Movies on Philosophers: Rare, Hard to Make, Desirable

Having viewed the rather disappointing Chopin: Desire for Love over the weekend, I’m struck again by how difficult it seems to be to make movies about artists, writers, or perhaps creators of all kinds. My viewing also served to remind me that movies about philosophers’ lives are exceedingly rare, and the few that have been made–or rather, that I am aware of–haven’t exactly sent cinemaphiles or students of philosophy running to the nearest box-office e.g., Derek Jarman‘s Wittgenstein was a disappointment, and the less said about the atrocious and unwatchable When Nietzsche Wept, the better.

What gives?  Have philosophers lived particularly dull lives–devoid of dramatic involvement in world affairs, the cultural history of their times, or matters of the heart? Does the philosopher’s life, supposedly all inwardly directed contemplation,  need plenty of faux external action to make it palatable for the screen? I don’t think so. Both the philosophers named above serve as immediate counterexamples to any such facile generalization. And certainly, movies on Enlightenment philosophers would make for some rather spectacular story-telling and serve as grand historical dramas as well. I suspect the problem lies elsewhere.

Most prominently, it seems to me the subject matter, while not intractably resistant to cinematic adaptation, does pose special challenges to directors, screenwriters and actors: the centerpieces of a philosopher’s life are philosophical doctrines after all, and if the movie is to do justice to that life, then the doctrines have to be woven skillfully into both the form and the content of the movie. By this I mean it is not enough that the philosopher merely mouth off a selection of the greatest lines from his oeuvre. This would be an utter disaster. The doctrines have to, instead, be shown in their historical context; the problems they tackle have to be shown to be relevant to ordinary mortals; their poetic content needs to be made visible; and their philosophical content made comprehensible by showing its resonance with larger human themes. This would be easier obviously in the case of those considered political or moral philosophers and much harder with those writing on metaphysical or epistemological themes. (I wonder how Leibnizian  or Hegelian metaphysics would be brought to the big screen; but Descartes‘ epistemological doctrines in the Meditations seem amenable to an adaptation featuring a dialog with fictional interlocutors.)

The screenwriter and director have to find a way too, to incorporate a didactic or expository flavor that doesn’t overpower the story-telling they have in mind. Jarman’s Wittgenstein was never intended as a guide to Wittgenstein’s philosophizing but the minor flirtations it engaged in in that dimension, were, I think, utter failures. In this regard, I’m curious whether Louis Menand‘s The Metaphysical Club could serve as the basis for a cinematic introduction to the American pragmatists.

That last point leads me to cast a quick vote for a movie I’d love to see: the life and times of the brilliant, tortured and singularly unfortunate Charles Sanders Peirce. Any movie-maker willing to take that task on will have a sympathetic, thoughtful biography–that written by Joseph Brent–to draw on. I doubt any directors read this blog, but if you’re one, think about it. It’s a great story, one worth bringing to the screen.

3 thoughts on “Movies on Philosophers: Rare, Hard to Make, Desirable

  1. It’s rather see another Steinbeck get put on the screen. His whole goal was to try to get people to understand one another, and used nice, straightforward prose. Philosophers can be a bit grandiloquent, in my experience, and that can become tedious.

  2. I do think that philosophical abstraction does resist the physical in the same way that mathematics and the theoretical sciences do. In the absence of a powerful metaphor (insanity, for example), there’s just no way to get the content up on the screen explicitly. It can be achieved *implicitly*, but this is a very inexact game: if I say that Bela Tarr’s films evoke Schopenhauer, that doesn’t make them philosophical movies per se.

    The most movie-friendly account I know of is Duffy’s “The World as I Found it” about Wittgenstein, Russell and Moore. I don’t think it’s a great book but it’s OK, and I could see it being a reasonably compelling movie because of the ability to contrast the three and their thought and their personalities in a copacetic way.

    And, of course, the trial of Socrates. Has that ever been filmed?

    The most successful “philosophical” movie I know of is The Ister, which isn’t exactly a dramatic presentation. I don’t even care for some of its content, but I did think that it was surprisingly well-assembled and semi-effective in conveying something of Heidegger, his context, and his philosophy without being hagiographic.

  3. David,

    Thanks for the comment and for the references. The Duffy sounds like an excellent source for a movie; I’m sure a good screenplay writer could make it work.

    You are right that getting “philosophical abstraction” on the screen is a primary challenge; I suspect that is part of what I was struggling to say in my post.

    I’ve placed ‘The Ister’ on my DVD queue, and will check it out. Incidentally, I did the Trial of Socrates in one of my classes this semester and was struck again by how stage-and-movie-friendly it seemed!

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