Genius is defined as a person having a natural capacity of intellect. Many movies portray these individuals, with their individual skills, whether it is mathematics, science, art or music. Here are 10 films which brilliantly portray 10 different “versions” of genius in modern cinema. Most of the films are based on the character’s life and, in particular, how their abilities fit into their lives and the lives of people around them. The majority of them are based on real people, and the list is in alphabetical order.
Jackson Pollock was an American abstract painter who died in 1956, aged just 44. He was best known for his expressionist paintings done on large canvases, usually stretched across the floor. Instead of painting, he would throw paint over the canvas, dripping it and smearing it. Being regarded as somewhat of a genius, he is quoted to have said, “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about. I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.”
He struggled with alcoholism throughout his entire life, with it eventually being the cause of his death in a drunken car accident. The film Pollock was released in 2000 and stars Ed Harris and Marcia Gay Harden. Harden won an academy award for her portrayal of Jackson’s wife, Lee Krasner. The film tells the story of his career and struggles with alcoholism as well as the reception to his work.
Rain Man (1988)
Everyone should be familiar with Rain Man, winning four Oscars in 1989, including one for Best Actor in a Leading Role for Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman plays an autistic savant, Raymond, who, while being severely disabled, still has areas of brilliance and expertise which conflict with his overall nature. He based his character on a real life savant named Kim Peek, who is regarded as the most brilliant savant in the world. Peek can read 2 pages of a book in about 10 seconds with his left eye reading the left page and his right eye reading the right page. He can remember 98% of this information, and retains all of it. As well as being a speed calculator, he can also recall over approximately 12,000 books about geography, history, literature etc, and can also declare the day of any date in history.
The film Rain Man, however, is not based on Kim Peek’s life, but tells the fictional story of Raymond’s brother Charlie (played by Tom Cruise), who discovers his brother after their father dies and leaves his multi-million dollar estate to Raymond. Charlie sets out initially to use Raymond’s abilities for his own gain, but through spending time with him, grows to love him. Throughout the film, Dustin Hoffman’s performance is flawless and brilliant.
Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)
Robert James Fischer is regarded as one of the greatest chess players of all time, with legendary achievements including becoming the youngest grandmaster ever, at age 15. The film ‘Searching for Bobby Fischer’ is based on Joshua Waitzkin, another child chess prodigy who followed in the footsteps of Bobby Fischer. Max Pomeranc stars as Waitzkin in the movie, and is discovered as a naturally gifted chess player and nurtured by a strict instructor. Joshua Waitzkin started playing chess at age six, and between his third and ninth grades, he had won eight individual titles and seven team championships.
Little Man Tate (1991)
A child prodigy is the name given to a youngster whose intellect or skills are regarded as being very much beyond their years. Generally it is given to children under 15 who perform certain skills at the level of a highly trained adult, usually in a very demanding field. Some child prodigies have been known to study for a P.H.D at age 12, and enter university as young as 8. Little Man Tate is a 1991 film directed by, and starring, Jodie Foster. The film tells the story of a young genius, Fred Tate, who, at just 7 years old, is a gifted pianist, mathematical genius and artist. The film focuses on his attempts to fit in to society, although his intelligence becomes a psychological strain on him and his single mother, Dede.
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
A Beautiful Mind is based on a book of the same title. Both the film and the novel tell the story of Nobel Prize-winning Mathematician and Economist, John Forbes Nash. Originally, Tom Cruise was set to play the lead role, but Crowe was chosen after Ron Howard (Director) saw his performance in Gladiator. The film follows Nash through a large part of his life, including his time at Princeton University. It encompasses his successes and his downfalls, the biggest of which is his schizophrenia and paranoia, which bring tremendous strain to his work, family and friends. The film won four Academy awards, including Best Picture.
Also notable: Good Will Hunting
Amadeus is regarded as one of the greatest musical drama films ever made. It was nominated for 53 awards and amazingly, won 40 of them, including 8 Academy awards. The film is based loosely on the lives of Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, both composers living in Vienna, Austria, in the latter part of the 18th century. Although the film is comedic, Mozart was a child prodigy who was composing pieces for keyboard and violin at the age of 5, as well as performing before royalty. He composed over 600 works in total throughout his lifetime and was regarded as the greatest naturally gifted, child musician of all time.
Also notable: Immortal Beloved
Dark Matter (2008)
Dark Matter is a film I only recently became aware of. It is loosely based on the story of Gang Lu, the perpetrator of the 1991 University of Iowa shootings, although the film focuses on his time at the university, rather than his crimes. The character, Liu Xing, is a gifted young Chinese student who is flown to America to study physics at a higher level. While there, he joins a cosmology group led by Jacob Reiser, a famous cosmologist. Xing’s brilliance becomes apparent and he is quickly taken under the professor’s wing as they try to create a model for the origin of the universe. However, Xing becomes obsessed with the study of ‘Dark Matter’ – an unseen substance that he believes shapes the universe and everything in it, conflicting with Reiser’s theory. The character battles his ego, and cultural differences while attempting to retain his natural ability for science, as well as his sanity.
Not really a genius in a given field, but a character with incredible talents, nonetheless. Sean Patrick Flanery plays an albino boy nicknamed “Powder”, who has incredible intellect, telepathy and paranormal powers. The boy’s real name is Jeremy Reed, and his mother was struck by lightning when pregnant with him, giving him his abilities. Powder also has the ability to sense other people’s feelings around him. Jeff Goldblum and Mary Steenburgen also star in the film, which deals with Powder’s refusal to enter society, as well as the limits of the human body and mind.
The Time machine (1960 & 2002)
This was a tough call as the genius portrayed in this movie is entirely science fictional, but I thought I’d include it anyway. There have been two Time Machine movies (1960 and 2002), each based on H.G. Wells’ novel of the same name. Although in the films the protagonist has a name, in the book he is simply known as the ‘Time Traveler’: a young, gifted inventor from New York (in the 2002 version.) After his girlfriend is killed by a robber, he sets about building a time machine which will allow him to travel back in time and save her. After realizing that no matter how many times he goes back, his girlfriend always gets killed in a different way he goes forward to 2037, and witnesses the breaking up of the moon and, ultimately, the end of the human race. After being knocked unconscious, he awakens in the year 802,701, where mankind has reverted to a primitive way of life and are tormented by ape-like monsters called ‘Morlocks’. While the movies aren’t brilliant, the novel was a revelation, introducing the idea of time travel to science fiction way back in 1895.
Finding Forrester (2000)
This touching film tells the story of a young black teenager, Jamal Wallace, who has a great natural gift for writing. He happens upon an old, reclusive writer named William Forrester, brilliantly portrayed by Sean Connery. As the friendship between the two grows, each discovers themselves in different ways, and ultimately come to terms with their identities. It is commonly thought that the character of William Forrester is based upon J.D Salinger, author of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’. Although Jamal is an incredibly gifted student, peer pressure pushes him to perform at an average level in school, while Forrester helps him ignite his passion for literature and, finally, to become a success.
Also notable: Basketball Diaries