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Gently Mad

Docu-Drama

My other favorites: The Great Escape (1963), a dramatized account of the mass escape of Allied prisoners from a Nazi prison camp in which the fabrication of impressive identity documents were vital to the plan; 84 Charing Cross Road (1987), a wonderful story based on the memoir of Helene Hanff that works in this context on several levels, first as a story about the passion for rare books, and also as a twenty-year friendship that thrives entirely by transatlantic correspondence; The Man Who Never Was (1956), the true story of Operation Mincemeat, a 1943 British Intelligence plan to deceive the Axis powers into thinking the invasion of Sicily would take place in Greece, made possible by creating an entire identity for a dead man exclusively through the use of documents; and I Accuse (1957), one of several film treatments over the years to dramatize the infamous Dreyfus Affair in France, which turned on a forged memorandum known as the bordereau, and exposed ultimately in a newspaper article by Émile Zola.

Not content to leave it there, I called my daughter Nicole, a special collections librarian now working in Washington and a whiz on film lore of every era—she describes herself, actually, as a cinephile—and Allan Stypeck, a good friend and owner of Second Story Books on Dupont Circle in Washington and in Rockville, Maryland, who with his wife Kim are appreciative fans of vintage movies.

Nicole gave me the following: Amadeus (1984), the wonderful film and play based loosely on the tragic life and timeless musical compositions of Mozart; Quills (2000), inspired by the asylum writings of the Marquis de Sade; My Left Foot (1989), the true story of an Irish victim of cerebral palsy who uses his one functional appendage to create moving paintings and poetry; and along the same vein, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), an adaptation based on the dictation of a memoir by a French writer crippled by stroke and able to communicate only through the blinking of his left eyelid.

Kim Stypeck’s suggestion, The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), clearly a classic, went immediately to the top of my list. Allan’s nominations included Julie & Julia (2009), the Nora Ephron film that has, at its core, the making of Julia Child’s incomparable Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and the attempt of an inspired blogger to make all 524 recipes in one year. The Stypecks also suggested Cross Creek (1983), based on the life of author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and The Wannsee Conference (1984), a made-for-TV docudrama that chillingly recreates the 1942 meeting of paper-pushers and bureaucrats to finalize plans for the Holocaust. I considered The Odessa File (1974) something of a stretch, given its highly fictionalized narrative, but accepted it, since there is a factual basis for the premise.

Four more films came my way when I shared what I was doing for this piece with Rebecca Rego Barry, the new editor of Fine Books & Collections, and a pretty nifty film buff in her own right, it turns out. Her splendid contributions include: Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994), about Dorothy Parker, the Algonquin Round Table, and the founding of the New Yorker magazine; Stone Reader (2002), a documentary about one man’s quest to find the writer of a mostly unknown epic, The Stones of Summer (which Barnes & Noble promptly reprinted); Miss Potter (2006), with Renée Zellweger playing Beatrix Potter as she illustrates and writes her first Peter Rabbit books; and finally, Finding Neverland (2004), with Johnny Depp as J. M. Barrie, finding inspiration to write Peter Pan—inspired choices all.

So there you have it, twenty-one films. How about all of you out there? Any movies you can think of even remotely based on fact that have, say, maps or postage stamps that are essential to the narrative? Contracts, perhaps? Dossiers? Origami? Books, of course, or newspapers? I’ll share what I receive on my Gently Mad blog.

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Nicholas A. BasbanesNicholas A. Basbanes recently received a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship to work on his book on paper, which is forthcoming from Knopf. His most recent book is Editions & Impressions, a collection of essays. His other works include the acclaimed A Gentle Madness, Every Book Its Reader, Patience & Fortitude, Among the Gently Mad, and A Splendor of Letters.