When people think of the famous writers of the past and the timeless words they’ve written, they think of middle-aged cynics, hidden in their rooms, writing with a quill on dried parchment by the light of a candle. Their shoulders are hunched, their brow is wrinkled and sweat dribbles down their chin. They have no time for pleasure but must submit to their words, to the muse that guides them. They are boring, writing about life instead of experiencing it for themselves.
Today, I am here to prove this stereotype wrong. As an aspiring writer, I have often studied and looked toward “the greats” for inspiration and guidance when trying my hand at this nuanced art. Most writers, specifically those who have produced what are considered the best works of fiction, aren’t what we picture them to be; in fact, most of them, at least in their time, broke the mold for what a traditional writer should be. So, here are five movies I’ve watched within the past year that show (somewhat) accurate depictions of writers of the past and their thrilling, adventurous and sometimes even scandalous lives, how they, as poet Emily Dickinson says, “dwell[ed] in possibility.”
- “Mary Shelley”
Elle Fanning stars in this dramatic retelling of “Frankenstein” author Mary Shelley’s life. “Mary Shelley”starts with 16-year-old Mary living with her father, stepmother, and stepsister. When visiting Scotland she meets Percy Bysshe Shelley, a famous poet, whom she falls in love with. After a long flirtation, Mary eventually runs off with Percy (who neglects his wife and child), taking her stepsister, Claire, with her. The movie then follows the three through the next eight years of their lives, facing various scandals- Percy’s neglect of first wife and their child, Claire’s relationship with another famous poet, Lord Byron, Mary and Percy’s sickly baby, and the money troubles Percy runs from that inevitably catch up to him. Throughout the story, the audience can see from where Shelley draws inspiration for the themes of abandonment in her masterpiece “Frankenstein” and actually sees the infamous tale of how the great literary work came to be- a challenge to write a ghost story one dark and stormy night. Overall, “Mary Shelley” is a testament to the fact that, despite the general consensus, a writer’s life can be full of adventure and that they can be full-fledged people who experience the world they write about. Mary Shelley experienced both great joy and great sorrow during her life and wrote about it, creating the awe-inspiring literary work we marvel at and study today.
One of my personal favorites, “Wilde” tells the scandalous tale of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” author Oscar Wilde. This story begins with Oscar, after touring the United States, returning to England where he meets and then marries his wife, Constance Lloyd. The two appear to be a happy couple with two lovely sons. The pair then decides to have a young journalist, Robbie Ross, stay with them. Oscar and Ross are drawn towards each other and soon engage in a sexual and romantic relationship. Wilde’s attention moves on to poet Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (played by the stunning Jude Law) while Ross’ feelings persist. Throughout the duration of the film, Wilde and Douglas’ relationship grows and becomes intimate; the movie also explores the couple’s feelings for each other and the social implications that put a strain on same-sex relationships. Bosie’s father disapproves of the lovers’ pairing and of Wilde in general. He is determined to break the two apart, to not let his son’s actions disgrace him. What does the Marquess of Queensberry do and what happens to Wilde and Bosie? Watch “Wilde” to find out!
- “Bright Star”
Get your tissue boxes and ice cream ready for this next movie. “Bright Star” tells the tragic story of the poet John Keats and his great love, Fanny. Fanny Brawne meets John Keats when he comes to stay with the Dilkes family, who own the other half of the home in which Fanny and her family live. At first, John is distant, not wanting to interact much with her. After the death of John’s sickly brother, Keats sees the pain it caused Fanny, and the two become closer. Fanny asks John to teach her about poetry. Eventually, the two begin a passionate romance. Problems then begin to arise. Though the two care deeply for one another, they cannot be together. John is poor and has to depend on his writing for money. Fanny’s family is insistent that she marry a man of fortune. Her mother is quite concerned that Fanny’s infatuation with John will stop her from seeking wealthier, more appropriate suitors. As it always happens, time runs out. John returns home one night, shivering and coughing up blood. A doctor is called, and he’s diagnosed with tuberculosis. The couple who’d only had a limited amount of time to begin with now have almost no time at all. The rest of the movie follows Keats and Fanny as they deal and struggle with his illness. “Bright Star” is an ode to young love in its purest form and is a story that you won’t forget.
- “Wild Nights with emily”
I can’t write this article without mentioning my favorite poet. “Wild Nights with Emily” follows writer Emily Dickinson through her later years. In this film, Dickinson is a recluse- she never leaves her home, she doesn’t seem to care for the laws of Amherst society. When children come to her home, she sends bread down to them from her second story window with a rope. Her reclusivity, however, doesn’t prohibit her from having some fun. Her best friend Susan “Sue” Gilmore lives right next door. They’ve been friends since they were girls and have kept the flames of their close bond alive. Many scholars speculate that Emily and Sue were lovers, having a romantic relationship kept hidden, due to the 19th century view of same sex relationships and the strict religious ideals that persisted in their small New England town of Amherst, Massachusetts. The film further interprets this relationship- Emily and Sue continue their romantic relationship, Sue often going over to Emily’s home to proofread her poems before the two make love. The movie also explores the controversy over Emily’s feelings about being published as well as a possible fling she had with Kate Turner. While “Wild Nights with Emily” definitely isn’t the wildest (pun intended) film on this list, it goes to show that even recluses, hermits, and shut ins, despite being the stereotype for a 19th century writer, can still lead exciting lives.
- “shakespeare in love”
Though this isn’t the most accurate depiction of the illustrious William Shakespeare, I HAD to include one of the, in my opinion, best historical dramas, if the 1998 Best Picture Academy Award can be used as evidence: “Shakespeare in Love.” This film follows a young Will Shakespeare as he struggles to write a new hit play. Will unsuccessfully attempts to seduce Rosaline, mistress to Richard Burbage, trying to persuade her to convince the owner of the Curtain Theatre into buying Shakespeare’s play from Phillip Henslowe, the owner of the Rose Theatre and the man who Will writes plays for. After hearing Rosaline is having an affair with Edmund Tilney, Master of the Revels, Henslowe, needing to pay off a debt, begins auditions for Shakespeare’s newest play “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter.” Enter Viola. A woman from a respectable family, she disguises herself as a man by the name of Thomas Kent to audition, since women weren’t allowed to perform in the theatre at this time. Will soon discovers Viola’s true identity and the two begin a passionate affair, knowing well enough that their love has a limit, since Viola is set to marry Lord Wessex. The film follows their loving relationship, Viola’s attempt to disguise herself as a man, and the success of Shakespeare’s play. Like stated before, this movie isn’t historically accurate when discussing the life of William Shakespeare, but the characterization of Will goes to show that even the most famous writer in the second millennium, perhaps of all time, didn’t sit in his room moping all day, waiting for life to seize