Bookmark: Biopics can't match great reads about famous people

February 02, 2012|By Julia Keller, The Chicago Tribune

She's got the look. She's also got the walk, the talk and the wardrobe.

When Michelle Williams pouts and flounces and oozes her way across the screen in "My Week With Marilyn," giving herself unreservedly to the role of a tormented yet still-alluring Marilyn Monroe at a pivotal moment in 1956, you're filled with admiration.

What you're not filled with, however, is the conviction that this is actually Monroe.

Williams, a performer of uncommon skill and dedication to her craft, is not to blame, any more than the great Meryl Streep is responsible for the fact that "The Iron Lady" is unlikely to convince people that they have suddenly been ushered into the presence of Great Britain's first female prime minister.


The fault lies not in our movie stars, but in ourselves — in, that is, the profoundly complex and endlessly shifting nature of human beings. To capture the richly dynamic essence of any individual requires the only medium that's up to the challenge: novels.

Sitting in the dark at a recent showing of "My Week With Marilyn," I was struck by the inadequacy of film as a way of conveying the boundless mystery of a real-life personality.

A movie can do many things well: It can dish up terrific, gravity-defying action scenes. It can create worlds that never existed and make them uncannily plausible. It can act as a sort of prosthesis for the imagination, supplying spectacular colors and highfalutin visual hocus-pocus.

But what it can't do — even when it tries its best — is get to the essence of a single human soul's journey across time.

For that, you need a novel. You need the slow, methodical unfolding of a story. You need the gradual accretion of events — happy ones, tragic ones, mistakes and triumphs and accidents and turning points. A novel can deliver, one by one, the people who move in and out of any life. It can spurn the superficial. It doesn't have to take anything at face value.

You need, if you're wondering about Monroe, "Blonde" (2000), the gloomy but luminous novel by Joyce Carol Oates. Or "Lincoln" (1984) by Gore Vidal, if Abraham Lincoln intrigues you. Or "Charlotte & Emily" (2010) by Jude Morgan, if your curiosity runs to the famous scribbling sisters who turned out "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights" in between bouts of melancholy.

Those are three of my favorite novels based on the lives of real people.

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