I watched the film The Professor and the Madman yesterday, and was relieved to know that Hollywood has not quenched its insatiable thirst for what we might call The Bulletin Board of Complexity, or The Schematic of the Overwhelmingly Daunting Research Task (SODRT). I’m talking about the collection of images you get in the standard whodunit, or any conspiracy film. There in the detective’s office, or the scientist’s lab, photographs are connected usually by yarn and thumbtacks. Keywords and names are scribbled here and there. Maps and other effluvia are welcome additions. If you can introduce a question mark or two as well, that will really help convey the sheer puzzlement. The abounding intricacy and irrationality of relationships is captured in the diorama, and it is the hero’s task to apply his genius to making sense of it. In The Professor and the Madman the device has, like a pest spreading to a new crop, found fresh dramatic material in which to reside: this time, it is not elusive killers being tracked, but meaning itself, for this bit of wall art appears in Dr. James Murray and staff’s office, where slips of paper bearing words, definitions, and textual references are being assembled that will come to comprise (after 70 years) the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Yes, that is the main story covered in the The Professor and the Madman. The creation of the OED. How it came to be that a schizophrenic murderer helped grow this seminal volume of linguistic scholarship. I read the book (The Professor and the Madman) shortly after its publication some years ago, but didn’t realize until yesterday that it had been filmed. It is a tough story to dramatize: men’s passion for language, their determination to catalog innumerable and constantly morphing usages. But Hollywood finds ways.
Mel Gibson as the plump Scotsman and editor-in-chief James Murray seemed cast almost entirely due to his ability to do a high-quality Scottish accent. When he yells down a clamoring room of barristers to get Winston Churchill’s attention and make an appeal for Dr. Miner’s release from Broadmoor asylum, I half expected him to bellow “Freedom!” which he did as William Wallace in Braveheart. Sean Penn as the madman Dr. Miner was terrifying in some scenes and in others just frustrating for speaking too quietly to be heard and too gruffly to be comprehended. The rest of the cast did their Hollywood best to affect Cockney accents, even though their characters were Oxonians (noun, 1. a native or inhabitant of Oxford, England).
The importance to these men of tracing the tremendous depth and range, utility and nuance, of English was something that I thought was adequately conveyed in their speeches to their suffering spouses, each other and to skeptical department heads. However, I am not a viewer who needed much convincing of that, having worked with English, as a modeler works with clay, for the entirety of my career. Whether non-writers and non-linguists cared about this story I trust can be measured by the fact that this film’s theatrical release seems to have been narrow enough to escape my awareness entirely.
I’m saying it likely made only a few dollars in the cinemas. And for other good reasons besides all the apparent high-mindedness. The efforts by its makers to appeal to the masses may have watered down its overall quality. Somehow the story became about the power of love, and ranged a bit far in its purview to cover the healing of the relationship between the wife of the madman’s murder victim and her daughter. When Murray, in the film’s final moments, puts down his ink pen to join his family in frolicking on the lawn, is he realizing what’s really important more than scholarship? What about the determination he brought to the project which is wife cheered on? This question is muddied by the caption that appears atop the Murray family, announcing he died of pleurisy as the dictionary reached the letter T. All in all, there was an awful lot of string music for a film in which (spoiler alert), a man castrates himself with a length of spare sheet metal.
Let’s not forget the scene in which Murray and Miner sit face to face in Miner’s cell, lobbing curious and euphonious words at each other, in a game of who can make the other laugh first. It was like that tender moment in Pretty in Pink when Molly Ringwald and the hunky guy sit cross-legged atop the dining room table—instead featuring two bearded senior citizens.
Returning to that SODRT. The first terms that the scrupulous Dr. Murray makes his weary staffer buckle down on is “approve.” The second is “art.” Yes, no less than art itself must be defined. Dozens of lines radiate out from this deceptively simple three-letter word. Because the definitions of art are so multitudinous and subjective, one supposes, pinning this sucker down is well-nigh impossible. Later, with Dr. Miner’s lunatic input, the task is achieved, and the staffer, with Murray’s permission, pulls the board and its contents down entirely. They all chuckle wistfully. This was a new sight in film. Usually the SODRTs are not returned to. They are usually left behind in labs and police department offices, while the climactic action takes to the streets, the skies, the rooftops and what-have-you. But here in cozy ol’ England, in 1880 or so, with the staff laboring on only on the first of 26 letters, the “art” SODRT was only the first of many to come.
How like art that is. Writers know that. With each story we write, we have traced the dozen crisscrossing threads, followed trails to their ends, decoded patterns, scented the unseen, and reached our conclusions as best we can. It is what we must each do, come hell or high water, employing the power of both the professor and the madman within us.