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From Finding Neverland to Goodbye Christopher Robin: how we reached peak Sentimental Children’s Author Biopic

Where did this bizarre genre come from? And why does it endure?

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 Neverlandthe 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.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Game of Stones: The power struggle at the heart of British curling

Dynasties, scandal and “the curse” behind the scenes of the only Olympic sport you can play while eating pizza.

At the 1980 annual Canadian men’s curling championship, the Calgary competitor Paul Gowsell ordered a pizza mid-play. With tangled red hair down to his shoulders, a thick beard and in his signature plaid trousers, Gowsell – or “Pizza Paul” – had become a cult curling figure in the late Seventies.

“The rebel of the curling world” was known for his drinking and partying on the curling circuit, and rocking up to tournaments – or “bonspiels”, to give them their proper name – in his battered VW van.

Legend has it that a stray olive from his pizza on the ice lost his opponents the game that day.

Since Gowsell’s heyday, curling has professionalised. It became an official Winter Olympics sport in 1998 (the previous and only time it had this status was in 1924), but remains one of the most peculiar competitions of the season.

“We do get made fun of a lot” 

The brooms, frantic brushing, screaming from the “skip” (the captain of the team in charge of strategy), gliding on one knee, and even the equipment itself – 44-pound lumps of granite known as “stones”, which look a bit like old-fashioned irons – make for bizarre watching, as competitors release their stones before the “hogline” in an attempt to reach the “house”: the target at the end of the rink.

The etiquette is to shake hands before a game, and say “good curling”.

Its quirks are not lost on curlers, who appear to embrace the gentle mockery of their sport. The array of outlandish patterned trousers worn by the Norwegian men’s team brought a goofy humour to Pyeongchang (pink hearts for Valentine’s Day were a particular hit), inspiring an entire Facebook page of half a million Likes dedicated to their legwear. Meanwhile, the moustachioed and red-hatted US curler Matt Hamilton has been memed as Mario by his own team.


A veteran curling commentator I speak to, who does not want to be named because he remains closely involved in the sport and wishes to speak frankly, says comedic takes on curling – like the 2010 episode of The Simpsons “Boy Meets Curl”, in which Homer and Marge accidentally discover their innate talent for the game – “generally help promote the sport”.

“People definitely make fun of it! There are a lot of awesome personalities in curling and I think part of it is because we do get made fun of a lot. You kind of have to have a really good sense of humour to curl,” says John Cullen, a 32-year-old Canadian comedian and competitive curler in the world-ranked Team Joanaisse.

Every time the Winter Olympics come along, curling manages to entrance audiences. It’s one of the few sports to be played for the entirety of the Games because of its “round robin” structure (where each country has to play the other, at least once).

Curling benefits from a lot of airtime. Matches can last three hours, and there are mixed doubles as well as separate men’s and women’s tournaments.

But it also captures our imagination because, unlike figure skating or alpine skiing, we feel like anyone could have a go. Curlers don’t all look like athletes. The dedicated viewer can watch them chatting, see their anguished facial expressions – and hear them swear when they mess up.

“You still have people who make the Olympics who’ve got a bit of a belly”

“It has a big appeal for people because it seems – even though it’s not – like a game you could play, if you’re just a regular person watching the Olympics,” says Cullen, who has curled for 20 years. “Every Olympics, people think to themselves, ‘OK, if I started curling tomorrow, I could be in the next Olympics’.”

A bit like darts, he adds: “Curling is a lot more physically demanding than darts, but when you watch darts on TV, you think ‘oh these guys are drinking, they’re not in shape’.

“It seems accessible in a way other sports don’t… Curlers now are more fit than ever, but you still have people who make the Olympics who, yeah, they’ve got a bit of a belly, or they don’t really look like they spend that much time in the gym. They just kind of look like regular people.”

Adding to curling’s relatability, there are two real-life couples in the mixed doubles this year, and you can watch them bicker as they play. Norway’s girlfriend-and-boyfriend outfit Kristin Skaslien and Magnus Nedregotten admit to having heated arguments on the ice (she never sweeps for him, as far as I can tell from watching one of their games – you go, sister), whereas Russia’s wife-and-husband duo Anastasia Bryzgalova and Aleksandr Krushelnitckii have had their bronze medal tarnished by the latter’s suspected doping.

When a doping scandal reaches your sport, you know it’s made it.

***

Traced back to 16th-century Scotland, the sport nicknamed the “Roaring Game” – because of the sound of rolling across ice – was played socially with stones on frozen ponds and lochs by farmers in winter, when no farming could be done.

Competitions between neighbouring communities began in the 18th century, when Rabbie Burns would play and even wrote some poetry about it, and Scots took the game across the country with the arrival of the railways. They later exported it to places as far as North America and New Zealand.

But it took until 2002 for the general public to notice curling in Britain. The Great British women curlers’ unexpected gold at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City transformed attitudes towards the sport – it was the first time Britain had won gold at the Winter Olympics since Torvill and Dean’s Bolero ice dance in 1984 at Sarajevo.

 “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms”

An audience of 5.7 million people watched the tense final live on the BBC, when five previously unknown women from Scotland beat Switzerland with the final throw – since dubbed the “Stone of Destiny” – played by the skip, Rhona Martin.

“It definitely put curling on the map. We used to get wee write-ups in the back of the paper with and that was it,” she tells me over the phone from her home in Ayrshire. “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms, and curling your hair, whereas now people see it as a sport because they’re more knowledgeable about the game.”


Rhona Martin delivering the Stone of Destiny. Photo: Getty

A flag-waving crowd greeted her team when they landed in Heathrow – adoration they hadn’t been expecting. They received a congratulatory message from then Prime Minister Tony Blair (“You have captured the imagination of the whole of the UK”), appeared on everything from Lorraine Kelly’s sofa to Ready Steady Cook, were put up at Claridge’s and received MBEs from the Queen, and sat in the royal box at Wimbledon.

Curling fever didn’t last long, however. The women returned to full-time work or being full-time mothers. Talk of a Hollywood movie about their victory died. Two of the five endured intrusive news reports about their marriages breaking down, and Martin (now Howie after a subsequent marriage) was at one point a “single mother living on benefits”, as put by one of her agents.

This became known as the “Curse of the Curlers”, according to the Guardian. Indeed, Howie’s gold medal was stolen from the Dumfries Museum four years ago, never to be recovered.

***

Has the curse on British curling finally been lifted?

Two dynasties of curling champions dominate Team GB this year: the Muirheads and the Smiths. Both are Scottish farming families from Perthshire, both have two or more siblings on the Olympic curling teams, and all the competitors are children of world champions: they grew up on farms about 40 miles apart, and were regulars at their local rink.

“We’re all super-competitive”

The only member of the men’s team who is neither Muirhead nor Smith, Kyle Waddell, comes from another Scottish curling dynasty: his grandfather Jimmy was European curling champion in 1979.

Eve Muirhead, skip of the women’s team, is the current queen of the dominant Muirhead dynasty. The three-time world medallist, now 27, was the youngest ever skip to win a Winter Olympic medal, when her team took bronze at Sochi in 2014. Her brothers Tom and Glen on the men’s team are making their Olympic debut.

The Muirheads’ father Gordon, a sheep farmer, is a world champion who competed at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. Eve was inspired to begin curling at the age of nine.


The Muirhead siblings on their farm. Photo: Getty

Kyle Smith, the skip of the men’s team, is head of the curling house of Smith. His younger brother Cammy is on the same team. Their father David, a dairy and potato farmer, was a world champion skip in 1991, and their uncle Peter (known as “Pistol Pete” in the curling world, for his sharp-shooter-like accuracy) represented Team GB at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

Known as Team Muirhead and Team Smith, they still help out with their respective families’ farming duties. While training for the Olympics, Kyle Smith fed the calves before going to the gym in the morning or milking at weekends, and the Muirhead brothers combine their sheep farming duties with training (they’re missing the lambing season to be at the Olympics). But Eve – who also plays golf and the bagpipes – prioritises curling practice.


The Smiths and Muirheads playing together. Photo: Getty

The Smiths are trailing the Muirheads medal-wise and see themselves as “the underdogs”, but there’s more rivalry between siblings than between the two families, who often play on the same team.

“I know we’re all super-competitive,” Eve tells me down the line from Pyeongchang. “We all support each other to the bitter end. To have my two brothers here is really special, I guess it makes this Olympics a little bit more special than the other ones.”

Just last season, the Muirhead brothers were on different teams and went head-to-head, competing for the same Olympic spot, which made working together on the farm temporarily tough. They had to check up on each other’s flocks while the other was training to beat them.

“Our local rink has unfortunately now closed down”

“I have learned how to wind him up over the last year so I have a few tricks up my sleeve,” Thomas, the younger Muirhead, quipped at the time. All the Muirhead siblings are so competitive that no board games were allowed at home.

Curling isn’t seen as a “posh” sport, like skiing (although curling clubs have been linked to freemasonry in the past), and it’s likely that such a small pool of talent is down to the sport’s decline rather than a privileged elite.

Eve Muirhead tells me that her “local rink at Pitlochry” – where she played as a child – has “unfortunately now closed down”, and this is part of a trend in Scotland. At curling’s peak in 1993, Scotland had 31 ice rinks which offered curling. The number is now down to 22.

The veteran curling commentator I speak to says the Olympics have benefited the sport’s image, but the money spent on elite competitive curling “to ‘buy’ GB medals” in this country “hasn’t helped grassroots curling much; only a few curlers benefit”.

It’s even starker in countries with no curling legacy. China has just two curling clubs for a population of 1.4 billion and still sends teams to the Olympics. Cullen confirms this, from his experience of international play. “Once curling got us [Canada] in the Olympics, a lot of countries recognised this as an opportunity to get a medal,” he says. “So what they’ve done in some of those cases in China, Japan, Korea, is they’ve found athletes from other sports and converted them into curlers.”

***

But this doesn’t mean curling is easy; it just makes it a more competitive sport. With my only background in curling being an episode of Pingu I watched as a child (he sweeps with his foot, the innovator), I rounded up some colleagues and went to the Sliders Social Fun and Games Club at Queens ice rink in West London to try it out for myself.

The banging beats, disco ball, and giant projected episode of Pointless on a rink-side screen didn’t exactly scream 16th century loch, but we pulled on our studded grippy rubber soles and took to the ice.

While one colleague discovered that she was “actually sick” (her words) at curling, most of us found the stones impossibly heavy and rolled them nowhere near the target.




New Statesman staff curl

A few goes in, I tried a double-handed curl, but that didn’t work at all. One bolder team member developed a special “one-knee thrust” move, which worked quite well.

Even the brushing was quite tough, because you fear falling over at any moment. Some men on the neighbouring rink told us we were “rubbish”.

Essentially, curling is really hard. A lesson that adds to its status as history’s most misunderstood sport. But its players remain dedicated, and audiences engrossed. As Rhona Howie, the master of the “Stone of Destiny”, tells me: “Never, ever give up, and keep fighting, one stone at a time.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.