The Stories Behind Writers

Aren’t you curious about writers? The faces behind the words you read, what inspired them as writers, who they are, how they write? I know I am. And judging by two films and one series I watched recently so are others. All three focus on writers, their lives, experiences and influences. They are: Agatha Christie and the Truth of Murder (2018 film), Tolkien (2019 film) and Little Women (BBC television series 2017).

Of the three Agatha and the Truth of Murder was the one I liked least. I’m not a fan of Agatha Christie plots. And this film addresses Christie’s own doubts about the predictability of her stories. In real life Agatha Christie went ‘missing’ for a number of days during her career and Agatha and the Truth of Murder is an imaginative story of how Christie might have spent that mysterious time. The writers place Christie squarely in an actual murder case which she is forced to solve. This experience ultimately helps her own writing – or so the story goes. The point made by the film is that an author’s lived experiences informs their writing.

Tolkien makes this very point clearly. In this film, however, what is portrayed may reflect actual events in the author’s life. The film is an in-depth, sensitive biography of the famous author’s formative years and how the many influences in his life ultimately had great bearing on his famous works. His poverty, orphanhood, intelligence, love of language, and desire for friendship all influenced the man and the writer he became. His romance with fellow orphan Edith Bratt, which ultimately matured into marriage was an integral part of his life. And WWI, which cut through everything – his studies, career, romance and friendship circle – profoundly affected the man and writer he became.

Slightly more subtle on the theme of experiences influencing writing is the BBC television series Little Women based on the book by Louisa May Alcott. Of the four sisters in Little Women, Jo March was the writer. She wrote initially because she loved writing. Then she wrote out of necessity. And finally she wrote out of pain, as a way to process the death of her beloved sister, Beth. Jo’s life circumstances obviously influenced the writer she became.

Practical Criticism or New Criticism is a branch of literary theory that studies the form of texts. The theory disregards author intention and reader response. There is certainly merit to this approach to studying literature, especially with poems or stories for which the reader has no idea of the author’s intent.

However, I just can’t help wondering… What influences of your life can be brought to bear on the writer you are?



Denial Pits the Rigors of Fact Against the Excitement of Conspiracy Theory

Denial is based on the book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier by Deborah E. Lipstadt. The cast of main characters is all British, with the exception of one South African, Caren Pistorius, who plays a junior paralegal. Even the one American character in the story, Lipstadt, is played by a Briton, Rachel Weisz.

The story revolves around exactly what the title of the book proclaims: a

Image source: Pretty Famous

Image source: Pretty Famous

day in court. Historian, Lipstadt, is accused by holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall) of defaming him in one of her publications. Passionate about her subject, and Jewish herself, Lipstadt decides to go to court, rather than settle out of it. She is appointed a British legal team who takes on the case pro bono (although funding needs to be raised to pay costs). Despite its brilliance the team’s seemingly objective, very methodical approach to the case conflicts with Lipstadt’s strongly held – and voiced – values on her subject. Much of the story actually revolves around Lipstadt’s own coming to terms with their methods, one of which involves her not even taking the stand and thus remaining silent throughout the trial. This goes against her grain and is an exercise in “self-denial”, a line which appears in a conversation in the film.

A major aspect of the story is the depiction (and explanation) of the British legal system which is different to the American one. Whilst solicitors do the behind-the-scenes work, explains solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) in one scene, barristers are the ones who argue the case in court. In Denial Tom Wilkinson plays Richard Rampton, the barrister. Viewers are privy to the team’s decision to argue the case by proving Irving to be a racist, anti-Semite and a wilful liar. This tack requires a great deal of discipline, a huge amount of research (performed by an enormous team of historians, professors and students), and a firm decision not to defend the holocaust by putting survivors on the stand.

Tom Wilkinson performs his role as barrister Richard Rampton with delicacy and balance. Rampton approaches his job with scientific precision, but also manages to connect with his emotional and upset client, Lipstadt. He consciously avoids eye contact with David Irving in court, a tactic designed to unsettle the opposition. But when the court case is over, Rampton continues to ignore Irving thus revealing his true feelings. This subtle display of emotion made me weep.

Irving is well-portrayed as an ill-informed radical with his own agenda. He reminded me of purveyors of other conspiracy theories, proponents of which unfortunately get lots of attention in the media while the plodding, scientific, historical facts get overlooked. This may in fact be what happens to this film. Denial is not an action film. It tells a relatively small story despite its weighty subject, and may therefore not attract large audiences. I, however, was completely absorbed from beginning to end and highly recommend this tightly acted, carefully portrayed film.

Denial opens at cinemas in South Africa on 10 February 2017.

View the trailer of Denial here: