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Biographies are an extremely popular genre of literature and the following article gives an introduction to this particular genre.

Young man reading a book

In general people are interested in other people’s lives, a fact that may explain the popularity of talk shows where more or less famous guests are invited to talk about themselves. Actors, writers, film stars and musicians are all sought-after targets for this somewhat indiscrete and tabloid mission. This may also be why the biography is an all-time winner both in literature and on film. Ordinary people seem to have a secret desire to find out what lies behind the fame and success of these people.


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Facts – not Fiction

Strictly speaking a biography is no more than a record of a person’s life, and is in literary terms classified as non-fiction. But the facts recorded may still be of value when we want to understand fiction, because getting insight into a writer’s life may give us a broader appreciation of his writing. The circumstances that influenced the author during his life either on a personal or a social level will most likely be reflected in his writing. Much of the European fiction from the mid-1930s was, for example, heavily influenced by the rising Nazi movement in Germany and the overhanging threat of a new war. But one must remember that once a literary text has left the author, it is dead until its universe comes alive in the encounter with the reader; what made the author write it is in most cases of secondary interest. So in that respect a biography is only interesting as a documentation of someone’s life.

There are numerous biographies published every year about all kinds of celebrities, and they sell by the million. People look for intimate revelations and juicy details from the private lives of people that in some way have become famous. One reason for this rather snooping curiosity may be that people simply want to get more intimately acquainted with someone that means a lot to them and they feel they know, but only from a distance. Writing a full biography takes enormous research, but the work will probably pay off as the market seems insatiable. If the biography is unauthorized, that is if the person portrayed has not given the biographer his approval, the story will probably sell even more.

My Own Story

The autobiography is a slightly more intriguing sub-genre of this kind of literature. When a person relates his own life it becomes even more intimate and personal. When some famous person wants to tell his own story we listen. The personal memoirs of famous people will not only include the biographical facts, but also private reflections which may lead to a more profound understanding of the artist or the politician behind their glamorous façade. But writing a good autobiography takes narrative talent, so often the "writer" will work with a professional author or journalist to pen his story. But that is not always the case. Rock stars like Bob Dylan (Chronicles) and Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards (Life) display surprisingly good narrative talent in their autobiographies. The memoirs of retired politicians may have the potential to be explosive as they may reveal dodgy dealings within the political system, such as corruption. But usually an experienced politician will know how to go about it tactfully in order not to stir the opposition, and to preserve his own reputation and integrity.

Famous Figures on Film

Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin

We have seen them all – J.F. Kennedy, Picasso, Gandhi, Chaplin, Hitler, to mention a few. The filmed biography is in a way more potent than a written biography, because, first of all, film has in general a stronger impact than literature due to its visual effects, and secondly, seeing is believing. What we can see tends to become truer than what we read, even though we know that it is an enacted feature film and not a documentary. This leaves the film director with a huge responsibility; the way his protagonist is presented will go down in history as the truth. Many of these filmed biographies are heavily criticised afterwards; critics claim that they present the person in an either too flattering light or in a way that does not correspond with reality and historical facts. So the film director has the power to manipulate the audience and to rewrite history, which is a somewhat questionable project. And we must remember that if this is a Hollywood production, which it usually is, it has to comply with the rules of the trade to become a box office winner. This is probably why the film about Picasso was called Picasso’s Women and the film about Chaplin focused more on his affairs with women than on his films and artistic talent.

Another challenge for the makers of biographical films is the casting. For the film to be trustworthy it is crucial to find an actor whose physical features are as close to the “real McCoy” as possible. A true re-enacting of the face and figure of a historical person is essential for such a film to work and to be seen as the historical document it pretends to be. Ben Kingsley was a good Gandhi lookalike, and Robert Downing jr gave life to Charlie Chaplin in a most credible way. Other examples are Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II and Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. Stephen Fry as Oscar Wilde (Wilde) with his long hair and extravagant style is also a brilliant impersonation, and so is Bruno Ganz as Hitler in Der Untergang. The make-up crew on the film set really can work miracles, and when the actors do their job on deportment and accent, these films actually come close to good documentaries and are acclaimed both by the audience and the reviewers.



  1. Why do you think an unauthorised biography would sell more than an authorised one?
  2. Why is an autobiography more intriguing than a biography?
  3. Do you know of examples of political memoirs that have caused a stir when they were published?
  4. What does it mean that a Hollywood production has to comply with “the rules of the trade”? What are these rules?


  1. Go on the net and find trailers or clips from film biographies of famous people, for example those mentioned in the article, and compare the looks of the artist to pictures of the real person. What do you think?
  2. Check the net for reviews of the latest biographical films about Margaret Thatcher (focus on the 2011 version: The Iron Lady) or King George VI (focus on The King's Speech). What is said about the way this politician and monarch are presented? You may also study NDLA's reviews of The Iron Lady here and the King's Speech here

Project Work

The Canadian Nobel Laureate Alice Munro is renowned as a writer that draws heavily upon her personal life and experiences in her stories. Make a project on Alice Munro - Writing Her Life


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