The Max Perkins Screenplay: Two Writers Talk About Their Editor

By Jack Limpert


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

Some of the best parts of A. Scott Berg’s book, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, on which the movie Genius is based, were about the editor’s dealings with authors Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway, but the movie’s focus seems 90 percent about the more cinematic Wolfe.

In a post last week, I said that after seeing Genius for the first time and being put off by the overplayed anguish of Jude Law as Wolfe and Nicole Kidman as Wolfe’s mentor and girlfriend, I watched the movie a second time with subtitles. The reading experience was more interesting than the watching experience.

Here are the subtitles from a scene late in the movie after a dinner party incident where Wolfe, drinking too much, insults Fitzgerald. Perkins finally tells Wolfe that his self-centered behavior is intolerable, seeming to break off the editor-writer relationship. Wolfe later visits Fitzgerald to apologize. Then this dialogue about the editor-writer relationship:

Fitzgerald: You spoken to Max lately?

Wolfe: Oh, don’t talk to me about Max.

Fitzgerald: Why not, Tom?

Wolfe: I know he’s your friend, but you have no idea.

He crippled me.

He deformed my work.

He as much admitted it.

And then he tried to take credit for my success.

Fitzgerald: He did no such thing. Do you know how much you hurt him?

Wolfe: We hurt each other.

Fitzgerald: Don’t be glib with me, Tom.

Wolfe: You don’t know what he did to me.

Fitzgerald: What he did to you?

What did he do? He made all your dreams come true.

He gave you a career, a life.

Wolfe: There, the Scribner party line. I expected more from you.

Fitzgerald: That decent man believed in you when no one else would.

He poured all his hopes and dreams into you.

All the things he would never do, all the books he would never write.

And now you repay him with ugly accusations and brutality.

You ought to be ashamed of yourself.

That man has a genius for friendship…

and you’re squandered it.

There will come a day…

when you’re not the success you are now.

It’s a long road then, believe me.

Why hurt the one man who will walk on that road with you?
Another scene: Wolfe and Perkins have finished editing and revising Wolfe’s first novel, with the title on the manuscript O Lost.

Perkins: Here, imagine you’re a reader.

You’re working your way through a bookstore and lists of books…

and you see a book titled Trimalchio at West Egg. . .

and you see one titled The Great Gatsby.

Which are you going to pick up?

Wolfe: Gatsby.

Perkins: That’s why Scott changed his original title.

And Wolfe’s O Lost became Look Homeward, Angel.

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