Biopics offer a glimpse into another person’s life, but if presented poorly, a bad biopic can undermine the truth. So what makes a compelling biopic, then?
Biopics: we see them every year, covering all kinds of notable individuals and their lives. Put simply, a biopic is a film that interprets a person’s life and condenses it into a consumable feature-length story.
The biopic is a tool of remembrance which, done ethically, has the power to record and preserve the achievements of someone’s life.
We’ll be talking about biopics a lot in this column, but what makes a biopic successful? Here are three key elements creative teams highlight to execute a good biopic:
1. Uniqueness/Promising Talent/Struggle
The subject of the biopic usually has some kind of trait, talent, or struggle that sets them apart from others. This can come in the form of disability, a gripping dream or obsession, or a special talent. In The King’s Speech (2010), one of my favourite biopics, Bertie (the future King George VI of England and father of Queen Elizabeth II, played by Colin Firth) has a speech impediment, true to life. His speech impediment causes tension when he’s unexpectedly thrust into the role of monarch and must give speeches to the nation during World War II.
In Hidden Figures (2016), we follow Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), black female mathematicians working at NASA during the Cold War. They were trying to use their talents to serve a society that was prejudiced against them – not unlike Benedict Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing, The Imitation Game (2014), who was discriminated against for his homosexuality. By emphasizing their perseverance, filmmakers tell the story of marginalized individuals in a compelling light.
2. Emotional Outlook/Relationship with Society
Perhaps the most central element of a biopic is raw emotion. Loss, heartbreak, poverty, abuse, and any kind of hardship can shape the subject’s emotional state and outlook on life, and these feelings resonate with us in some way or another, if depicted in a way that’s just abstract enough for us to relate to, but still precise in the plot of the movie (and in the greater scheme of the subject’s life).
People’s experiences influence the way in which they view and interact with the world, and we can connect to those feelings. A good biopic will manage to encapsulate a real-life public figure’s inner emotions accurately, while sometimes bending the narrative to foster emotional reactions.
3. Overcoming (or Failing to Overcome) Adversity or Discrimination
In The Theory of Everything (2014) there’s a scene in which physicist Stephen Hawking (played by Eddie Redmayne) slowly stands up, despite being paralyzed in a wheelchair. It’s a scene of his own wishful imagining, of course, but the image is so powerful that it moved me to tears.
When biopics stress the subject’s determination to overcome adversity or pain, they hit upon a commonality between all people: we all struggle with something in life. The intensity of struggle in biopics can often test limits, in a way that’s so dramatic that we are compelled to react and feel.
Similarly, in Gandhi (1982), Mohandas Gandhi (played by Ben Kingsley, oddly) leads India’s non-violent independence movement after being thrown off a whites-only train car in South Africa in 1893, though he had a first-class ticket. The fight against injustice can carry a biopic and ensure it resonates with human empathy.
How can biopics improve?
There are a lot of biopics about white men. If we had even more breadth and diversity in commemorating individuals, we could connect to even more people on a more representative level, and celebrate achievements that may be overlooked due to classism, racism, sexism, or inequality in general.
With the emotional threads I’ve outlined above, many biopics admittedly follow a structural formula – but for a good reason. It helps introduce us to people as human beings and forge connections with them on a personal level.