Think of any remotely iconic individual of the last 200 years, and if their life hasn’t yet been dramatised for a major film, you can bet it’s on course to. The biopic has become a reigning genre of film: what was once considered a tired, formulaic genre has come to epitomise the creme de la creme of the film industry, with big budgets, leading Hollywood actors and box office sell-outs. Dead or alive, across politics, the arts and the monarchy, the biopic has put the lives of real people onto centre screen – and the films continue to proliferate in number.
We’ve seen Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth and Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher; Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens; Colin Firth as King George V and Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf. Last year alone, Eddie Redmayne portrayed Stephen Hawking (winning Golden Globe for Best Actor), Benedict Cumberbatch gave us Alan Turing, Timothy Spall presented JMW Turner. In 2015, Tom Hardy will tackle Elton John, Amy Adams will play Janis Joplin, and Michael Fassbender will take on Steve Jobs. The list goes on.
And it’s not just the big screen that’s turned its attention from fictional heroes to real icons: the trend is alive in almost every other medium. On television, Sheridan Smith won acclaim as ITV’s Cilla, while Martin Clunes recently featured in an adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s life. Shakespeare in Love in the West End turns the playwright’s love life into a musical, and Beautiful tells the life of Carole King through the words of her own lyrics. Across theatre, Dame Kristin Scott Thomas and Zoe Wanamaker prepare to dazzle audiences in their portrayals of Queen Elizabeth and Stevie Smith, respectively, in London this spring.
The reasons behind this trend are numerous. Of course, in the world of financial profit, it’s arguably easier to generate interest in a film about a readily-known individual, just as it’s safer for producers to write a sequel for a franchise that’s already stood the test of popularity. Audiences have a clear appetite for the familiar, and the biopic fulfils this inclination.
More pressingly, the biopic also satisfies our natural human curiosity towards other people’s lives, as well as our tendency to idolise them. Often we already know about the figure under the spotlight – their origins, the key events of their lives, their milestones and downfalls – but this proves just as intriguing, if not more so, than the life of a fictional character. As Dennis Bignham writes in his book Whose Lives Are They Anyway?, biopics ‘plumb that mystery of humanness, the inability completely to know another person, and the absolute importance of knowing them’. The same applies to books: just look at the top shelves of Waterstones, stacked with biographies and memoirs.
That said, what makes the biopic so appealing is that it is a drama rather than a documentary, and this distinction is key. We’re excited not so much by the events themselves, but by the intimate dramatisation of those events before our very eyes. There is a natural suspense in being privy to the action, even where the climax is known, and this stretches back to the days of Greek tragedy. We already know how the Queen will respond in the wake of Diana’s death, and of the controversies that await Margaret Thatcher’s reign, but to see those historical moments enacted as drama connects us to their humanity.
It was Mark Twain who said that ‘truth is stranger than fiction’, and the biopic demonstrates this. In the world of story-telling, there is a particular allure in knowing that something really happened. Hearing that a film is ‘based on true events’ makes your ears prick up; knowing that a narrative is grounded in fact rather than pure imagination lends it a sudden profundity. And this is because our connection to fiction often depends on how authentically it reflects and investigates true experience.
By exploring the world of real lives in the structure of a film narrative, the biopic stirs our perceptions, our preconceptions and our judgements. ‘The structure of a film is incredibly conventional, but life isn’t like that’ points out Frank Cottrell Boyce. ‘It’s important for biopics to challenge the idea that’s theres a fixed interpretation’ – and through its ultimate combination of fact immersed in fiction, that’s exactly what it succeeds in doing.