On paper, the life of a writer, even that of a world-famous icon, doesn’t seem overly cinematic. For those whose pen actually is mightier than a sword, the works often overshadow the personality.
Still, Hollywood’s got a fever for classic authors, especially those of British lineage. Goodbye Christopher Robin (in theaters Friday in New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Washington, expands to additional cities through October) tackles Winnie-the-Pooh creator A.A. Milne, while The Man Who Invented Christmas (out Nov. 22) shines a seasonal light on Charles Dickens. And the upcoming Tolkien is the life story of The Lord of the Rings scribe J.R.R. Tolkien.
Previous prestige films about similar bygone-era writers have found awards-season success: Finding Neverland (2004) snagged seven Oscar nominations and one win (for original score) with Johnny Depp as Peter Pan playwright J.M. Barrie, and Renée Zellweger received a Golden Globe nomination for her role as The Tale of Peter Rabbit author Beatrix Potter in Miss Potter (2006).
The key to keeping these potentially dry true-life stories creative and exciting for a modern audience is “just trying to find the moments that made these people,” says The Man Who Invented Christmas director Bharat Nalluri.
Tolkien, with Nicholas Hoult as the purveyor of Middle-earth lore, will focus on how friendship, romance and battle inspired the author’s fantasy epics. Like Tolkien, Milne (played by Domhnall Gleeson) was a World War I veteran; Christopher Robin showcases how the author grappled with PTSD and struggled with personal connections, only to befriend his young son (Will Tilston) and hatch the world of his renowned children’s books.
“It can’t be a film just about Winnie-the-Pooh, it has to be about these people,” says director Simon Curtis. “That was always in my mind: It’s a film about family.”
Inhabiting a man haunted by the ghosts of war is what challenged Gleeson the most, “reading about how shut off a person can feel to the world and keeping that interesting enough to watch,” the Irish actor says. “It’s a scary thing, being able to take you back to a place that your mind wasn’t able to cope with."
The Man Who Invented Christmas also has biopic elements but it’s more a fantastical look at Dickens’ creative process, his desperate need for another literary hit in 1843 and the whirlwind six weeks he had to write A Christmas Carol.
Played by Dan Stevens, the wild-eyed Dickens goes on his own time-traveling journey alongside Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) while reflecting on his life through the ghosts of Christmases past, present and yet to come when hurrying to finish his holiday masterpiece.
“I would like to think that if Charles Dickens was around to watch this film, he’d enjoy it because it’s nuts. It’s mad like he was,” says Nalluri.
He adds that A Christmas Carol and Winnie-the-Pooh have stood the test of time partly because they’re “very effective and very affecting” with their authors having gone through “some trauma or childbirth element” to create them.
“Will we be making movies about J.K. Rowling sitting in a café in Edinburgh writing Harry Potter and having the book rejected 12 times and having a cup of tea by the electric fire?” Nalluri says. “I suspect someone’s going to make that.”