As Screenings discussed last month, Hollywood likes nothing better than a tried and tested story, and there is nothing like life for a good yarn. However, it's not always straightforward. It can be difficult to make a bio-pic dramatic—everybody knows what happened in the end, after all—and producers continually search for interesting ways to depict lives, and for interesting lives to dramatize. Sometimes bio-pics will make a political point, like The Laramie Project, about Matthew Shepard, or will be inspirational and highlight issues, as in Erin Brockovich. Sometimes they are just strange and triumphant, like A Beautiful Mind.
Dramatizing real-life stories can be fraught with pitfalls. In the case of Sylvia, the film to be released on October 17 about the doomed relationship between Sylvia Plath (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) and Ted Hughes (played by Daniel Craig), their real story is a starting point for a dramatic and tragic movie love story. One problem in making movies about contemporaries is that the subjects, or their heirs, have views about how they are depicted, or even whether they should be depicted at all. Ted Hughes was famously silent on the subject of his infidelity and his wife's suicide for more than 30 years until the publication of Birthday Letters (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) a year before his death in 1999. The couple's only daughter, Frieda, who is the literary executor of her mother's estate, did not support the movie project and has not allowed any of Plath's poetry to be used in it. David Thompson, the BBC producer of the film, was quoted in the London Sunday Times: "We are naturally very concerned about the family's feelings, but believe we have approached the film in a responsible and unsensational way. We are making a balanced film which will reflect both stories and celebrate the extraordinary genius they shared."
The rights situation concerning bio-pics can also be complicated. Sometimes optioning a biography or autobiography can help structure a movie or give necessary information. Other times, a producer also needs to option the subject's life rights. Equally, if there is enough information in the public domain, then no rights purchases may be necessary.
The story of Sylvia is told in Plath's thinly disguised fiction, The Bell Jar, and in Hughes's Birthday Letters, although no books were actually optioned to make this movie. HarperPerennial has six books by Plath, including The Bell Jar, and two audio books, including a new, unabridged audio version read by Maggie Gyllenhall coming in September. Plath reading her own poetry is also available on tape. Other HarperPerennial books include Letters Home, Ariel, Collected Poems and Readers' Guides to The Bell Jar. Perennial is re-promoting its Plath publications to coincide with the film's release. FSG, which publishes Birthday Letters, will also be re-promoting it in October. There is a lot of ancillary publishing including biographies, fiction and criticism. St. Martin's has Kate Moss's novel Wintering, and Viking has Diane Middlebrook's study of the pair, Her Husband, coming in October. Bookstores will be promoting these together in Ted and Sylvia displays around the time of the movie's release.