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A Filmmaker's Guide to: Biopics II

Film Studies (Pt.129)

By Annie KapurPublished 2 years ago 5 min read
Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the film of the same name based on "The Autobiography of Malcolm X

In this chapter of ‘the filmmaker’s guide’ we’re actually going to be learning about literature and film together. I understand that many of you are sitting in university during difficult times and finding it increasingly hard to study and I understand that many of you who are not at university or not planning on it are possibly stuck of what to do, need a break or even need to catch up on learning film before you get to the next level. This guide will be brief but will also contain: new vocabulary, concepts and theories, films to watch and we will be exploring something taboo until now in the ‘filmmaker’s guide’ - academia (abyss opens). Each article will explore a different concept of film, philosophy, literature or bibliography/filmography etc. in order to give you something new to learn each time we see each other. You can use some of the words amongst family and friends to sound clever or you can get back to me (email in bio) and tell me how you’re doing. So, strap in and prepare for the filmmaker’s guide to film studies because it is going to be one wild ride.

Biopics II

Robert Downey Jr. as Sir Charlie Chaplin in the film "Chaplin" (1992)

What are they?

Biopics are biographical pictures. They are based on real people, sometimes or often on books written by themselves and/or about themselves and have a certain degree of truth about their lives, achievements. They often focus on the main part in which their professional life began rather than actively the start-to-finish story. This is because in a film there is only so much time in which to tell the story of the individual.

Types of Biopic

There are different types of biopic by which you can group them, here are the main ones:

Adapted Screenplay Biopic - this is based on a book either written by the person about themselves (autobiography), or written by someone else about them which is a reputable source (biography). These are very common to use seeing as the director would then have active source material to work from including often scholarly research into their life. This can make the biopic more accurate but on the other hand, key information risks being left out.

Original Screenplay Biopic - this type of biopic is based on a script written by the screenwriter who has consulted people who either know/knew the subject of the biopic or scholars who have done intense amounts of research, often dedicating their life's work to the subject of the biopic. These are somewhat less common unless the subject of the biopic has been dead for hundreds of years and there is no surviving record of their biography. Be that as it may, it has been becoming more and more common in the current day to make these types of biopics about people only recently deceased within the last fifty years.

Docudrama Biopic - This one is half documentary, half dramatisation. It looks and feels like a normal film with actors portraying the characters etc. but then it has a narrator talking over it from time to time telling us the story about what is happening or what the context is. This can also be followed by scholars talking on the subject with cuts back and forth from them. These are less common, but are becoming more common since the docudrama phase of Netflix has allowed this avant-garde practice to become more popular. Since its popularity in the 70s, this kind of docudrama is often left to the shadows - but thankfully, not anymore.

Case Study 1: "Malcolm X" (1992)

Based on the book "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" written by the subject of the book, this film used not only good source material, but also consulted people who knew Malcolm X whilst making the film. Whilst Spike Lee was active in making the film as a work of biopic, he was also active at exploring the range of Malcolm X's character as a man of words, intelligence and as an orator of the Civil Rights' Movement. All these things put together made the film work as an adapted screenplay biopic. Other adapted screenplay biopics include films like: "Chaplin" (1992), "Lady Sings the Blues" (1972) and "In the Name of the Father" (1997).

Case Study 2: "I'm Not There" (2007)

Based on an original screenplay and various pieces of scholarly research into the topic of Bob Dylan and the episodes of various 'characters' he has portrayed through music, this film attempts to make a narrative from the biopic, which it does very well. A different kind of original screenplay biopic, it uses these characters to tell shorter, more intense and more important stories that have happened throughout the life of Bob Dylan with it actually being my favourite movie of all time. Personally, from the movie I would say that Christian Bale and Cate Blanchett are my favourite characters. Other original screenplay biopics you can watch include films like: "Bohemian Rhapsody" (2018) and "Caravaggio" (1986).

Case Study 3: "Edvard Munch" (1974)

Directed by Peter Watkins and made int he style of a docudrama, this film is possibly one of the most experimental and avant-garde biopics you will ever watch. It uses people who are not even actors, it is narrated in various parts, uses makeshift 'interviews' of the characters on the topic of Edvard Munch and his life and also has Edvard himself look directly into the camera from time to time and even speak to the camera. It is an invasive documentary on a grand scale and is absolute brilliance in film achievements. It hardly gets enough recognition as it is. I would say give it a watch to learn more about the way in which docudrama is modernising.


There are definitely other types of biopic but these three are the main ones I wanted to cover. When watching a biopic, you are not really looking for 100% accuracy, you are instead looking for clarity of storyline, what the film is presenting to us and whether it make these achievements of greatness seem realistic and as electrifying as they would have been in real life.


About the Creator

Annie Kapur

Film and Writing (M.A)

150K+ Reads on Vocal

IG: @AnnieApproximately

Pronouns: (she/her/hers)

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