Thomas Wolfe was the biggest of literary voices in America in the 1930s. His contemporaries and competitors were names like Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald. Faulkner, who like Hemingway later won the Nobel Prize, thought Wolfe might have been the most talented among them. The new film Genius is about Wolfe’s collaboration with legendary editor Maxwell Perkins, who discovered both Fitzgerald and — through him — Hemingway. Perkins is played with great discipline by Colin Firth. The inferno of passion that is Wolfe is played by Jude Law. (Since it wouldn’t do to leave them out: Guy Pearce is F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dominic West is Hemingway.) The only thing missing in Law’s portrayal is something the actor can’t be faulted for: he never seems 6’6″ tall, which Wolfe was. His size contributed to Wolfe’s unique vantage, and his effect on those around him. Verisimilitude isn’t necessary or desirable, but the fact of Wolfe’s bigness was relevant especially in how it matched his production and personality.
Perkins, too, thought Wolfe’s talent was unexcelled, even by the elite literary company he kept. Perkins played midwife to four books by Wolfe — books whose titles, including Look Homeward, Angel and You Can’t Go Home Again — today are better known that the tales they relate. Wolfe died of tuberculosis at age 37 in 1938. His New York Times obituary read in part: “[Wolfe’s] was one of the most confident young voices in contemporary American literature, a vibrant, full-toned voice which it is hard to believe could be so suddenly stilled. The stamp of genius was upon him, though it was an undisciplined and unpredictable genius.” Perkins provided the discipline. The film is based on A. Scott Berg’s compassionate biography of Wolfe, which won the National Book Award.