Read it First: The Lives Behind the Books

Elizabeth Graney, Librarian, Literature & Fiction Department,
Collage of featured authors
The Lives Behind the Books

On this blog we have featured hundreds of films adapted from novels and short stories by authors from across the world and throughout history. While we have celebrated their works both on page and on screen, we’ve yet to take a look at the people behind the words. Though many authors live anonymous lives behind the pages of their books, others have become well known celebrities whose lives rival the tales they tell in their stories. It only makes sense, then, that many have become the subjects of films in their own right. This month, we’ve decided to satisfy our curiosity about some writers we know and love by taking a look at a few of these movies. Fair warning, these films are not documentaries and many take creative license with the details. With that in mind, let’s take a cinematic glimpse at some well known authors and the fascinating lives they led.

Watch and Read at Home

Book cover for Amour Fou
Amour Fou

Heinrich von Kleist was a 19th-century German poet, playwright, and author highly regarded as one of the best of his time. He is perhaps most well known, however, for his death. In 1811, von Kleist shot his friend Frau Henrietta Vogel and then himself. Many claimed they were lovers and that a recent cancer diagnosis had prompted Vogel to ask von Kleist to spare her from a long and painful death. Vogel and von Kleist’s deaths have long been romanticized as a lover’s suicide pact. Buried in a single grave, their final resting place has become a tourist attraction for young lovers. The film, Amour Fou, however, explores the idea of just how consensual this suicide pact actually was and how much Vogel may have been under von Kleist’s charismatic influence. You can read e-books of von Kleist’s work here.

Book cover for Capote

Truman Capote was an American author and playwright who is best known for his short story Breakfast at Tiffany’s and his self described nonfiction novel In Cold Blood. Capote began writing at a very young age and had his breakthrough with the publication of his short story Miriam which caught the attention of editor Bennet Cerf who helped to publish his first novel. Other Voices, Other Rooms hit the bestseller lists and Capote’s career took off from there. The publication of In Cold Blood, a look at a brutal murder in a small American town, many years later brought him both praise and condemnation. Hailed as a masterpiece by critics, he also faced claims that he had fabricated many of the scenes depicted. Though In Cold Blood was wildly successful, Capote was shaken by the experience and never completed another novel in his lifetime. The film Capote chronicles his time in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas researching In Cold Blood and looks at his unconventional friendship with accused murderer Perry Smith. Capote’s work can be found as e-books and audiobooks here.

Book cover for The End Of The Tour
The End Of The Tour

David Foster Wallace was an American author and professor who sadly took his own life in 2008. From the publication of his first novel, The Broom of the System, to the posthumous printing of his last work, The Pale King, Wallace garnered both critical acclaim and popular success. Highly influential and well regarded, his work continues to inspire readers to this day. Starring Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace, The End of the Tour is based on journalist David Lipsky’s book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. In 1996, Lipsky interviewed Wallace over the course of five days and discussed everything from literature to the pitfalls of Wallace’s emerging fame. As they talked, Lipsky got to see Wallace as few ever had and glimpsed the man behind the literary voice. We have e-books and e-audiobooks of David Foster Wallace’s books available here.

Book cover for Finding Neverland
Finding Neverland

Best known, of course, for his Peter Pan novels, JM Barrie was a Scottish author and playwright. He published several well-regarded novels and plays before a chance meeting in 1897 changed his life forever. Barrie met the Llewelyn Davies, a family with five young boys, in Kensington Gardens while walking his dog. Charmed by the boys, Barrie would tell them fantastical tales inspired by their antics which he then adapted into the now beloved story of Peter Pan. Over the years, Barrie grew quite close to the boys and their mother, Sylvia, and even adopted them after the death of their parents. The film Finding Neverland looks at how this friendship grew and the inspiration Barrie drew from the Davies family. You can find e-books of Barrie’s work here and here.

Book cover for Howl

Allen Ginsberg was an American poet and one of the most iconic members of the Beat Generation. Highly political, Ginsberg was an advocate for free speech and gay rights and protested the war on drugs and the Vietnam war. Ginsberg’s poem Howl was a monumental moment in literary history and is still considered one of the great works of American literature. Soon after its publication, the publisher and booksellers were arrested on charges of obscenity. The poem's references to drug use and both heterosexual and homosexual sex were used as justification for labeling it obscene and banning its publication. The presiding judge, however, felt differently and dismissed the charges claiming the book had “redeeming social importance.” The trial brought national fame to Ginsberg and the literary work of the Beat Generation. The film Howl is three films in one: an animated version of Ginsberg’s seminal poem, a portrayal of the events of the obscenity trial, and a look at the man behind the masterpiece. You can find e-books of Allen Ginsberg's work here and here.

Book cover for Impromptu

George Sand, born under the name Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, was a 19th century French novelist. The most popular writer of any gender in all of Europe by the age of 27, Sand was known for flaunting social mores. She wore men’s clothing without the required license to do so, smoked tobacco in public, and entered places reserved for men only. She had many romances throughout her life, but arguably her most famous was her affair with the composer Frederic Chopin. Together for 10 years, they had a falling out two years prior to Chopin’s death and Sand infamously did not attend his funeral. The 1991 film Impromptu chronicles their romance and the events that tore it apart. Want to find out for yourself why Honore de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert and Victor Hugo were outspoken admirers of her work? Check out e-books of George Sand’s books here and here

Book cover for Iris

Iris Murdoch was a British author and philosopher who won the Booker Prize in 1978 for her novel The Sea, the Sea. Murdoch published over two dozen novels in her lifetime, in addition to her works of philosophy and literary criticism, which garnered critical praise and book award nominations. Her books often mixed her philosophical and fictional interests, exploring the ideas of free will, morality and our inability to truly grasp the interior life of another living being. The biographical film Iris follows the enduring and unconventional love story between her and her husband, John Bayley. E-books of Irish Murdoch’s work are available here.

Book cover for The Passion Of Ayn Rand
The Passion Of Ayn Rand

A divisive figure, Ayn Rand was a Russian American author best known for her novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. She is known for creating the philosophical belief system Objectivism which promotes the idea of a knowable, objective reality that can be discovered through the use of logic and the assertion that the highest moral good is personal happiness. This belief system is fundamental to both her fiction and non-fiction work and Rand spent her life developing and promoting Objectivism. Based on the biography of Ayn Rand written by her former friend Barbara Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand details Rand’s affair with a much younger married man and the havoc it wreaked on their lives. Ayn Rand’s books and audiobooks are available online here.

Book cover for A Quiet Passion
A Quiet Passion

Emily Dickinson was a 19th century American poet whose unconventional work left an indelible impression on American poetry. Though only 10 of her poems were published during her lifetime, almost 2,000 were discovered upon her death and published posthumously. Dickinson’s work was atypical for her time, utilizing unusual rhyming schemes, ignoring punctuation, and often lacking titles. They address dark themes with humor and quiet introspection. Dickinson was a recluse who spent the majority of her life in the seclusion of her family home and was considered an eccentric by her contemporaries. Much of what we know of her life is pieced together from her extensive correspondence and the writings of her family. A Quiet Passion is a biographical film that gives us a glimpse at this elusive figure and the life she lived behind doors. You can find e-books of Emily Dickinson’s work here.

Book cover for Shakespeare In Love
Shakespeare In Love

The man who needs no introduction. Arguably the most famous author of all time, William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright during the late 16th and early 17th century. He wrote between 37 and 40 plays, depending on whether you include certain lost or uncredited works. While we know some facts about Shakespeare’s life and his works, there are gaps in the records and a lack of detailed information. The film, Shakespeare in Love, takes advantage of this to weave a fictional tale of a tragic romance between Shakespeare and a woman named Viola de Lesseps. After posing as a man to perform in one of his plays, Viola and Shakespeare fall into an illicit romance. It is a tale of thwarted love and inspired prose. You can find e-books and e-audiobooks of Shakespeare’s work here.