Writing is not the most cinematic profession. Blank sheets of paper, hours of boredom and procrastination, endless tea breaks, heavy eye bags – none of these things scream Thrilling Entertainment – For All The Family! Writing a novel is perhaps the activity least suited to a dramatic montage, and yet, that hasn’t stopped countless of examples from being produced. Hollywood has a rich traditional of biopics of famous writers – of wildly varying quality.
But cinema seems particularly obsessed with one kind of writer in particular – the whimsical, twinkle-eyed British children’s author. In the last two decades, we’ve found Neverland, saved Mr Banks – soon, we’ll even wave goodbye to Christopher Robin. From Shadowlands to Miss Potter, there are so many of these schmaltzy, nostalgic films they’re a genre of their own – neither fun enough to make great children’s films, or robust enough to be classic dramas. But while the intended demographic of these films is blurry, they persist, with even more currently on the way. We’re in the golden age of the Sentimental Children’s Author Biopic. Where did this bizarre genre come from? And why does it endure?
British society in particular has long been fascinated by writers’ lives. George Eliot, in an 1874 letter, insisted that “something should be done” to “reform our national habits in the matter of literary biography”. “I think this fashion is disgrace to us all,” she wrote, arguing that the genre is “something like the uncovering of the dead Byron’s club foot.” Regardless of her moral judgement on them, Eliot was right: biographies of authors are a national fixation – if one that is rather more enduring than a mere “fashion”. In his review of Patrick Hamilton: A Life, Terry Eagleton notes that “there would seem no end to the peculiar English mania” for the biographies of writers.
It’s not surprising, then, that those tastes would be reflected in cinema, too – films about renowned literary figures, have a long and healthy tradition. In the last 20 years, the number of films featuring famous writers include, to name a few, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), American Splendor (2003) Capote (2005), Infamous (2006), Howl (2010), Midnight in Paris (2011), The Rum Diary (2011), On The Road (2012), Kill Your Darlings (2013), Trumbo (2015), and the highly questionable Genius (2016).
It should be even less surprising that in this period we’ve seen sentimental biopics of a range of famous writers set against romantic British and Irish backdrops specifically – in fact, barely a year has gone by without one: Wilde (1997), Shakespeare in Love (1998), Pandaemonium (2000), Iris (2001), The Hours (2002), Sylvia (2003), The Libertine (2004), Becoming Jane (2007), The Edge of Love (2008), Bright Star (2009), Anonymous (2011), The Invisible Woman (2013)… the list goes on. Writers like Beatrix Potter slot easily into this list.
But biopics about children’s authors are more than just a footnote in a larger trend. Finding Neverland, Miss Potter and Saving Mr Banks are stand-out examples of biopics that captured the popular imagination, and whose popularity has endured. And judging from films in production, biopics of children’s authors are now far more in demand than more sober alternative stories: there are at least five major upcoming Sentimental Chidren’s Author Biopics (with subjects including AA Milne, Kenneth Grahame, Roald Dahl and JRR Tolkien) currently in the works.
They also adhere more strictly to certain conventions and a common tone. The author is almost certainly British, eccentric, and lonely (usually childless). They live in a beautiful British period setting. The film explores how they wrote one of their stories (often by mixing colourful, dreamlike or animated sequences in with the usual live action), but also how in doing so they discovered the importance of love (romantic, platonic or familial), challenging their once-isolated state. They also often interact with a child, and, moved by their innocence and wonder, derive both personal and professional inspiration from them. Many have a tragic death that forces the author to grieve and gain a new perspective on life and the afterlife. They’re usually released in the run-up to Christmas and awards season. They’re nostalgic and sentimental, and hover in a strange space somewhere between heritage (and sometimes wartime) period drama and family film.
It wasn’t always this way. Before the early Nineties, Sentimental Chidren’s Author Biopics barely existed – and when they did, they were a bizarre, kaleidoscopic, hammy affair. Take 1985’s Dreamchild, a perhaps misguided attempt to dramatise the controversial relationship between Lewis Carroll and 11-year-old Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Wonderland’s Alice. Or 1990’s The Dreamer of Oz, a stilted made-for-television film about the inspirational characters behind The Wizard of Oz. They’re a far cry from the slick, Oscar-nominated weepies we see today.
Enter Shadowlands: the love story of the middle-aged CS Lewis and poet Joy Davidman Gresham. Starring Anthony Hopkins (a recent Oscar winner) as Lewis, it was released at the end of 1993, the same time as another Hopkins-led twilight love story, the eight-times Oscar nominated Remains of the Day. Though not about Lewis’s process of writing children’s stories specifically, it follows an eccentric (check) but isolated (check) British (check) children’s author (check) as he meets a headstrong, charming American woman who forces him to confront his reclusive lifestyle and learn how to live more fully (check) before she – spoiler alert – tragically dies (check).
Nominated for two Oscars and winning two Baftas, it was mostly, if not universally, warmly received. But it was the foundation for the genre of children’s author’s biopics as we know them. The Washington Post called it “a high-class tear-jerker” and “literate hankie sopper” and acknowledged the film as “really a rather corny tale”, a “soap opera with a Rhodes scholarship” – labels which could easily describe any of these films.
Still, it can’t be credited with immediately sparking a trend. It would be 11 years before another film recognisably in this mode would be released: 2004’s Finding Neverland, starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet. Coming out of a period that was enamoured with literary biopics (Shakespeare in Love, The Hours, Sylvia), a long enough gap had passed for the film not to garner too many comparisons to Shadowlands, despite their similar plots. As its title suggests, Finding Neverland follows playwright JM Barrie’s journey of writing Peter Pan, as well as the simultaneous discovery of a personal, existential Neverland. An eccentric but isolated British children’s author (check) meets a headstrong, charming woman (check) and her mostly charming, imaginative children (check) who rejuvenate him personally and inspire him to write his greatest work (check). His relationship with this family forces him to confront his reclusive lifestyle and learn how to live more fully (check) before – spoiler alert – the woman tragically dies (check), living on in the classic work. When an 11-year-old Freddie Highmore splutters “But why did she have to die?” at the film’s close, you are almost dared not to cry.
It’s a formulaic and emotionally manipulative film, which you can’t help but feel moved by, even as you note the clichéd soundtrack and impermeable script. Audiences and critics alike were charmed (the latter somewhat reluctantly). Grossing $116m and nominated for no less than seven Oscars and ten Baftas, it was one of 2004’s more popular family films. Finding Neverland clearly identified a gap in the market, even if critics were unsure what exactly the intended audience of such a film actually was – something that remains a curiosity of the genre. “It could appeal to everyone from preteens to pensioners, or it could appeal to no one at all,” Wendy Ide observed in The Times, concluding, “Ultimately this unconventionality is probably one of the film’s main strengths.”
Where Shadowlands failed to spark a trend, Finding Neverland clearly succeeded: the Sentimental Chidren’s Author Biopic was born. Two years later, Miss Potter (2006) made its way to the box office with Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor. It follows an eccentric but isolated (Zellweger’s voice-over intro cheerfully emphasises that Potter is a “spinster”) British children’s author (check) meets a charming, handsome man (check) who helps her achieve her dream of becoming a published author (check), inspires her to write more (check). He also rejuvenates her personally (check), forcing her to rethink her “spinster” lifestyle (check) by proposing before he – spoiler alert –tragically dies (check). Several critics noted the debt it owed to Neverland – the AV Club opening its review with the line, “Fans of the fictionalized JM Barrie biopic Finding Neverland are bound to experience déjà vu watching the oppressively twee new biopic Miss Potter, a film that hews so closely to the Neverland template that it must have taken a phenomenal act of will not to just name it Finding Neverland 2: The Beatrix Pottering.”
The year after that, we had My Boy Jack (2007), starring David Haig as Rudyard Kipling, and Daniel Radcliffe as his 17-year-old son, Jack. Less whimsical in tone and less interested in Kipling’s works for children, it nevertheless includes an emotionally isolated British children’s author (check) who is rejuvenated and motivated by a “boy” (check) until he – spoiler alert – tragically dies (check), living on in a classic work (here, the poem “My Boy Jack”, spluttered at the film’s closing emotional scene).
Then 2009 brought the BBC film Enid, starring Helena Bonham Carter as Enid Blyton. It follows an eccentric but self-absorbed British children’s author (check) who meets a charming, handsome man (check) who helps her achieve her dream of becoming a published author (check) and attempts to change her independent lifestyle (check) by proposing. The main diversion here is how little Blyton is influenced by others – divorcing her husband, ignoring her children, and maintaining her independent creative lifestyle until her death.
The next mainstream Sentimental Children’s Author Biopic, Saving Mr Banks (2013) plays with similar ideas. Starring Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks as PL Travers and Walt Disney, it follows an eccentric but isolated British children’s author (check) who meets a charming American man (check) who wants to adapt her classic work – despite difficult beginnings they learn from each other and Disney seems to encourage her to confront her reclusive lifestyle (check) and collaborate creatively. An argument sees her return home to maintain her independent creative lifestyle – until she is inspired by the finished classic film, seemingly moved by its depiction of a man who thanks to imaginative children (check) learns how to live more fully (check). Grossing $118m and earning Oscar and Bafta nominations, it’s the only film to have come close to Neverland’s success – and was received with similar, at times reluctant, praise.
The trend is showing no signs of slowing down. Due to be released this October is Goodbye Christopher Robin, the story of how AA Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) was inspired by his son to write the Winnie The Pooh books and overcame his war-induced post-traumatic stress disorder as a result. Also due to be released later this year is Rebel in the Rye, the story of how JD Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) was inspired to write The Catcher in the Rye, and overcame his war-induced post-traumatic stress disorder as a result.
There are more coming, too. Adrien Brody is set to play Wind of the Willows author Kenneth Grahame in Banking on Mr Toad, the story of how Grahame coped with his mother’s death as a child, and his relationships with his wife, his autistic son, and his writing. A second film about Christopher Robin Milne starring Ewan McGregor is in pre-production, while Nicholas Hoult is also apparently in talks to play JRR Tolkien in a film about the author’s search for “friendship, love, and artistic inspiration among a group of classmates prior to the outbreak of World War I in 1914”. There are seemingly two other Tolkien projects development: Middle Earth and Tolkien & Lewis, though news of these has petered out in recent months. And Hugh Bonneville has just been cast as Roald Dahl in an upcoming biopic “focusing on Dahl’s marriage to actress Patricia Neal” and set in the early 1960s, “a time when Dahl struggled to write some of his most famous works”.
Perhaps this type of film, with its oddly specific set of tropes and conventions, endures because it blends so many popular genres and tastes. It combines personal childhood nostalgia for classic stories with a public nostalgia for 19th and 20th century period dramas. It combines British heritage films, fetishised by British and American audiences alike, with the whimsical elements of more colourful family films like Mary Poppins. And because the children’s tales are so enduring, because so many people of different generations have read them, they unite audiences in vastly different age ranges. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t matter how uncinematic the act of writing is in reality: Sentimental Children’s Author Biopics aren’t disappearing from our screens any time soon.