‘Genius,’ the adaptation of gay biographer A. Scott Berg’s portrait of Max Perkins — a giant of American letters — finally makes it to the screen
If that last name doesn’t sound familiar, that may change with the release of the new film Genius. If it does sound familiar, you probably have A. Scott Berg to thank for it.
Like a lot of nerdy kids, Berg was just 15 when he became obsessed with F. Scott Fitzgerald — so obsessed, that he attended Princeton University because Fitzgerald did also.
“I was on campus a total of two days before I was going over Fitzgerald’s papers in the library,” Berg explains. “ But the more I read, the more Max Perkins’ name kept popping up. In fact, more books are dedicated to Max Perkins than any other person.”
Yet there was almost nothing written about him.
Then Berg really lucked out: Charles Scribner’s Sons, the legendary publishing house where Perkins ruled for decades, donated its entire collection to Princeton. “No one had been through the archives before,” he says. “There was every letter written to Max Perkins, and a carbon copy of every reply he wrote. I looked at it all and said, ‘Oh my god, this is the history of 20th century American literature.’”
Berg turned his research into a college thesis, and that eventually developed into his first book, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius.
“When the biography came out in 1978, my editor said, ‘I need a quote for the flat. Give me Max Perkins in one sentence,’ and I said ‘He was the most important person in American literature that is completely unknown.’”
It’s taken nearly 40 years, but that biography has finally been adapted to the screen, with Oscar-winner Colin Firth as Perkins and Jude Law playing Thomas Wolfe, one of the novelists Perkins nurtured.
It’s a satisfying capstone for Berg, whose career is scattered with accolades, including a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award and bragging rights as the creator of a singularly groundbreaking gay movie. (More on that later.) Berg’s bio is a sprawling chronicle on Perkins’ influence on a generation of post-World War I writers — the so-called Lost Generation that, by all accounts, was one of the most fertile breeding grounds of literary masters the world has ever seen. Which begs a question: Was it a golden age for writers… or was Max Perkins just that good?
“That’s a tough question, because the answer is both,” Berg says. “It really was a golden age of writing. That post-war generation was really coming of age on paper — Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway. There was a lot of great writing going on, but also a lot of great reading going on too, and a lot of great publishing. It was a great time to take chances on and invest in writers, which Perkins did. He really gave Marjory Kinnan Rawlings her career, because she had written two books that didn’t do much. And he suggested she write a children’s book about growing up in rural Florida. She titled it The Fawn, and he said, ‘What do you think of calling it The Yearling?’”
He likewise gave voices to Fitzgerald and Hemingway and James Jones and Erskine Caldwell. But it’s his relationship with Wolfe that is the focus of Genius.
“You really couldn’t tell everyone’s story in a single movie,” Berg concedes about the decision of screenwriter John Logan (Skyfall, The Aviator) to pare down the biography. “It’s the least known and also the most colorful story in the book — Wolfe is a bigger-than-life character. It was certainly the most intense drama in either of their lives: The ultimate professional challenge for Max Perkins, and Max was the ultimate professional gift to Thomas Wolfe. I think John Logan really captured that —he’s scary prolific. In the time we’re having this conversation, he’s probably written a screenplay.”
Wolfe himself, was known for his prodigious output as well, which Perkins encouraged him to hone into more manageable fiction. That has led some revisionist critics to cluck that Wolfe’s original work was better than what Perkins published — a critique Berg scoffs at.
“The thing I hasten to add [when people make that accusation] is that Perkins didn’t make Wolfe do anything — he was there to suggest. Now, he had a lot of credibility because of what he had already done, but he never said if you don’t make this change we are not publishing it. But if he hadn’t pared it down to something that you could put between two covers,” Wolfe’s career might not have taken off.
Which raised the question: To whom does the title “genius” refer?
“I think it is ambiguous, as was mine: Was he an editor of great geniuses, or did he edit with genius?” Berg says. He’s not willing to give a flat answer.
What we do know is, we have Max Perkins to thank — indirectly — for advancing gay culture in the 1980s. Here’s how:
Following the success of Berg’s book, he was in demand to write another biography. But the process of finalizing the contracts was so time-consuming, Berg became antsy to write … something. His father suggested he write a treatment for a screenplay, and he took up the challenge.
His story soon became the 1982 film Making Love, which — before the days of AIDS, but also before marriage equality — gave an entire generation of gay people a kind of hope for normalcy.
Making Love “was basically the first studio film with a gay protagonist, and in which gays were not portrayed as victims or psychopaths,” Berg says. “It was Sherry Lansing, who had just taken over at 20th Century Fox, who put it on her slate. She thought it was time and was a great social movement happening.”
A lot has changed in the intervening years. Berg has written more biographies — one of movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn, one of his friendship with Katharine Hepburn, one of Charles Lindbergh, which won him a Pulitzer — but Max Perkins and the stars of early 20th century literature have remained an abiding presence. When you become so intimate with genius, it’s not something you easily shake off.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 17, 2016.