Genius opens in theaters today, starring Jude Law as the writer Thomas Wolfe and Colin Firth as legendary editor Maxwell Perkins. It depicts the relationship between genius and mentor, though by the end viewers might wonder which is which:
It adds to a long history of movies that have explored the nature of genius, from 1936’s The Story of Louis Pasteur to next year’s Hidden Figures, about three brilliant African-American women who worked at NASA in the 1950s.
Here are ten movies that ask, what is genius? And is it worth it?
For most of Amadeus, Miloš Forman‘s Oscar-busting adaptation of Peter Schaffer‘s wildly successful play, the genius at its heart is not at odds with his god-given gifts. Mozart is portrayed by Tom Hulce as willfully crude and, at times, especially when it comes to money, his own worst enemy. Neither society nor love and relationships hold him back: if anything, he loves as easily as he jots down a concerto.
Nope, Amadeus adds an external twist to the trope of thwarted genius: Mozart’s downfall is precipitated by his devious, and eventually downright murderous, rival Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), who is consumed by admiration and envy for his talent.
2. Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)
This movie depicts Joshua Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc), a real-life chess prodigy who followed in the footsteps of chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer. Fischer represents the risk of genius throughout the film, that by pursuing it, we can lose sight of our personal relationships, and eventually, ourselves.
Joshua, on the other hand, is nurtured first by his parents, then by a strict instructor (Ben Kingsley) and an expert at speed chess (Laurence Fishburne). Caught between the men’s two different approaches, Joshua eventually goes on to win on his own terms.
3. Shine (1996)
Based on the real-life story of Australian pianist David Helfgott, Shine shows what happens when a genius is pushed too far. A child prodigy, he suffers a severe mental breakdown when his friends and family, in particular his domineering father, force him to perform.
Geoffrey Rush won a Best Actor Oscar for this portrayal of the adult David, who, after several years in a mental institution, finds love and makes one of those grand, standing-ovation-type comebacks we’ve come to expect in films about broken geniuses.
4. Good Will Hunting (1997)
This Oscar-winning movie brought its stars and writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to our attention, and was the first in a number of films at the turn of the century to find genius in a modest man: in this case, a Harvard janitor who spends his spare time solving obscure mathematical equations.
Its blue-collar protagonist Will Hunting is anything but simple, however. His journey crystallized the idea that genius, whereever it strikes, brings with it serious emotional problems, albeit nothing that can’t be solved by the love of a good woman and a hug from Robin Williams.
5. Finding Forrester (2000)
This touching film tells the story of Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown), a young black teenager with a gift for writing who happens upon an old, reclusive writer named William Forrester (Sean Connery)—a character widely believed to be based on The Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger.
Gus Van Sant directs his second movie about discovering genius in an unexpected place (he also directed Good Will Hunting), focusing again on the relationship between mentor and genius, as Forrester draws out Jamal’s innate talent, while he struggles with the attitudes of his peers and the authorities.
6. A Beautiful Mind (2002)
Based on a book of the same title, A Beautiful Mind tells the story of Nobel Prize-winning mathematician and economist John Forbes Nash (Russell Crowe) as he navigates his early successes coupled with frightening experiences of psychosis. Like Shine, it explores the psychological toll of having an expanded mind, and went on to win four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Ron Howard.
7. Séraphine (2008)
While some artists are famous for their gifts in their lifetime, many more struggle in obscurity despite immense talent. Séraphine Louis (played in this film by Yolande Moreau) is just one person: having worked most of her life as a maid and servant to a wealthy family, she creates intricate and original primitivist paintings that would only truly be recognized for their beauty years after her death.
Her talent doesn’t come withouts its drawbacks, however. The first stirrings of success upsets her mental balance, and eventually she is committed to an asylum during her final years. Moreau’s sensitive, withdrawn performance won her a César Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role, one of six the film won that year.
8. The Imitation Game (2014)
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Alan Turing, who decrypted German intelligence codes for the British government during World War II. Turing is unquestionably a genius, but so is Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley, the film’s only representative of the hundreds of women who worked in secret on German codebreaking at Bletchley Park during the war.
Turing’s genius was in mathematics, but his personal relationships and the political atmosphere of the time hold him back. The “imitation game” of the title refers to a test he devised to find out whether machines might one day be said to think, but his efforts to mimic “normal” human behavior—and, in particular, to get his colleagues to like him—that make up most of the movie.
9. The Theory of Everything (2014)
Two genius movies did battle at the 2015 Academy Awards: The Imitation Game, and this one, starring Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne. Despite being heralded as one of the foremost geniuses of our time, it’s not personal relationships that hold back Eddie’s character, the real-life theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, but his health, as motor neurone disease threatens to put an early stop to his work and his marriage.
10. The Man Who Knew Infinity (2016)
Starring Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons, The Man Who Knew Infinity tells the story of the great Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, whose remarkable skill with numbers is the least of his worries.
Mathematics is not the movie’s only focus, however. It depicts how he fell in love with his wife, the homesickness he feels when he travels from Madras to study at Cambridge, the racism he suffers in England, and, most stirringly, the narrative arc from lowly clerk to globally recognized mathematician. Not only that, but his tragically early death at 32 was not the result of any complications arising from his genius, but rather tuberculosis.