In 1929 we find Max Perkins sitting behind his desk at Scribners and Sons. He casually crosses out lines and makes notes in the margins of a manuscript with a red pencil. Someone comes in and tells him he needs to read a recent submission. The book is a mountain of pages a foot tall. Max asks if it’s any good. It’s different, the slush pile reader says.
We have a montage scene of Max reading the massive manuscript on the train ride home, at the dinning room table, in the living room, and on the train returning to the office. We hear a few of the lines in voice over and they are unusual, brilliant, the work of a genius. The book was written by Thomas Wolfe.
Scribners had a couple of other great writers at the same time, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. They mention in passing James Joyce and Marcel Proust. Proust is probably the most like our hero Tom Wolfe, who routinely cranks out five thousand words a day and later submits a manuscript that is five thousand pages long. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway write shorter novels. The Great Gatsby is 193 pages. The Old Man and The Sea clocks in at 127 pages. Tom’s books are whittled down to around 700 pages.
The crux of the story here is that Tom needs an Editor. His massive amounts of verbiage are beautiful, but undisciplined. Max has to fight for every edit, as Tom fights for every word. It’s hard to imagine such a relationship happening now. But then, how often do we get to see any behind the scenes stories about current works of genius? Max says that the Editor should be invisible, and for the most part they are. They are only noticeable in their absence, such as most self published books where the author has no one to tell them, maybe you should leave that bit out.
Colin Firth, Jude Law, and Nicole Kidman give great performances. The sets and costumes are brilliant. Everything is well done and, for a change, the story here is damned good as well. Here is the story of a writer that was hailed a genius, and I never heard of him. To be fair, a quick look at Bestsellers of the 1930s shows that I have never heard of a lot of writers of the time. The Tom Wolfe I know is a different writer altogether. The books mentioned in the film, I never heard of them either. Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River were massive MSs edited by Max that become bestsellers for Scribners.
Genius was an interesting movie that is well worth watching.