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From Book to the Big Screen

With the premiere of ‘The Broken Tower’ on Friday, BC’s Mariani realizes unlikely dream

04/14/11
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Director and actor James Franco, will direct the motion picture "The Broken Tower" based on the book buy the same name (pictured here) by BC Prof. Paul Mariani. The film will star actor Michael Shannon. (Image from www.slashfilm.com)

By Rosanne Pellegrini | Chronicle Staff

Published: Apr. 14, 2011

University Professor of English Paul Mariani was prescient when his biography of American poet Hart Crane, The Broken Tower: The Life of Hart Crane, was published in 1999, the year of his subject’s 100th birthday.  

“I did think that it might make a good movie,” Mariani recalls, “if only one could find the right producer, director and actor to play Hart Crane.” But as time passed he turned his attention to other projects, “and the idea that someone would make a movie of Crane’s life was forgotten.”  

A dozen years later, Mariani’s book is the inspiration and basis for a biopic directed by and starring acclaimed, Golden Globe Award-winning actor James Franco, who will be on campus tomorrow for a premiere screening of “The Broken Tower” for BC undergraduates.   

Mariani’s critically hailed biography came to Franco’s attention when he read Hart Crane’s poetry; an introduction by writer and literary critic Harold Bloom lauded it as the best source for understanding the poet.   

An accomplished poet himself, Mariani says of his book: “I knew by the time I was 28 that I wanted to write a biography of Hart Crane, the brilliant and obscure late American Romantic who killed himself at the age of 32. But it was not until I was 55 that I seriously began researching and writing [his] life, attempting to make the poet more accessible to a larger audience.  

“Many American poets have acknowledged the impact of Crane’s work on their own. But how to explain the man’s life: his critical brilliance and creativity and vision flashing in bold outline against his erotic antics and his Dionysian addiction to booze?” adds Mariani, who has published five biographies of poets over the past 30 years, and is working on his sixth.  

When the film prospect arose, he “was warned from the get-go that most projects like this soon went down in Icarian flames, and so not to get my hopes up. But James proved from the beginning to be a man of his word, who I came to admire and respect. To say I have enjoyed working with James would be an understatement. I consider him truly a friend.”      

Mariani — who has a small speaking part in the film as photographer-artist Alfred Stieglitz — recalls a day spent together in New York in August 2009, “going over sites in Greenwich Village and mid-town Manhattan and Brooklyn’s Columbia Heights and lower Broadway, walking the Brooklyn Bridge and touring the old subways and the Woolworth Building and so much more, suggesting ways of looking at these landmarks of New York. Consider what the poet Robert Lowell once said: that Hart Crane somehow managed to get New York into the very matrix of his epic poem, ‘The Bridge.’”    

Of Franco’s acting — including his portrayal of the young Allen Ginsberg in “Howl,” and powerful, Oscar-nominated role as mountain climber Aron Ralston in “127 Hours” — Mariani describes him as “entering the very soul of another human being.”    

While Mariani hopes the film inspires a new generation of readers of his book, “even more, I would hope the book and the film would turn the attention of serious readers of poetry back to the words of a young, tragic poet — like [John] Keats or [Percy Bysshe] Shelley or [Gerard Manley] Hopkins — who believed in the visionary powers of the poetic imagination to change for the better those who took the time to listen to what the poet had to offer. Certainly, that is what Hart wanted, and it is what I believe James has given us in the film.   

“I hope the audience will come away with the sense of a poet doomed almost from the start in spite of his visionary aspirations,” he adds. “Like many young people today, his parents had one plan for him, while he had another. His father wanted him to work in his candy business.” Hart’s father was the inventor of Life Savers, Mariani notes, “which patent he sold early on for a pittance, and which is doubly ironic when you consider that Hart drowned at sea while several lifesavers bobbed idly on the sea’s surface.”   

The BC student audience will have the opportunity to hear first-hand from Franco and Mariani, when they discuss the film, Crane’s life and poetic reputation during a Q&A session following the Robsham Theater screening.   

Mariani also hopes the audience recognizes “the seriousness with which James has rendered this feature-length film. I have worked closely with James and I have been struck again and again at how deeply [he] has grasped the very soul of this complex, obscure, but necessary poet of the American religious experience.”   

See also a Q&A with University Professor of English Paul Mariani — which was the basis for this article.