The Max Perkins Movie: Better to Read About Perkins Than Watch Him Edit Thomas Wolfe

By Jack Limpert


Jude Law as writer Thomas Wolfe, Colin Firth as editor Max Perkins.

As a longtime fan of A. Scott Berg’s biography of legendary book editor Max Perkins, I had looked forward to the movie version of the editor’s life. The movie, Genius, starring Colin Firth as Perkins, is based on Berg’s book, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, with the screenplay by John Logan.

Perkins had helped F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and many other writers do their best work while staying the model of a smart, hard-working, patient, self-effacing editor. But I came out of the movie thinking that Perkins had gotten lost in a cinematic soap opera starring Jude Law as loud, brilliant author Thomas Wolfe and Nicole Kidman as Wolfe’s jealous girlfriend.

The movie reviews were lukewarm despite a cast that included Firth, Law, Kidman, and Laura Linney. A.O. Scott in the New York Times called it a literary bromance, saying:

“For Tom, writing is the unbridled expression of the life force, something Mr. Law indicates by hollering and gesticulating and allowing a stray lock of hair to fall just so across his brow. Mr. Firth’s performance is equally broad, even though he’s supposed to be the more uptight partner in this bromance. He grimaces and sighs like a vaudeville Puritan.”

Ann Hornaday was little kinder in the Washington Post:

“Anchored by a quietly sympathetic performance by Colin Firth—the most reliable actor on the planet when it comes to personifying diffidence and moral rectitude—this attractive, ultimately affecting portrait of friendship and creative collaboration may lack the dynamism and fire of the work it celebrates, but it provides an absorbing account of a relationship that, although obscure to most viewers, radically reshaped the American literary landscape of the 20th century.”

Moire Macdonald in the Seattle Times seemed most on target:

“At the heart of Genius, a fact-based drama set in the late-1920s/early-1930s New York publishing world, is this truth: Editing is, alas, not cinematic.

“In the film, Colin Firth plays the great editor Maxwell Perkins, whose protégés included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe—and if your idea of heaven is watching Firth quietly make marks with a red pencil while correcting the grammar of those around him, have I got a movie for you. So buttoned-up that he wears a fedora seemingly 24 hours a day, Perkins is depicted here as a sort of literary saint; a calm man endlessly patient with his writers’ capriciousness. Indeed, he seems to have only one facial expression, which he wears as regularly as that hat: a sort of mild interest, overlaid with an ever-so-faint whiff of amusement.

“Wolfe, played by Jude Law as if he’s perpetually drunk, even when he isn’t. The author of Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River appears here as a feral-eyed Southern madman who writes standing up, scribbling wildly, and whose personal life is a swirling mess, in precise contrast to Perkins’ sedate suburban family home. The two, nonetheless, become literary partners, busily whittling down Wolfe’s latest massive manuscript and arguing about adjectives.”

After seeing Genius the first time, I rented the movie from Netflix and watched it at home, this time with subtitles so I could focus more on what was said. It turns out that reading John Logan’s screenplay was more interesting than watching Jude Law overplay Thomas Wolfe. Some examples:

Perkins, talking to Wolfe about the manuscript of his first book, Look Homeward, Angel:

“I think you could afford to shape it a bit. . .cut off a few of the top branches.”

Wolfe [not being at all honest]: “I know it’s too long. But I’ll cut anything you say. You just give me the word.”

Perkins: “Tom, the book belongs to you. All I want to do is bring your work to the public in its best possible form. My job, my only job, is to put good books into the hands of readers.”


As editor and writer battle over cuts and the length of the book, Wolfe insists on taking Perkins out for a drink to a jazz club:

Perkins: “We’re supposed to be working.”

Wolfe: “This is work.

I decided you can never appreciate the music of my book. . .

the tonality and cadence. . .

without experiencing the dark rhythms that inspire me.

You hear it, Max?”

Perkins: “I don’t care much for music.”

Wolfe: “There’s a savage indictment of your grim, puritan soul.

The whole thing about jazz is that these fellas are artistes.

They interpret the song. . .

letting the music pour out, riff upon riff. . .

just like I do with words.

To hell with standard forms.

To hell with Flaubert and Henry James.

Be original.

Feel it, Max.”

After the book is finished and the manuscript is about to be sent to the printer, Wolfe asks Perkins to add a few more sentences.

Perkins: “Tom, it’s done. Stop writing.”

What Wolfe wants to add is a dedication to Perkins.

Perkins resists:

“I wish you wouldn’t.

Editors should be anonymous.

More than that. . .

there’s always the fear. . .

that I deformed your book.

What’s to say it wasn’t the way it was meant to be. . .

when you first brought it in?

That’s what we editors lose sleep over, you know.

Are we really making books better?

Or just making them different?”

After Look Homeward, Angel is published to great reviews and sales, Wolfe comes back to New York from Paris and takes Perkins to the rundown apartment where Wolfe lived when he first came to the city. They go up on the rooftop of the building:

Wolfe: “I would come here every twilight. . .

and look at the city. . .

and dream of what my life might be. . .

till the stars come out.

The stars in the sky.

The lights in the buildings.

All those lights.

All the power of life.”

Perkins: “I think back in the caveman days. . .

our ancestors would huddle around the fire at night. . .

and wolves would be howling in the dark, just beyond the light.

And one person would start talking.

And he would tell a story. . .

so we wouldn’t be so scared in the dark.”

After an hour and ten minutes of Perkins coping with Wolfe, Perkins goes fishing with Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway on Wolfe:

“That boy has serious delusions of importance.

And he’s mouthing off to the press too much.

Tell him to shut the hell up and stick to his pencil.”

Perkins: “Well, you know Tom, he’s exuberant.”

Hemingway: “Bullshit. He’s starting to believe what they say about him.

Same thing that happened to Fitzgerald.

Gets to hear he’s the great man of letters so many times. . .

he starts to believe it.

Then he’s got to live up to it and then he stops writing.”

Berg’s book about Max Perkins was inspiring and a great read and won a National Book Award. The movie?  Probably no Oscars but I thought the words were worth reading once you got past all the shouting and acting. And the subtitles had some poetry in them.

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