But will ‘Seuss’ ignore the controversial nature of its subject?
For all the movies out there that are “based on a true story,” very few of them reveal their subjects objectively enough to be about the truth at all. Perhaps that’s part of the formula for biopic — they aren’t documentaries and don’t really have much of an onus to actually be spot on. But of course, many like to rely on the implication of accuracy to get people interested, especially if a historical figure hasn’t yet definitively been immortalized onscreen.
Deadline reports that the life of famed author Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, is heading to the big screen. Stephen Chbosky, most notable for penning and adapting The Perks of Being a Wallflower as well as directing last year’s Wonder, will be at the helm of Seuss, which is a different project from the one Johnny Depp eyed about the author a few years ago. For this movie, Chbosky is teaming up with Oscar-nominated producer Carla Hacken (Hell or High Water) and Cars 3 writers Jonathan E. Stewart and Eyal Podell to create Geisel’s origin story.
Seuss will track Geisel’s early years as a writer who struggles to find a voice, taking us through the crests and troughs of his inspiration. The love story between him and future wife Helen Palmer will also be a key focus in the movie. Palmer eventually became his muse and led Geisel to create some of his most famous and beloved stories, including “The Cat in the Hat.”
On the surface, Geisel’s story is very relatable to any author, dealing with both the trials of creativity itself and the struggle to get published, even though he eventually wrote over 60 children’s books. That being said, as the Deadline article only hints at but The A.V. Club has more studiously pointed out, Geisel was not simply a whimsical oddball. He was a political cartoonist for a while, delivering some very disturbing racist images during World War II, such as those touting anti-Japanese rhetoric. Beyond the cartoons came any implicit messages found in Geisel’s books. Last year, his work was the subject of several headlines after a Massachusetts school rejected a donation of a number of his books from Melania Trump. The conversation about the potential harmfulness of Dr. Seuss books was renewed.
Although Geisel apparently expressed regret over having drawn such offensive political cartoons, the racist implications found within his early work in children’s fiction are more insidious if not properly examined. Katie Ishizuka-Stephens’ report analyzing racism found in Dr. Seuss books extensively covers the issue, including examples such as the apparent minstrel characteristics of the cat in “The Cat in the Hat.”
These are complications to Geisel’s narrative that would need to be addressed in a movie about his life. Mostly, there needs to be an awareness of potentially sanitizing his history to make for a family-friendly picture about the guy who created the Grinch and the Lorax. Chbosky’s films, in particular, have been known to be empathetic tearjerkers, but these aspects of Geisel’s life may be difficult to reconcile in an emotionally moving movie. This would either be a challenge for Chbosky or something for him to gloss over, and we’re hoping for the former. That would at least be a more responsible approach to someone who has become so polarizing.
At this point, it’s not shocking that culturally significant works are often created by people who could have held and disseminated horrific views. That certainly clashes with the fact that Hollywood loves to find inspirational stories and are drawn to biopics, despite them actually being generally tricky movies to make. The industry is obviously no stranger to overlooking glaring unsavory characteristics when it comes to creating movies based on real people, which only serves to water down the potential power of such films. Instead, the test for all biographical dramas is finding a balance between being too critical or too sympathetic of a historical figure. That would serve as a more useful critique and examination of what we like and where they came from.