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Film Genres

This guide highlights library resources for some of the more popular film genres.

A quick definition for biographical films

Biopic (biographical picture; biographical film)

A film that tells the story of the life of a real person, often a well-known monarch, political leader, or artist. Thomas Edison’s Execution of Mary Queen of Scots (US, 1895) prefigures the genre but perhaps the earliest biopic is Jeanne d’Arc/Joan of Arc (Georges Méliès, France, 1900). Biopics were popular with audiences in Europe in the early 20th century, including Queen Elizabeth (Henri Desfontaine and Louis Mercanto, France, 1912), Danton (Dimitri Buchowetski, Germany, 1920), Anne Boleyn (Ernst Lubitsch, Germany, 1920), Napoleon (Abel Gance, France, 1927), and The Private Life of Henry VIII (Alexander Korda, UK, 1933). Beyond Europe and North America, biopics celebrated anti-colonial figures and continue to do so (see Philippines, film in). The biopic was a staple of US cinema during the studio period, with some 300 films released between 1927 and 1960. The work of director William Dieterle, including The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), Juarez (1939), and The Life of Emile Zola (1937), is particularly worthy of note. It is common for films from this era to start in media res and proceed by way of flashbacks through a ‘stages of life’ structure, with details from a person’s early life often prefiguring the events they subsequently became known for (see plot/story). This structure allows the biopic to move between public and private knowledge pertaining to the film’s subject: the revelation of a private self is one of the genre’s key pleasures. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), generally agreed to be one of the greatest films ever made, is a scathing and thinly disguised biopic of newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst. US versions of the genre display a shift from celebratory studio-era films to a ‘warts and all’ approach in the late 1960s and 1970s; as, for example, in the Woody Guthrie biopic, Bound For Glory (Hal Ashby, US, 1976). From the 1990s, a number of films, such as 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould (François Girard, Portugal/Canada/Finland/Netherlands, 1993) and the Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, US, 2007), actively sought to deconstruct the genre. The lives of entertainers, film stars, and artists comprise some 36 per cent of all Hollywood biopics, a tendency that continues in the contemporary cinema with films showing the rise to fame of Freddie Mercury (Bohemian Rhapsody (Bryan Singer, 2018)) and Elton John (Rocketman (Dexter Fletcher, 2019)).  ...

Kuhn, A., & Westwell, G. (2020). Biopic. In A Dictionary of Film Studies. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 19 May. 2023

Finding library resources for biographical films

The Jones Media Center has a collection of biographies for viewing. To find them, you can do a subject search for "biographical films." To find books about biographical films, look at the subject headings that contain "history and criticism." These books will discuss historical films in general or those produced in different countries. To find film resources on a specific person, you can do a subject search and add "drama" with your other search terms.

Introductory reading(s)

Selected book title(s)

Finding scholarly articles & journal titles

Articles and other writings about movies can be found in many publications. We don't have any periodicals that look exclusively at biographies in our collections. You can use Film & Television Literature Index to find articles. You can also search in America, History & Life or Historical Abstracts depending on which historical figure you want to research.

Selected list of biographical films

Find more biographical films in the online catalog.