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"Can the Biopic Subjects Speak? Disembodied Voices in The King's Speech and The Theory of Everything." A Companion to the Biopic, ed. Deborah Cartmell and Ashley D. Polasek (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2020), 269-282


Abstract and Figures

Two recent biopics, The King's Speech and The Theory of Everything, deal with figures who suffer from speech impairment. This chapter makes some preliminary observations of the patterns of representation in these films. In dealing with vocal disorders, the films first dramatise the traumatic loss of voice, which leads to the erasure of King George VI's self‐identity and erosion of Stephen Hawking's self‐worth. Next, the films delve into their tribulations and the quotidian aspect of how they gradually gain a voice through therapy, technology, and privileged social status despite their disability. The third and final stage deals in their redemption and heroic transformation. The Theory of Everything navigates the fine line between public disgust of voice disability and the craving for what might be called ‘supercrip’ figures. By painting the ‘crip’ figure as inspirational, the supercrip narrative makes the stories more palatable to the able‐bodied viewers.
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A Companion to the Biopic, First Edition. Edited by Deborah Cartmell and Ashley D. Polasek.
© 2020 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2020 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
‘Can you hear me?’ asks Stephen Hawking towards the end of The Theory of
Everything. Slumping in a motorised wheelchair, the theoretical physicist (Eddie
Redmayne) poses the question in a monotonic, computer‐generated voice with
staccato quality through his voice synthesiser to an eager audience. Even though he is
physically present, his disembodied voice fills the auditorium in ways that suggest
both his earth‐bound reality and transcendental status (Figure15.1). The question
can you hear me’ is a profound moment that invites various levels of interpretation.
Can theBiopic Subjects Speak?
Disembodied Voices inThe Kings Speech
andTheTheory ofEverything
Alexa Alice Joubin
Figure15.1 Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) gains a voice for the first time through avoice
synthesiser computer in A Theory of Everything (dir. James Marsh, Working Title Films, 2015).
270 Alexa Alice Joubin
On a literal level it is a quotidian question about legibility and whether the speaker
is audible. It is not unusual for speakers to begin their presentations with that
question, but it bears symbolic significance at the end of this film, which generates
consensual pleasure, as the audiences nod, acknowledge the presence of Hawking,
and register their sympathy and admiration.
On a philosophical level, it asks both the audiences within and outside the films
universe whether they hear him and understand him after following the biopic sub-
ject around in his wheelchair through his tribulations and triumphs. Pity is easy to
orchestrate with broad strokes of cinematographic moves, but empathy requires a
deeper level of understanding and connection.
On a metacinematic level, it asks whether the biopic as a redemptive genre merely
speaks for its subject or allows Hawking to speak for himself. The Theory of
Everything seeks to make disability life narratives more legible and relatable through
a more popular theme of romance. Disembodied voices often frame narratives about
disabled figures. In the case of characters with speech impairment, communicating
through a disembodied voice is not only an aspect of life but also a staple of cine-
matic narratives about them. The entertainment value of the film is balanced by its
moral purchase, because the biopic is a genre that is self‐aware, a genre that ‘intently
reflects on its own forms of life writing’ (Vidal 2013, p. 15). Narratives of disability,
like testimonies and coming‐out stories, direct attention to ‘the failure … to address
the particular needs of the disabled as denials of basic human rights’ (Schaffer and
Smith 2004, p. 2). In the case of The Theory of Everything, narratives of disability also
betray their uneasy relationship to the ‘troubled‐white‐male‐genius’ genre and
taken‐for‐granted social privilege.
Perhaps a more urgent question for adaptation studies is whether the biopic
subject can speak and be truly heard when their life story is adapted for the silver
screen. Biographical motion pictures are fiction films dramatising the life of a
historical or contemporary celebrity figure. As Robert Burgoyne suggests, the
main drive in the biopic is reenactment, namely ‘the act of imaginative recreation
that allows the spectator to imagine they are ‘witnessing again’ the events of the
past’ (quoted in Vidal 2013, p. 3). The biopic as a genre thrives in the ‘transfor-
mation of an image’ rather than painting a stable, static one (Martin Barnier
quoted in Vidal 2013, p. 3). This transformation is cinematic in nature, and it
requires large‐scale coordinated efforts of framing and choreography, which
essentially creates a powerful spokesperson for the historical figure who is unable
to ‘talk back’.
Two recent biopics, The Kings Speech (dir. Tom Hooper, 2010) and The Theory of
Everything (dir. James Marsh, 2015), deal with figures who suffer from speech
impairment. In this chapter, I make some preliminary observations of the patterns
of representation in these films.
In dealing with vocal disorders, the films first dramatise the traumatic loss of
voice, which leads to the erasure of King George VI’s self‐identity and erosion of
Stephen Hawking’s self‐worth. Next, the films delve into their tribulations and the
Can theBiopic Subjects Speak? 271
quotidian aspect of how they gradually gain a voice through therapy, technology,
and privileged social status despite their disability. The third and final stage deals
in their redemption and heroic transformation. King George VI, now almost
cured of his stuttering, gains more sound bite through his microphone and radio
broadcasting. Hawking, now seamlessly infused with his voice synthesiser com-
puter, addresses large live audiences. King George VI, played by Colin Firth, and
Stephen Hawking, portrayed by Eddie Redmayne, now gain a new level of
transcendental freedom and authority despite and also because of their disabil-
ities. The performances of Firth and Redmayne are embedded within collective
memories of the icons.
The Kings Speech opens with a close‐up of a radio announcer who is warming up
in the studio as light classical music flows in the soundtrack. He rinses his mouth,
gargles, and, after putting the glass back on the silver plate held by a handsomely
dressed assistant, sprays his mouth. All the while light, classical music signalling
the natural flow of the announcers actions fills the studio. He sits down in front of
an imposing and ominous ‘torpedo’ microphone and measures with both palms an
ideal distance from his mouth to the microphone. As we would learn later, he is
part of BBC’s ‘National Programme and Empire Services’ in 1925. The shortwave
Empire Service, the forerunner of BBC World Service, was in fact launched on 12
December 1932, from Daventry, England. The film takes some liberty in adapting
several historical events and transposing them to different times to suit its purpose
of situating King George VI’s struggle to find a voice on radio in an era of global
Meanwhile, a calm voice announces to a nervous Prince Albert, Duke of York
(later King George VI) that ‘you’re live in two minutes, your royal highness.
Known to friends and family as Bertie, he stands against the wall next to his wife
Elizabeth. The ontological weight of the adjective ‘live’ is felt in the sequence in
the crosscuts between shots of the radio host and Bertie who is clearly petrified
by the notion of public speaking. The medium close‐up shows his eyes rolling
nervously while he clutches his script. The radio host’s elegant, confident, and
elaborate but routine preparation before going live forms a sharp contrast to
Bertie’s amateurish nervousness and otherness. He hasn’t said a word so far, but
his subordinate position is evident from other characters’ pitying gaze. They
cajole Bertie to go on: ‘Let the microphone do the work’. ‘I’m sure you’ll be
splendid. Just take your time’.
Bertie is to speak at the closing ceremony of the 1925 British Empire Exhibition at
Wembley Stadium (Figure15.2). The camera lens initially takes Bertie’s perspective
as he approaches the imposing microphone. This is followed by a reverse shot of
Bertie from the angle of his live audience. As he takes his place at the podium, an
extreme close‐up of the carbon ring microphone shows the imposing device fram-
ing Bertie’s face, eyes frozen in anxiety. He is told to ‘let the mic do the job, which
only heightens his anxiety, because the job the mic will do is to amplify his disability
and humiliation in front of a large crowd.
272 Alexa Alice Joubin
Bertie’s stammering speech embarrasses him and the royal family in front of the
live audience and thousands of listeners by the radio. The film uses static over radio
and uncomfortable silence to heighten the tension as Bertie is unable to smoothly
begin or complete a sentence. In several scenes, technicians check their own head-
phones, turn up the volume, check the gauges, and wonder if there is a technical
failure as they hear only static. Bertie complains later in the scene before coronation
that ‘there’ll be Mad King George the Stammerer, who let his people down so badly
in their hour of need’. The horror of a vocally crippled king in public is evident. Thus
begins Bertie’s journey of self‐discovery through therapy. He would go through sev-
eral therapists. Just as he is giving up, his wife urges him to try working with the
Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).
Bertie’s speech impairment becomes not just an annoyance or inconvenience but
an insurmountable obstacle in public speaking and particularly radio broadcast
where the voice carries all the weight. The new technology of radio is portrayed as
both a powerful, enabling tool of empire building and an imposing threat for stut-
terers. Throughout the film, from Berties first public humiliation at Wembley in 1925
to his first war speech at the end of the film, there are crane shots and close‐ups of
racked transmitter controls, each marked with remote locations. The radio control
room mirrors a war room where the Empire exerts influence over and controls its
territories from Jamaica to Kenya. If shortwave radio broadcasting is reaching every
corner of the globe, so too is Bertie’s public humiliation at a global media event.
Figure15.2 Prince Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth) addressing the crowd with a stam-
mer at the official closing of the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium. The Kings
Speech (dir. Tom Hooper, See‐Saw Films, 2011)
Can theBiopic Subjects Speak? 273
Having worked with multiple therapists without any result, Bertie is reluctant to
receive treatment from Lionel Logue. In their first session, Logue bets Bertie a shil-
ling that he can in fact read without a stammer right away, and he would record his
speech as evidence. Logue puts headphones on Bertie and asks him to read Hamlet’s
‘to be or not to be’ speech into a Silvertone Home Voice Recorder. However, music is
blaring through the headphones. Not only is Bertie not able to hear himself, the
film’s audience too can only hear the overture from Mozarts Marriage of Figaro with
increasing volume on the soundtrack (Figure15.3). From Berties point of view, the
music is only blaring through the headphones he is wearing. He cannot hear him-
self, but Logue can. The film recreates the discrepancy between seeing and hearing,
which Bertie is experiencing, by placing the audience in the visual perspective of
Logue–who is present in the room–but giving us Berties aural perspective where
the music drowns out his recitation. Believing that he has failed again and humili-
ated himself, Bertie stops half way and decides to leave without listening to the
recording, only to be persuaded by Logue to take the record home as a souvenir.
Bertie’s father King George V, who has mastered the genre of radio broadcasting,
refers to radio broadcasting as ‘voices out of the air, disembodied voices that, without
corporeal presence and face‐to‐face interactions, serve as a technological extension
of the royal presence. The mediated voice of a benign emperor can reach every
Figure15.3 Bertie (Colin Firth) reciting the speech ‘To be or not to be’ from Hamlet during
his first speech therapy session with Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) while hearing Mozart
played on headphones. The King’s Speech (dir. Tom Hooper, See‐Saw Films, 2011).
274 Alexa Alice Joubin
corner of the Empire. The listeners experience this ‘voice out of the air’ as a medium
of authority and, in Jacques Lacan’s terms, a ‘catalyst of desire’ (1998, p. 126). The
listener is passive in front of the message being delivered. Sartre theorises the broad-
caster’s voice as a mystifying, univocal one: ‘The broadcaster’s voice is based on … a
reifying relation in which the voice is given as praxis and constitutes the listener as
the object of praxis’ (1976, p. 272). The domestic space where the speaker on radio
is situated comfortably is linked up to a vast, imperial dialogic space. Aware of the
fact that the king’s symbolic role is far greater than his political authority, George V
makes a landmark speech on Christmas Day 1923 (the film transposes it to 1934), in
which he consciously showcases his personable and imperial personas:
Through one of the marvels of modern science, I am enabled, this Christmas Day, to
speak to all my peoples throughout the Empire. … I speak now from my home and
from my heart to you all. To men and women so cut off by the snows, the deserts or the
seas, that only voices out of the air can reach them; to those cut off from fuller life by
blindness, sickness or infirmity; … to all, to each, I wish a happy Christmas.
Immediately following this scene, the generous tone gives way to George V’s com-
plaint about having to ‘ingratiate’ himself with the public in a new age of global radio
broadcasting, becoming ‘one of the … basest of all creatures, an actor!’ He tells Bertie
that ‘before now all a king had to do was to look respectable and not fall off his horse.
Bertie joins his father immediately after the broadcast. The BBC microphone is still
on the desk, serving as a reminder of his father’s ability and his own impotence. As
Bertie’s older brother, the Prince of Wales, is deemed unfit for the throne, George V
urges Bertie to overcome his stammer and fill in. The first task he gives Bertie is to
read his Christmas speech for practice. His fathers impatient and forceful coaching
makes Bertie’s stammer even worse, and Bertie stumbles over the phrase ‘I am
Frustrated, Bertie goes to his study to replay the disc from his first session with
Logue. Again another imposing device overshadows Bertie. This time it is the large
bell of the gramophone, shot from above, which echoes the opening sequence of the
film where Bertie is diminished by the large ring microphone. While the micro-
phone collects and transmits sound, the gramophone reproduces and magnifies the
recorded sound or radio signals. The audience, Bertie, and his wife Elizabeth hear
for the first time the recording where, as all are pleasantly surprised, Bertie reads the
‘to be or not to be’ speech fluently without stammer. Hamlet’s question has one
obvious answer: go back to Logue, overcome the stammer, and ‘be’ a radio voice
rather than ‘not be. Of course, radio is more challenging because it is live, while the
replayable medium of record grants the speaker more control. Logue’s choice of the
soliloquy from Hamlet may seem random, but it is uncanny and apt in the context
of the biopic, because the play is about voices in the air and a father’s imposing
shadow and demand. An amateur Shakespearean actor while in Australia, Logue
plays educational games with his children. The kids have to guess the Shakespearean
Can theBiopic Subjects Speak? 275
character and play he is portraying. Now, through Shakespeare’s curative power and
Logue’s therapy, Bertie, too, can be enabled by radio technology like his father, paral-
leling Hamlet’s journey, and, more importantly, consolidate and sustain the image of
the Empire and British identity.
While Logue’s experiment might work even if the text is not Shakespearean
(because the key is isolation of the potentially stuttering subject from any disturbing
feedback), Shakespeare here has important symbolic value. Ironically, it is also pre-
cisely when Bertie cannot hear himself and thus Shakespeare’s text that his stammer
stops. Cursing has been shown to have the same ‘curing’ effect in another scene
where Logue deliberately provokes Bertie to curse, telling him a public school boy
could do better.
The Kings Speech appropriates Shakespeares cultural capital and reparative
function in this therapy scene. There are other cinematic instances where
Shakespearean texts are bestowed curative power, such as the stuttering Chorus in
Shakespeare in Love (dir. John Madden, 1998) As he moves along in delivering the
Prologue of Romeo and Juliet, the Chorus’s stammer gradually disappears.
Eventually he is able to finish reciting the speech in front of the live audience.
Another example is the Singaporean film adaptation titled Chicken Rice War (dir.
Cheah Chee Kong, aka CheeK, 2000). In a high‐school rehearsal of Romeo and
Juliet, a stuttering student, Fenson Wong, asks his drama coach if he can play
Romeo. The young lady playing Juliet, Audrey Chan, rolls her eyes and challenges
her classmate: ‘What makes you think that you can play Romeo? You don’t have
the looks, and you can’t even speak properly’. Eventually, Fenson wins the role and
gets rid of his stutter through reciting and performing Shakespeare. While recita-
tion of Shakespearean passages seems to have ‘cured’ Fenson of his stuttering,
other scenes expose the instability of any illusion of Shakespeare’s universal utility.
The King’ Speech is simultaneously a reenactment of George VI’s stammer and of
the value of Shakespeare.
In the final scene of The King’s Speech, George VI prepares to address the country
on radio in 1939 when Britain declares war with Germany. Logue is present again,
just as he would be during the king’s numerous speeches during World War II. The
king and his therapist move through Buckingham Palace to a small studio with pad-
ded walls. In this carefully orchestrated third and final stage of the biopic subject’s
redemption and triumph, the king runs into Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall)
who reveals that he too has overcome a speech impediment, a lisp (a speech defect
in which s is pronounced like th). Significantly, the same reverse shots around the
large ring microphone in the opening sequence are used in this scene. Bertie goes
into the small studio with only Logue. Bertie not only speaks into the microphone
but looks through it to his therapist, now friend, Lionel Logue, as Logue urges him:
‘Forget everything else, and just say it to me. Say it to me as a friend’. Bertie’s script
has been so meticulously marked up that it resembles a musical score. The cues
signal not only dramatic effect in delivery but elocution and letters or words that
Bertie tends to stumble over.
276 Alexa Alice Joubin
The soundtrack is as important as silence, static, and stuttering. With the rhythmic
second movement of Beethovens Symphony No. 7 on the soundtrack, Logue con-
ducts the king as he reads the speech to the compelling pulsation that persists
throughout the piece (Figure15.4). Logue’s hand gestures and the pauses the king
takes synch up with the symphony, beginning with a repetitive rhythmic figure in
the calm melody played by cellos. The tempo of this particular movement is a mod-
erately paced allegretto that hints at an underlying melancholy but not depressing
sorrow. The constant repetition of themes and rhythm interweaves counter mel-
odies, rising up through the instruments and sustaining an ominous undertone. Just
like in the ‘to be or not to be’ scene, music here is both a cinematic element and a
heuristic curative device for the character. The king’s measured, slow‐paced delivery
of his speech ‘in this grave hour’ is well received, and he uses his impairment to his
advantage. As the king and Logue leave the studio, Logue points out that the king
still has difficulty with ‘w’, to which the king responds that ‘I had to throw in a few
so they’d know it was me’. The light‐hearted response reveals a dilemma in the
redemptive transformation of an iconic image–the stuttering king. It is a dilemma
of authenticity and representation. Without his stammer, is King George VI still the
worthy, marketable biopic subject? If a new accent or voice takes over Hawkings
robotic voice, will he be as recognisable in popular culture as he is now?
As Jen Harvie writes in Staging the UK, biopics often participate in the creation of
national identities which are ‘neither biologically nor territorially given; rather they
are creatively produced or staged’ (2005, p. 2). In the years leading up to Brexit, films
such as The King’s Speech choreograph a sense of belonging and national identity,
building imagined communities through the literary and cinematic genres of celeb-
rity biography and biopic.
Figure15.4 Logue (Geoffrey Rush) ‘conducts’ King George VI (Colin Firth) during his first
wartime speech on radio in The Kings Speech (dir. Tom Hooper, See‐Saw Films, 2011).
Can theBiopic Subjects Speak? 277
The three teleological stages of the downfall of an icon, the heroic struggles to
overcome the impairment, and the eventual redemption of the figure can also be
observed in The Theory of Everything, which is based on Jane Hawking’s 2007 memoir.
Like King George VI who scrambles to overcome his stammer when he is called upon
to prove he is royal material in order to supplant his brother and father, Stephen
Hawking is diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a motor neuron dis-
ease, just as he is on his way to a promising career as a physicist and beginning a
romantic relationship with Jane. As he rises to fame, his condition deteriorates and,
together with his wife, they fight a losing battle that also leads to the deterioration of
their marriage. While George VI is no longer around to endorse or repudiate the
biopic about his life, Hawking visited the set a few times and, after seeing the film,
reportedly said to screenwriter Anthony McCarten that the film is ‘broadly true’.
While The Theory of Everything does not focus squarely on voice and speech in
the same way The King’s Speech does, the robotic computerised voice has become
such an iconic part of Hawking’s image in popular culture that the scenes where he
loses and gains a voice bear symbolic weight in this biopic. Both films dramatise the
disjunction between the mind and the body. Oral communication is regarded as
more authentic, more immediate and instantaneous than writing. Without the cru-
cial function of speech, an individual would not be able to share their thoughts or
demonstrate the intelligence they bear in spite of their physical disabilities. Theory
of Everything chronicles the deterioration of Hawking’s conditions from his days as
a doctoral student in Cambridge, to when he starts using a wheelchair, to the period
when his speech slurs so much that Jane, the only person who can understand him,
translates much of his speech for him.
It is important to note that speech is the last of Hawking’s autonomous abilities to
go. He loses the ability to walk without aid, and then he loses the ability to stand up.
However, he is still able to talk even if his body is gradually immobilised. Similar to
the paralyzed Will Traynor (Sam Claflin) in You Before Me (dir. Thea Sharrock,
2016) who is able to talk and has a sharp tongue, Hawking may be trapped in his
wheelchair and require round‐the‐clock care, but he is capable of oral communica-
tion which, as the film suggests, is his last piece of humanity. Being able to speak
allows characters around him to humanise him and to respect his intellectual prow-
ess even if his body is paralysed. As Jean‐Dominique Bauby points out in The Diving
Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death, life in paralysis is torture. After
suffering a stroke to the brainstem, Bauby is completely paralysed except for his left
eye, but his intellect is intact. What is cruel is that he is fully aware of his surround-
ings, but he cannot move or talk. He refers to his paralysed body as his diving bell,
while his mind takes flight like a butterfly. A pivotal scene in The Theory of Ever ything
is Hawking’s initial diagnosis after he falls in the college courtyard one day. Hawking
seems more concerned about his brain than his deteriorating muscular function.
The doctor tells him that the ALS doesn’t affect the brain, and his thoughts would
remain intact, but over time ‘no one will know what they are’ as Hawking loses the
ability to talk or swallow.
To highlight this dichotomy of mind and body, The Theory of Everything carefully
contrasts scenes of Hawking’s tribulations with scenes dramatising his achievements
278 Alexa Alice Joubin
in physics, such the domestic scene when he realises that he needs a wheelchair
during the family celebration of his passing his doctoral thesis defence, and the scenes
of his continuous rise to fame thanks to his pioneering work on the black hole.
After Hawking receives a tracheotomy in Bordeaux due to pneumonia, he wakes
up unable to speak. Jane insists on the surgery to save his life, for ‘Stephen must live.
I will see to it that he gets everything he needs’. Loss of speech has the most profound
impact on Hawking even when compared to his physical paralysis. For once in the
film’s narrative, he is depressed and passive. Jane tries to train him to use a spelling
board to communicate, and even though Hawking has memorised the locations of
each letter on the board, he refuses to play along. Eventually, a new nurse, Elaine,
shows up and is able to get him to open up.
In a later scene he receives a built‐in voice synthesiser attached to his wheel-
chair which he could operate via a clicker with his thumb. Hawking quickly mas-
ters the synthesiser, which becomes an extension of his self. Interestingly, his first
sentence is a form of assertion and self‐declaration: ‘My name is Stephen Hawking’.
He announces the authentic presence of his self as a human being. Jane exclaims,
however, that the accent of the synthesiser is American, as if it erases Hawkings
English identity at the cost of the emerging self. By contrast, in the parallel, equally
magical moment of redemption, George VI reads the most iconic passage from
Shakespeare, ‘to be or not to be. At the end of the day, neither American accent nor
English canon matter because self‐identities are always already artificially and
technologically constructed. The scene where the mute Hawking speaks again
cements the icon around which the film revolves. The scene also calls to mind
George V’s Christmas speech in The Kings Speech where the ‘marvels of modern
science’ enable individuals and become not only a prosthetic device but also an
integral part of a new self.
Unlike The King’s Speech, which spares no effort in showcasing George VI’s
therapy, The Theory of Everything does not delve into details of how Hawking mas-
ters the voice synthesiser and his new mode of existence. The film, however, does
spend time canvassing the more iconic images of his wheelchair and robotic voice,
and the more palatable moments of triumph and redemption. As part of the tour of
his book A Brief History of Time, Hawking addresses an enthusiastic live audience.
Two moments stand out in the extended sequence in the auditorium. Upon
appearing on stage, Hawking asks if the audience can hear him. The monotonic,
robotic voice from the synthesiser provides a stark contrast to his animated facial
expression and a grin of mischief. Posture and camera angle create and reinforce the
most familiar image of the genius physicist in popular culture. Above all else, the
question draws attention to its own metacinematic ontology. In the beginning of
Jane Campions The Piano (1993), Alisdair asks his new wife rather unsympatheti-
cally and impatiently: ‘Can you hear me?’ The mute Scottish pianist Ada just arrived
on the New Zealand beach after a long voyage. She has been sold into the marriage.
Ada relies on her daughter Flora to translate her hand gestures. Similar to The
Theory of Everything and The King’s Speech, the film dramatises the popular assump-
tion that someone with speech impairment must be less human, barbaric, or less
Can theBiopic Subjects Speak? 279
intelligent. There is an implicit civilised‐savage binary in the perception of speech
impairment. The question ‘can you hear me?’ therefore takes on a sense of urgency.
Later, during the question and answer session, a woman drops a pen, and for a
brief moment Hawking fantasises standing up with ease and reaching over to pick
up the pen for her. He goes on to deliver an inspirational short speech: ‘There should
be no boundaries to human endeavor. … However bad life may seem, there is always
something you can do, and succeed at. While theres life, there is hope’. The film
makes a clearly redemptive move when Hawking is introduced before his lecture as
having defied ‘every expectation both scientific and personal’.
The positive portrayal of Hawking’s personality and the overall optimistic tone,
especially in the film’s ending, reveal the fundamental dilemma of representing dis-
abled biopic subjects on screen. The entertainment industry embraces disabled
characters–both historical and fictional– who transcend their limitations in one
way or another. However, disabled biopic subjects can’t speak, even if they are still
alive. Able‐bodied actors playing disabled characters often win Oscars because it is
reassuring to see them convincingly portray disability and get up on their feet to
accept the award.
The Theory of Everything navigates the fine line between public disgust of voice
disability and the craving for what might be called ‘supercrip’ figures–figures who
are defined by their physical limitations but who, because of their disability, are per-
ceived as possessing extraordinary talents and abilities. By painting the ‘crip’ figure
as inspirational, the supercrip narrative makes the stories more palatable to the
able‐bodied viewers. Their stories become more than just unredeemable physical
suffering. At first blush these narratives seem to be engaged in a move of reclama-
tion, but as Robert McRuer demonstrates, disability narratives can betray a sense of
compulsory able‐bodiedness.1
Narratives of disability also betray their uneasy relationship to the ‘troubled‐
white‐male‐genius’ genre and taken‐for‐granted social privilege despite the obsta-
cles they face. The male biographic subjects of both films rely on their wives in their
struggle, and yet both films sidestep their wives’ efforts. As Dennis Bingham’s (2010)
study of biopics demonstrates, disturbingly women’s biographies on film often dis-
place their subjects’ achievement onto their male partners or gravitate to ‘women
more famous for suffering than for anything they accomplished’ (p. 214). That is
certainly the case in the King’s Speech and The Theory of Everything. Hawkings first
wife Jane (Felicity Jones) chooses to stay with him despite familiar and social pressure
about the pessimistic prognosis of Hawking’s condition. However, the film does not
offer a sympathetic portrayal of the divorce of Jane and Stephen Hawking. As a
result, in real life after the release of the film, Jane Hawking has been vocal about the
film’s misrepresentation of their marriage. Bertie’s wife Elizabeth plays an active role
in locating an appropriate therapist for him but does not receive any credit. In the
final scene after Bertie’s successful radio broadcast, a new musical motif is intro-
duced in the soundtrack to accentuate the moment where Bertie becomes kingly, the
second movement of Beethovens piano concerto in E‐flat major, op. 73, the ‘Emperor’.
As Bertie and Elizabeth walk onto the balcony, the piano motif emerges from a
280 Alexa Alice Joubin
sustained orchestral hymn, weaving fragile figures in sixteenth and triplet eighth
notes. The film concludes with a shot of Bertie waving at the crowd from a balcony
with his family, fading out on Logue in the background with a satisfied look, thus
excluding Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) quite literally from the picture. The
epilogue titles state: ‘Lionel was with the King for every wartime speech. Through
his broadcasts, George VI became a symbol of national resistance. Lionel and Bertie
remained friends for the rest of their lives’ (01:51:50).
Such films create a collective feel‐good factor in some form of social work through
cinematically produced fictitious memories that are mired in the genre’s own sense
of self‐importance. As Belén Vidal theorises, the biopic ‘trades on a sense of authen-
ticity that stems from the actors body itself’ (2013, p. 11). Through the actors’
embodied reenactment and through the disembodied voices of King George VI and
Hawking, the films engineer social consensus among audiences who may not agree
with King George VI’s politics or Hawking’s atheism. In addition to capitalising on
audiences’ voyeuristic desire, The King’s Speech as celebrity biography also transacts
in assumed links between national pride and the privilege of the royal character who
‘has always [already] been a privileged discursive site that can keep together narra-
tions of self‐development as well as of nation‐formation’ (Pennacchia 2014, p. 35).
Of all the faculties, the human voice in particular is most often taken for granted.
It is an invisible but most fundamental extension of a person’s self and identity.
Having a voice, both physically and metaphorically, is the foundation of one’s human
identity. Like all able‐bodied privileges, possessing the ability to speak is as essential
and natural as breathing, and one would not notice it until one is silenced or other-
wise unable to speak. Vocal deficiency can be as unsettling as corporeal otherness,
even though expressive language disability is less immediately obvious. Patients
suffering from speech and language impairment face prejudice from all sectors and
are often assumed to have low intelligence. King George VI, working with his speech
therapist Lionel Logue, and Stephen Hawking, relying on the care and translation of
his slurred speech through his wife, speak in disembodied voices through cinematic
technologies of representation. The disembodiment signals both their disabled
status and transcendental status. In the case of Hawking, after he loses his voice due
to tracheotomy and pneumonia, he speaks more fluently than before through a
human–machine interface and with the help of nurse Elaine Mason. The films care-
fully skirt the edges of public disgust and pity of differently abled bodies: how the
stuttering King George VI struggles to find his voice and adapt to the then emerging
and increasingly important radio broadcasting technology and how the theoretical
physicist Stephen Hawking speaks through his now iconic voice synthesiser.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak asks the rhetorical question, ‘Can the subaltern
speak?’ in her famous essay on the construction of colonial subjects. Colonialists
often claim that they ‘come in peace’ with benevolent intentions to civilise or reha-
bilitate the local population. However, even the most benevolent effort to give the
oppressed people a voice can end up replicating the silencing effect it attempts to
combat. Similarly, as an immersive representational practice with a worldwide audi-
ence, narrative films and documentary films, such as Benjamin Cleary’s Academy
Can theBiopic Subjects Speak? 281
Award‐winning Stutterer (2015), have the power to raise awareness of critical issues
by giving voice to socially marginalised groups. In the case of mainstream biopics,
there are two strains of narrative, namely aestheticising suffering and political con-
descension, as in, for example, glorifying the sufferings of disabled figures while
taking over their life narratives without their own voices. In their effort to make life
narratives relatable to the broadest audience possible, biopics sometimes rob their
subjects of their voices.
1. For further analysis of this issue, see Robert McRuer, Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of
Queerness and Disability, New York University Press, 2006.
Works Cited
Bauby, Jean‐Dominique. (1998). The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death
(trans. Jeremy Leggat). Vintage.
Bingham, Dennis. (2010). Whose Lives Are They Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film
Genre. Rutgers University Press.
Harvie, Jen. (2005). Staging the UK. Manchester University Press.
Lacan, Jacques. (1998). Encore: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book XX. Norton.
Pennacchia, Maddalena. (2014). Culturally British bio(e)pics: From Elizabeth to The King’s
Speech. In: Adaptation, Intermediality and the British Celebrity Biopic (ed. Márta Minier
and Maddalena Pennacchia), 33–50. Ashgate.
Sartre, Jean‐Paul. (1976). Critique of Dialectical Reason, Vol. 1. New Left Books.
Schaffer, Kay and Smith, Sidonie. (2004). Human Rights and Narrated Lives: The Ethics of
Recognition. Palgrave Macmillan.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. (1988). Can the subaltern speak? In: Marxism and the
Interpretation of Cultures (ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg). Macmillan.
Vidal, Belén. (2013). Introduction: The biopic and its critical context. In: The Biopic in
Contemporary Film Culture (ed. Tom Brown and Belén Vidal, 1–32. Routledge.
x List ofContributors
Christine Geraghtyis Honorary Professorial Fellow at the University of Glasgow.
Publications include Now a Major Motion Picture: Film Adaptations of Literature and
Drama (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), Bleak House (Palgrave/BFI, 2012), and essays
on Atonement (2007), The Knack … (1965), and Tender Is the Night (1985).
Sonia Amalia Haiduc lectures in English literature and film adaptation at the
University of Barcelona where she is completing her PhD on biography on screen.
She has published on gendered authorship in film adaptation in The Writer on Film:
Screening Literary Authorship (2013) and biopics in the journal Adaptation (2014).
Her current research also explores late‐Victorian and postcolonial Gothic identities
in literature and film.
Lucinda Hobbsis a research student in the Centre for Adaptations at De Montfort
University, with a background in commissioning and managing titles on English
and English Literature lists for leading educational publishers, having trained as an
editor and commissioner at Oxford University Press. She is also editorial manager of
the A‐level magazine, The English Review.
Brian Hoyleis Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Dundee. He
has published on numerous aspects of British and American cinema. His recent
works include a chapter on artists’ biopics for the collection British Art Cinema:
Creativity, Experimentation, Innovation (Manchester University Press), which he
also coedited. He also oversaw the donation of Alan Sharp’s archive to the
University of Dundee.
I.Q. Hunteris Professor of Film Studies at De Montfort University, Leicester, author
of Cult Film as a Guide to Life (2016) and British Trash Cinema (2013), and editor or
coeditor of 11 books, including Pulping Fictions (1996), British Science Fiction
Cinema (1999), Science Fiction Across Media: Adaptation/Novelization (2013), and
The Routledge Companion to British Cinema (2017).
Alexa Alice Joubin is Professor of English at George Washington University in
Washington, D.C., where she cofounded the GW Digital Humanities Institute. At
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she is cofounder and codirector of the open
access Global Shakespeares digital performance archive (http://globalshakespeares.
org). Her latest books include Race (Routledge Critical Idioms series) and Local and
Global Myths in Shakespearean Performance (coedited).
Colleen Kennedy‐Karpat is an Assistant Professor in the Department of
Communication and Design at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. She edited
Adaptation, Awards Culture, and the Value of Prestige (Palgrave 2017) with Eric
Sandberg and is the author of the award‐winning monograph Rogues, Romance, and
Exoticism in French Cinema of the 1930s (Fairleigh Dickinson 2013). Other essays,
on topics ranging from Bill Murray to Marjane Satrapi, have appeared in Adaptation
List of Contributors ix
Acknowledgements xiii
List of Figures xv
1 Introduction 1
Deborah Cartmell and Ashley D. Polasek
Part I Approaches 11
2 Biopics andtheTrembling Ethics oftheReal 13
Timothy Corrigan
3 Biopics andtheMelodramatic Mode 23
Sonia Amalia Haiduc
4 Television Biopics: Questions ofGenre,Nation, andMedium 45
Jonathan Bignell
5 Alexander Mackendrick’s Mary Stuart andAlan Sharp’s Burns:
TwoUnfilmedScottish Biopics 61
Brian Hoyle
Part II Histories 87
6 The Hollywood Biopic ofthe Twentieth Century: A History 89
Deborah Cartmell
7 Silent Biopics 103
Gregory Robinson
vi Contents
8 A Match Made inHeaven?: The Biopic inPre‐Revolution
Russian Cinema 125
Henrik Christensen
9 The Golden Age Hollywood Biopic: The Barretts
ofWimpole Street 1934–1957 147
Deborah Cartmell
10 Caligula, History, andtheErotic Imagination 159
I.Q. Hunter
11 Representing theUnrepresentable: The Army ofCrime
andBiopicGenericConventions ofIdentity 191
Hila Shachar
12 Nature Versus Nurture/Wilderness Versus Words:
SyncretisingBinariesandtheGetting ofWisdom
inSean Penn’s Into theWild (2007) 209
Melissa Croteau
Part III Sub‐biopic Genres 231
13 Fleming, Adaptation, andtheAuthorBiopic 233
Jeremy Strong
14 Partial Presidential Biography onStageandScreen:
Franklin D. Roosevelt inSunrise at Campobello 247
Dean J. Kotlowski
15 Can theBiopic Subjects Speak?: Disembodied
Voices inThe King’s Speech andTheTheory ofEverything 269
Alexa Alice Joubin
16 Biographical Fantasia onScreen: Derek Jarmans Wittgenstein,
KarolRadziszewski’s MS 101, andtheStrategy ofDétournement 283
Robert Kusek
17 The Criminal andtheYarn: Adapting andPerforming Notoriety 297
Imelda Whelehan
18 The Man Behind theMyth’: Mr. Holme s andtheFictional Biopic 309
Ashley D. Polasek
Part IV Biopic Performances 331
19 ‘She wasanactress …’: Performing Margaret Thatcher
inTheIronLady 333
Christine Geraghty
Contents vii
20 Film (Noir) à Clef: Jailhouse Rock, A Hard Day’s Night,
andthe‘Jukebox’ Biopic 353
Robert Miklitsch
21 A Recipe forLife: Constructing theBiopic through New Media 375
Annie Nissen
22 Performance andPrestige intheBiopic, or Stardom andStatuettes 395
Colleen Kennedy‐Karpat
23 The Matter ofBlack Lives: Representations ofProminent
Afro‐Americans inBiopics 415
Lucinda Hobbs
Index 435
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Library of Congress Cataloging‐in‐Publication Data
Names: Cartmell, Deborah, editor. | Polasek, Ashley D., 1985– editor.
Title: A companion to the biopic / edited by Deborah Jayne Cartmell, Ashley Dawn
Description: Hoboken : Wiley-Blackwell 2020. | Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2019024054 (print) | LCCN 2019024055 (ebook) | ISBN
9781119554813 (hardback) | ISBN 9781119554738 (adobe pdf) | ISBN
9781119554790 (epub)
Subjects: LCSH: Biographical films–History and criticism.
Classification: LCC PN1995.9.B55 C65 2020 (print) | LCC PN1995.9.B55
(ebook) | DDC 791.43/651–dc23
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A Companion to the Biopic
Edited by
Deborah Cartmell
Ashley D. Polasek
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Personal narratives have become one of the most potent vehicles for advancing human rights claims across the world. These two contemporary domains, personal narrative and human rights, literature and international politics, are commonly understood to operate on separate planes. This study however, examines the ways these intersecting realms unfold and are enfolded in one another in ways both productive of and problematic for the achievement of social justice. Human Rights and Narrated Lives explores what happens when autobiographical narratives are produced, received, and circulated in the field of human rights. It asks how personal narratives emerge in local settings; how international rights discourse enables and constrains individual and collective subjectivities in narration; how personal narratives circulate and take on new meanings in new contexts; and how and under what conditions they feed into, affect, and are affected by the reorganizations of politics in the post cold war, postcolonial, globalizing human rights contexts. To explore these intersections, the authors attend the production, circulation, reception, and affective currents of stories in action across local, national, transnational, and global arenas. They do so by looking at five case studies: in the context of the Truth and Reconciliation processes in South Africa; the National Inquiry into the Forced Removal of Indigenous Children from their Families in Australia; activism on behalf of former 'comfort women' from South/East Asia; U.S. prison activism; and democratic reforms in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in China.
Through detailed analyses and critiques of nearly twenty biopics, Whose Lives Are They Anyway? proves a critical point: The biopic is a genuine, dynamic genre and an important one it narrates, exhibits, and celebrates a subject's life and demonstrates, investigates, or questions his or her importance in the world; it illuminates the finer points of a personality; and, ultimately, it provides a medium for both artist and spectator to discover what it would be like to be that person, or a certain type of person.
Beginning with the premise that the biopic is a form of adaptation and an example of intermediality, this collection examines the multiplicity of 'source texts' and the convergence of different media in this genre, alongside the concurrent issues of fidelity and authenticity that accompany this form. The contributors focus on big and small screen biopics of British celebrities from the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, attending to their myth-making and myth-breaking potential. Related topics are the contemporary British biopic's participation in the production and consumption of celebrated lives, and the biopic's generic fluidity and hybridity as evidenced in its relationship to such forms as the bio-docudrama. Offering case studies of film biographies of literary and cultural icons, including Elizabeth I, Elizabeth II, Diana Princess of Wales, John Lennon, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Beau Brummel, Carrington and Beatrix Potter, the essays address how British identity and heritage are interrogated in the (re)telling and showing of these lives, and how the reimagining of famous lives for the screen is influenced by recent processes of manufacturing celebrity. © Márta Minier, Maddalena Pennacchia, and contributors 2014. All rights reserved.
The original title of this paper was “Power, Desire, Interest.”1 Indeed, whatever power these meditations command may have been earned by a politically interested refusal to push to the limit the founding presuppositions of my desires, as far as they are within my grasp. This vulgar three-stroke formula, applied both to the most resolutely committed and to the most ironic discourse, keeps track of what Althusser so aptly named “philosophies of denegation.”2 I have invoked my positionality in this awkward way so as to accentuate the fact that calling the place of the investigator into question remains a meaningless piety in many recent critiques of the sovereign subject. Thus, although I will attempt to foreground the precariousness of my position throughout, I know such gestures can never suffice.
Marxism and the Interpretation of Cultures
  • Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
The Biopic in Contemporary Film Culture
  • Belén Vidal
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death (trans
  • Jean-Dominique Bauby
Bauby, Jean-Dominique. (1998). The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death (trans. Jeremy Leggat). Vintage.