The English Romantic writer Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley lived about as cinematic a life as one could, filled with historic achievement, tortuous love, wild sex, radical politics, turbulent family drama, and one devastating personal tragedy after another. That the new film about her early adult years, Mary Shelley, is (according to the overwhelming critical consensus) a rote, respectable period piece stands as a huge missed opportunity… or at least it would, were it not for the fact that there already exists a film that did perfect justice to Shelley’s frenzied, tragic life story.
It’s hard to imagine that any movie about Shelley could top Ken Russell’s Gothic (1986), which, rather than attempting to cover the whole of her life, or even a large section of it, limits its scope to one day and night, for the infamous gathering at the Swiss estate of exiled poet Lord Byron, wherein Mary (along with her lover and future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and her stepsister Clair Claremont) took part in a competition to see who could come up with the best ghost story. This night would birth the horror and science-fiction genres as we know them today, by way Shelley’s entry: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.
Russell’s film uses a variety of techniques — expository dialogue, prophetic vision, a book-end set in the modern day — to trace the broad outline of Shelley’s adventures, while managing to avoid the pitfalls commonly found in cinematic biopics (the rise-and-fall structure, the CliffsNotes-style depiction of major events, the overemphasis on sentimentality). In addition to these individual methods, the film also frees its subjects from the strictures of the biographical narrative by plunging them headfirst into the realm of the speculative.
Gothic is a surreal piece of phantasmagoria in line with Russell’s other over-the-top cult classics (The Devils, Tommy, Altered States), though one in which he melds his own obsessions with those of Mary Shelley and the Romantics, thereby creating a film that holds up as both an authentic historical drama and a stand-alone horror fantasy.
And Gothic is far from the only speculative cinematic biography. Other entries in this specific sub-genre can be found for figures across a variety of fields — from politics (Robert Altman’s dark Nixon drama Secret Honor), to music (Todd Hayne’s kaleidoscopic examination of Bob Dylan’s cult of personality I’m Not There) to literature. Indeed, of all those examples, it is the writer for whom the speculative biopic is most well suited.
Unlike every other artistic or performative endeavor, the act of writing has little to no visual currency. A film about a musician can show its subject performing; a film about a politician can fall back on big speeches and backroom dealmaking; hell, even a movie about a painter will be able to show off a finished painting in order to give insight into character and theme. But writing? The only way to get the essence of a writer’s work is by reading it.
The speculative biopic partially circumvents this problem, usually by inserting its subject into a plot that resembles or references their own best-known work. Being that said work initially required these writers to traverse imaginary landscapes in the pursuit of their obsessions, they come as ready-made protagonists.
Ken Russell is particularly adept at this type of narrative (the film he made following Gothic, the decadent comedy Salome’s Last Dance, used Oscar Wilde in a similar manner), but he’s hardly its progenitor.
Examples of such films trace back to at least 1944, with The Adventures of Mark Twain, which freely combines elements from Twain’s autobiography and his fiction in order to create something of an omnibus myth for the great American fabulist.
The speculative literary biopic has served as a welcome alternative to the standard (read: stuffy or sentimental) biopic, even if the results tend to vary in quality. For every film that goes on to find commercial success and middlebrow acclaim— think Oscar darlings The Hours (about Virginia Woolf) and Shakespeare In Love (about, well, obviously) — there are forgotten flops such as Michael Apted’s brutally slow Agatha (an “imaginary solution to an authentic mystery” regarding the brief disappearance of Agatha Christie in 1926), or the more recent — and barely watchable — The Raven, which places Edgar Allen Poe at the center of a truly idiotic serial killer plot in the days leading up to his own death.
Just as common are the fascinating misfires, such as Wim Wenders’ American debut Hammett (1982), which inserts mystery writer/former private detective Dashiell Hammett (Frederic Forrest) into a convoluted plot of the type usually found in his fiction. While its troubled production history (the film was shot twice — once on location in San Francisco, and then once more on studio backlots) ensured that the final version is something of a mess, it remains an altogether interesting, enjoyable throwback to the film noirs of classic Hollywood, even as it suffers by comparison to other, better adaptations of its namesake’s work — The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, The Glass Key — made previously.
Much of the same can be said for Steven Soderbergh’s sophomore film Kafka (1991). Soderbergh, newly anointed prince of the burgeoning independent cinema movement of the 1990s, chose to spend the cachet he’d earned following the surprise success of sex, lies & videotape (1989) to make an expressionistic conspiracy thriller shot almost entirely in black-and-white and inspired by the life and work of Czech writer Franz Kafka (played by Jeremy Irons).
Thanks to its unique cinematography and inspired set-pieces, Kafka is far from the disaster that its reputation would suggest (its critical and commercial failure nearly ended Soderbergh’s career before it began, and it has never been made available on DVD). It is, however, altogether too formal and lifeless, as Soderbergh himself has admitted.
More broadly, it fails to say anything of real substance regarding Kafka or his work. While it pays lip service to some of the more obvious themes that run through his stories — the oppressive nature of bureaucracy, the erasure of the individual in the face of a nameless and all-encompassing system of authority — it offers only surface-level insight, while conveying little of the mordant humor, maddening absurdity, or implacable spiritual terror that made Kafka the standard bearer for modern-day existentialism.
Though Kafka failed in its larger ambitions, two parallel works succeeded in theirs. By some strange, indeed Kafkaesque coincidence, Soderbergh’s film was released in 1991, the same year which saw the release of two other speculative literary dramas, both of which likewise relied on a heavy does of paranoia and surrealism to gain insight into their chosen subjects: David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch and the Coen Bros.’ Barton Fink.
Cronenberg’s film — a loose adaptation of William S. Burroughs’s experimental novel of the same name, as well as an even looser account of the author’s accidental murder of his wife in 1951 — is the more obviously biographical of the two, but Barton Fink uses real-life literary figures (with central characters modeled on writers such as New York playwright Clifford Odets and Southern novelist William Faulkner) to similar ends.
Their similarities extend beyond their shared conceit. Both films are shot in muddy, sickly earth tones; both are obsessed with the aesthetic qualities of typewriters and insects; and both feature Lynch-like schisms of identity in which reality and fantasy coalesce to produce violent carnage as well as artistic and spiritual catharsis. In the most fascinating of their many synchronicities, the sacrificial muse at the heart of each film is played by actress Judy Davis.
Ultimately, both are darkly comic fever dreams that use real-life literary figures to explore the idea — as summed up by Pablo Picasso — that “every act of creation is first an act of destruction.” (Oh, and Barton Fink and Naked Lunch are also responsible for all-time classic jokes on The Simpsons.)
It should be noted that 1991 also saw the international release of Andrzej Zulawski’s La Note Bleue, a wholly speculative account of the final day in the relationship of ailing Polish composer Frederic Chopin and French author George Sand. Like Ken Russell, Zulawski is known for his intense, cerebral phantasmagorias. It is therefore not surprising that La Note Bleue shares enough qualities with Gothic — including a pastoral setting, a debauched party attended by celebrated artists of the time period, and the intrusion upon reality by otherworldly spirits — so that the pair would make for an aesthetically perfect, if utterly exhausting, double feature.
In light of the limitations of the standard biographical film, it seems odd that the speculative biopic is so rarely used as a template, especially when it comes to stories about writers. Not that films about writers, whether speculative or historically accurate, are ever in high demand — even the most acclaimed examples of the past few years, such as Bright Star (about John Keats and Fanny Brawne) and A Quiet Passion (Emily Dickinson) flew under the radar — but such narratives offer filmmakers a range of possibility when it comes to melding their own obsessions with those of their literary influences, all while being able to indulge their most wild and surreal flights of fancy. Despite the old saying, when it comes to films about writers, fiction is stranger — and much better suited to the medium — than truth.