What is a Biopic?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

A biopic is a movie made for theaters or for television that dramatizes some one's life story. The earliest biopic is often considered to be the silent French film Jeanne D’Arc released in 1899. Cecile B. DeMille also made a film about Joan of Arc in his 1916 Joan the Woman. Thus it can be fairly stated that biopics emerged at the beginning of films, and show no signs of slowing down.

The Oscar-winning film based on the life of Mahatma Gandhi is a well-know biopic.
The Oscar-winning film based on the life of Mahatma Gandhi is a well-know biopic.

Some consider that a biopic, from a historical point of view, is likely to fudge truths at times. This is because directors need their films to create drama, and as well to do so in a relatively short time period. Most written biographies have details that many historians consider important. From a cinematic sense, they may not be considered equally important.

Biopics sometimes offer a more dramatic vision of a historical figure's life.
Biopics sometimes offer a more dramatic vision of a historical figure's life.

Alternately, a filmmaker might presumably use a biopic as an interpretation of a historical character. They might emphasize certain elements of a person’s life that seem relatively unimportant historically, as social commentary, or to reinvent the historical subject.

It is certainly true that a biopic may not present information truthfully, in order, or completely. For example, the biopic A Beautiful Mind concerning John Forbes Nash, an exceptional mathematician who suffers from schizophrenia, has been criticized for glossing over some accusations that Nash was anti-Semitic.

Virtually every biopic plays with the truth at some point. Filmmakers argue that it is necessary to do so in order to produce art that is also marketable. Historians or biographers, however, may shake their heads in disagreement.

If one sidesteps the issue of complete accuracy in the biopic, then it is clearly a genre, which is very popular and includes some of the best films made. Biopic films are frequently nominated for Academy Awards and other equivalent awards. They often prove to be box office gems, though this is not always the case.

Past biopic films that have won Best Picture Awards include: The Great Ziegfeld, Lawrence of Arabia, Patton, Gandhi, Amadeus and A Beautiful Mind. The nominee list of biopic films is even more extensive.

Best Picture nominees for biopic films from 2000 onward include Capote, Ray, Good Night and Good Luck, Finding Neverland, The Aviator, Erin Brockovich, and The Pianist. Over 60 biopic films have received best picture nominations.

Film critics, even amateur ones, love to make lists of best films, and of course, most have a best biopic films list. There can be great debate about which of these films are actually the best, and individual taste varies. However many agree that the following biopic films belong somewhere in the list of most popular biopics. The list includes Gandhi, Amadeus, Lawrence of Arabia, Raging Bull, Citizen Kane, Malcolm X and Patton.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


There are times when I wish a biopic would show a particular real life character warts and all. Usually the person or his estate has a lot of control over what gets shown and what gets buried in the background, but sometimes there will be a biopic that just lets it all out, the good and the bad. I don't like it when I read a biography about someone and then see a biopic that glosses over a lot of things. I can handle watching an actor play some negative scenes about a generally good person, as long as it's not a complete hatchet job.

I recently saw the biopic on Liberace, "Behind the Candelabra", and thought someone was really carrying a grudge against the real person. I saw the Jackie Robinson biopic, "42", and thought someone caught the essence of a hero I knew very little about.

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