Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” was adapted from Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s biography “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.” But the celebrated filmmaker doesn’t want anyone to call it a biopic.
In a recent panel at City University of New York (via Variety), Nolan explained that he dislikes the term “biopic” because the entirety of a person’s life can’t be accurately conveyed in a movie. In his view, trying to capture someone’s whole biography in a film will needlessly simplify their existence.
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“There is a tendency in biography post-Freud to attribute characteristics of the person you’re dealing with to their genetics from their parents. It’s a very reductive view of a human being,” said. “If you’re writing a book that’s 500 pages or 1,000 pages, there’s a way to balance that with their individuality and experiences. When you compress and strip down to the necessary simplicity of a screenplay, it’s incredibly reductive.”
Nolan went on to explain that he doesn’t see “Oppenheimer” as a biopic because it only covers a select portion of its subject’s life. He sees the film as more comparable to a heist movie or a legal drama.
“This is where the concept of a biopic fails you completely as a genre,” he said. “It’s not a useful genre. I love working in useful genres. In this film … it’s the heist film as it applies to the Manhattan Project and the courtroom drama as it applies to the security hearings. It’s very useful to look at the conventions of those genres and how they can pull the audience and how they can give me communication with the audience.”
Nolan concluded his thoughts by saying that he thinks truly great biographical films transcend the biopic label and are viewed by the public as entries in more specific genres.
“Biopic is something that applies to a film that is not quite registering in a dramatic fashion,” he said. “You don’t talk about ‘Laurence of Arabia’ as a biopic. You don’t talk about ‘Citizen Kane’ as a biopic. It’s an adventure film. It’s a film about somebody’s life. It’s not a useful genre the same way drama is not a useful genre. It doesn’t give you anything to hold onto.”
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