Genius Films About Genius (and Other Pretenders)

Films about geniuses are so numerous that they almost constitute their own genre. One seems to pop up every few years, always with a few distinct markers. We usually see a brilliant character whose ideas are a little crazy, a couple of “normal” characters against whom the genius’s difference can be easily identified, and a Very Important Project that puts those crazy ideas to the test and ultimately validates the lead character’s oddball behavior. Most informed movie-goers can set their watches by these plot developments, but to me, even the worst ones have a certain appeal. Watching great ideas brought to life is thrilling, and the really good ones, like The Social Network or Good Will Hunting, seem to tap into something universal.

One could argue that, rather than a genre unto itself, films about genius can be categorized as a sub-genre of the biopic; there is a lot of cross-over between them (see Pollock or Amadeus or Surviving Picasso), even though it probably has roots in more conventional mad-scientist genre films, like Frankenstein. However, their most important aspect, more than their supposed biographical integrity, is how prominently ideas figure in the story. Rather than merely a large amount of screen-time for geniuses, like in the many Sherlock Holmes films or like Doc Brown in the Back to the Future series, films about genius humanize difficult concepts.

Because another defining characteristic is that, as opposed to superheroes with mental powers that are very obviously beyond human capabilities, like Professor X, whose telekinesis is basically supernatural, the sort of film genius I’m talking about is grounded in plausibility. Their abilities are mythical but not supernaturally so. Film geniuses do what everyone else does, using recognizable materials, only they do it much, much better. Still, after a point somewhere off in the horizon, that which distinguishes the genius from the rest of us isn’t a measure of degree, but of type. These films take great pains to “other” their subjects, or make them seem different even above and beyond their achievement. It isn’t enough that they can think better or create more beautiful things. They have to be kind of weird, too.

It’s no wonder that, while we have films about total non-geniuses like Abbie Hoffman, or genius peripherals like Edie Sedgwick, Hollywood has yet to produce an Oscar-winning film about someone like, say, Jonas Salk. Because while Salk was no doubt a genius, he also seems to have been a fairly nice, conventional person in his everyday life and, thus, not great fodder for the Hollywood machine. Nobody wants to watch a movie about someone who goes to work and pays his taxes and gives exact change at the grocery store.

This will happen. The rules for portraying difficult ideas on film, which seem to profit from a certain graphical fleshing out for the general moviegoing public, don’t really apply to the construction of a compelling character arc, which thrives in danger and conflict. For example, in one film about genius, A Beautiful Mind, we see the concept of governing dynamics explained very succinctly and transparently by way of a scene about a bunch of guys hitting on a girl in a bar. (Visually, it’s a good scene, though the dialogue sounds like everyone’s reading straight from Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.)

However, when director Ron Howard employs a similarly graphical rendering of the schizophrenic delusions of the genius main character, mathematician John Nash, by revealing that people he had been interacting with throughout the film were actually only in his head, the technique seems totally inappropriate. A helpful graphic as filmic teaching moment for a difficult concept, sure. But a descent into madness, or in this case the retrospective unveiling of a madness into which one has already long descended, require a somewhat more emotionally charged visual than the director indicating, “Shucks, those guys aren’t actually there…”

In contrast to such transparently clear filmic infographs, a character whose personality is meant to fill the screen and hold interest should be sort of messed up, harder to figure out, and certainly not party to the kind of M. Night Shyamalan-ian reveal employed in A Beautiful Mind. That said, I still liked the film -- in part because of how it portrays the descent into madness as an actual hindrance to the production of important ideas. A lot of other movies merely portray such pesky foibles of personality as inevitable side effects of genius itself, easily overcome with a few cathartic moments and liberally applied theme music. Obviously, some of this just has to do with biographical information where applicable, because the particular genius in question actually experienced schizophrenia’s debilitating effect and, lo and behold, wasn’t helped along in his career by having it.

But judging by the middle section of the Venn diagram for most films about geniuses and biopics, where the stories are roughly “based on a true story,” one could easily conclude that social ineptitude or mental instability are prerequisites to having great ideas. Never mind that there are quite a lot of brilliant people who don’t display any kind of odd behavior at all. And so the biggest flaw in the films about genius genre seems to be a sort of lopsidedness in execution concerning the relationship between a genius and his or her ideas, despite the fact that formal guidelines would seem to dictate that these two aspects be treated with equal attention.

One film that gets this relationship right is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which the visuals very closely relate to the ideas of the subject, writer Hunter S. Thompson. * Director Terry Gilliam inhabits the perspective of Thompson in relating the story of his drug-fueled ride through the Nevada desert, and we see the world through the lens of Thompson’s inimitable manner and, thus, understand what his ideas amount to, in spite of the fact that no helpful infographs are provided. There is only one scene in which the Thompson character actually explains anything -- where he gives context to his nihilistic fervor as cast against the idealism of the '60s peace movement -- and this is probably the least successful scene in the whole film. Hearing Benicio Del Toro’s Dr. Gonzo scream the lyrics to “One Toke Over the Line” while driving through the desert, his face a grotesque mask in Gilliam’s skewed frame, is pretty much all the audience needs to understand the point.

One lesser example of the genre is Pollock, a film about the artist Jackson Pollock, which doesn’t really treat the actual art with enough care. The performance by Ed Harris in the central role is excellent, and the story is actually pretty interesting: We see the most fruitful period of Pollock’s life, his relationship with artist Lee Krasner, his problems with mental illness and alcoholism, and, most interestingly, him at work in his studio. But the problem is that getting an up-close view of how Pollock’s art is made sort of deflates the effect it’s supposed to produce.

Much of the fascination people have with Pollock’s art is wrapped up in what those paint splatters don't represent. One would want a portrayal of Pollock that grows in mystery as it grows in scope, but the "un-abstracting" of how the paintings were made in this film, even by way of a story about a fairly abstract human being, seems to detract from the artist's original vision, if only because it employs a representational aesthetic. This is an example where learning the backstory of the ideas actually detracts directly from the ideas themselves.

The problem isn’t that films about genius tend to highlight people with world-changing ideas who have no power to change their own complicated, messed up lives. Basically all strong characters start at this point, whether a genius or not; that's the basis of a character arc, a problem that initially seems unsolvable. The real issue is that a lot of filmmakers don’t seem to get that, while a conventional plot might necessarily rely upon a messed up, complicated central character, that character’s viability relies on whether or not his or her ideas are actually interesting independent of that complication. And oftentimes, if there is a conflict of interest between the portrayal of a brilliant character and that character’s world-shattering idea, the idea gets short shrift for the purposes of “character development,” and the whole structure falls.

And so, the real mark of quality for these movies has to do with inhabiting difficult ideas through aesthetic forms, like in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as opposed to the popularization of difficult ideas in favor of a less interesting biographical story, like in A Beautiful Mind and Pollock. Good films about genius embed the relevant concepts within the film medium itself, allowing them to animate the filmmaker's own aesthetic impulses. Less good ones tend to water down the ideas and focus on important biographical stuff like how geniuses have a hard time talking to people at parties. In any case, it must be a very difficult thing to make a film about a person whose achievements are more important that can really be expressed creatively, and many times, which are actually more important than the film -- or any film -- itself.

* I’m not interested in arguing whether Thompson was actually a genius. He was portrayed as such in the movie, and that’s all that matters. [Back]

Nathan Pensky is an associate editor at PopMatters and a contributor at Forbes, among various other outlets. He can be found on Tumblr and Twitter as well.


  • Patrick Hallstein says:

    Loved Dangerous Mind, but didn't like how it portrayed schizophrenia. Almost all of us have people talking to us in our heads (some psychologists call them alters, with their very own nesting of neurons inside our larger brain), and they speak most loudly, they manifest most pronouncedly, when we're attempting to accomplish something wholly new -- for society, but very much also for ourselves; and rest invisible -- non-RISED -- when they sense that ultimately, given we get just a bit of attention, we'll settle somewhere amidst what's already been done and agreed upon. In my opinion, every century has two periods where creativity, thumbing your nose to precedent, is just allowed -- youth cultures, if you will. During these periods there are multitudes of geniuses, and they get along more or less normally for their just being extremes of what is commonly possessed / shared. Dangerous things happen to geniuses outside of these two periods, which often never acknowledges their presence -- something that kills off the possibility of more than a slight few emerging.

    Enjoyed reading your article. Thank you.

    • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

      Thanks for this, Patrick. I actually wonder if we've entered a dangerous epoch for geniuses in the last decade or so, where genius has incurred a kind of technological dependency. Or at least seems somewhat liberally codified based on technological achievement. Like, is Mark Zuckerberg a genius because of the idea and advancement of Facebook, or because he had the relatively basic programmer's instinct to capitalize on the technology that made it possible? Neither? I honestly don't know.

      Steve Jobs is another one; the guy was a brilliant marketer and a visionary, but he also was a bully who pushed through what he wanted at any and all costs. Does that make him a genius? Maybe, maybe not, but I know it makes him a dead, rich bully. And the more latitude we give him on the genius spectrum may be a disservice to others whose work deserves equal (if not more) recognition -- who won't get it, because the era is dangerous to geniuses. I think? I'm happy to be wrong!

  • Patrick Hallstein says:

    I myself am ignoring them and focussing on Einstein, Fitzgerald, Gretzky, and Simon and Garfunkel. I think genius is about strong love (of oneself; of the world you live in and the great possibilities you get to play with). Steve Jobs and Zuckerberg seem too (tech) cool to talk of human interface -- and so however much I wish them the best in their future journeys, I myself am not letting genius settle too much in with them. Zacharek brings love and (to some extent therefore) genius; thanks for keeping her around to help counteract cold ghouls and open space to at least try.

  • Shanny says:

    I think that the "emotionally charged visual" you're looking for in the second clip from "Beautiful Mind" is right there in front of you: Russell Crowe's performance.

  • d nice says:

    My favorite genius movies are: Little Man Tate and Searching for Bobby Fisher. Both genius films about genius. Check it.

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