To mark the occasion of National Poetry Month, we’ve put together this list of five excellent and five bad films about poets.
The Academy of American Poets established the custom of designating April as National Poetry Month in 1996. Many interesting biopics on well-known poets and writers exist that stand alone as well-made films, even if you aren’t a fan of poetry.
But there are also bad biopics that simplify or exaggerate the lives of well-known writers. Here are five great movies about poets against five terrible ones.
1. Lyrical: Bright Star (2009)
This touching and elegiac film about the life and death of British Romantic poet John Keats, who died at the age of 25 from TB, is the work of Australian director Jane Campion. As Ben Whishaw portrays Keats in the film, he spends the last three years of his life with a woman named Fanny Brawne, played by Abbie Cornish, and begins to find his own voice as a poet in the movie.
“Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art” is a line from a sonnet Keats composed while he was courting Brawne. For their modest but impactful performances, Ben Whishaw and Joe Cornish have received high praise.
2. Terrible: Sylvia (2003)
Christine Jeffs’ biography of twentieth-century American poet Sylvia Plath concentrates on her troubled marriage to British poet Ted Hughes and her eventual death in 1963 rather than on her talent as a writer or performer. The role of Plath is performed by Gwenyth Paltrow, and that of Hughes by Daniel Craig.
As a result of her husband’s infidelity, the movie simplifies Plath’s story to that of an emotionally distraught housewife who ends her own life. Considering Plath’s lifelong struggle with mental illness, a more accurate portrayal of her dynamic creative production is warranted.
3. Lyrical: A Quiet Passion (2016)
Nixon’s portrayal of Emily Dickison, a 19th-century American poet whose work was first released after her death in 1886, is riveting. Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, and lived her whole life there, writing more than 1,800 poems.
Direct, gloomy, and deliberate Dickinson’s meditative and powerful writing style is emulated by Terence Davies. Jennifer Ehle and Keith Carradine also star in the film.
4. Terrible: Set Fire To The Stars (2014)
Dylan Thomas, a Welsh poet of the 20th century, rose to prominence in the 1940s and 1950s as a performer on stage and radio in the United States and the United Kingdom. His flamboyant demeanor and heavy drinking were also well-known characteristics of Thomas.
Set Fire to the Stars, directed by Andy Goddard, is largely based on the life of Thomas and follows Elijah Wood’s character, a doctoral poetry student, as he sets out to find Thomas, played by Celyn Jones. Even though Jones does his best with the material, the film fails to capture the exuberant creative drive that Thomas possessed.
5. Lyrical: Slam (1998)
As a nod to the genre’s rich history while simultaneously highlighting a modern poet and musician, Marc Levin’s film Slam stars Saul Williams, who also co-wrote the screenplay. A young black man in Washington, D.C., named Ray Joshua, is torn between two worlds: one of poetry and another fuelled by poverty.
A heroin deal goes awry and one of Joshua’s buddies is killed, so he finds himself in prison and has to deal with a system that’s working against him instead than for him. Even though it’s not a biopic, Slam explores the socioeconomic and racial disparities that prevent people from freely expressing themselves artistically.
6. Terrible: Tales Of Ordinary Madness (1981)
Indulgent Charles Bukowski-inspired story Marco Ferreri has directed is the work of the prolific Italian filmmaker. After he receives a book deal, Charles Serking, a fictitious version of Bukowski, leaves his girlfriend in Los Angeles.
Throughout the film, Serking’s sexual antics and heavy drinking are shown in great detail. Toxic masculinity and the tortured artist cliche are both glorified in this film, which has a one-dimensional female cast.
7. Lyrical: Poetry (2010)
Poetry, a South Korean masterpiece, tells the story of a 60-year-old woman who decides to learn poetry as she battles Alzheimer’s illness. Director Lee Chang-film dong’s pays tribute to poetry and creative expression in today’s world.
A local girl’s drowning death has been linked to Yang Mi-rude ja’s teenage grandson, according to Yang Mi-ja, the film’s central character. It becomes Yang Mi-only ja’s source of comfort as the crisis worsens.
8. Terrible: Little Ashes (2008)
Luis Bunuel, Salvador Dali, and Federico Garcia Lorca are the three young Spanish artists that played a vital role in the cultural revolution that was stifled by the Spanish Civil War. While Bunuel and Dali are regarded as experimental filmmakers and surrealist visual artists, Lorca was a poet and playwright assassinated by Nationalists at the start of World War II.
Robert Pattinson and Javier Beltrán portray Dali and Lorca, respectively, in Little Ashes, a film about the supposedly love relationship between the two. The film veers between high art, silly humor, and sad love story without ever finding its foothold.
9. Lyrical: Before Night Falls (2000)
In Reinaldo Arenas, a heartbreaking biopic about the Cuban poet and rebel, Javier Bardem and Olivier Martinez are cast. Bardem’s portrayal of Arenas is both powerful and heartfelt. Arenas, like many other young Cubans, first supported Fidel Castro’s administration before turning against it. Before making the decision to move to the United States, Arenas, who is gay, spent several years in prison.
Before Night Falls, like the other lyrical films on this list, is inspired by the writings and life story of David Arenas. Arenas passed away in 1990 as a result of complications brought on by AIDS.
10. Terrible: Total Eclipse (1995)
Arthur Rimbaud, the 19th-century French poet, is played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Total Eclipse. David Thewlis portrays the grizzled poet Paul Verlaine, who DiCaprio shares the screen with. Throughout the film, both of their extreme personalities shine through, as well as the turbulent love affair they had for many years, which culminated in Rimbaud shooting Verlaine in the hand.
Despite Thewlis and DiCaprio’s outstanding performances, the film’s skewed portrayal of their lives and legacies prevents viewers from seeing the full breadth and significance of their artistic outputs. A romantic squabble is all that their stories are reduced to.