Bookmark: Biopics can't match great reads about famous people

She's got the look. She's also got the walk, the talk and the wardrobe.

When Michelle Williams pouts and flounces and oozes her way across the screen in "My Week With Marilyn," giving herself unreservedly to the role of a tormented yet still-alluring Marilyn Monroe at a pivotal moment in 1956, you're filled with admiration.

What you're not filled with, however, is the conviction that this is actually Monroe.

Williams, a performer of uncommon skill and dedication to her craft, is not to blame, any more than the great Meryl Streep is responsible for the fact that "The Iron Lady" is unlikely to convince people that they have suddenly been ushered into the presence of Great Britain's first female prime minister.

The fault lies not in our movie stars, but in ourselves — in, that is, the profoundly complex and endlessly shifting nature of human beings. To capture the richly dynamic essence of any individual requires the only medium that's up to the challenge: novels.

Sitting in the dark at a recent showing of "My Week With Marilyn," I was struck by the inadequacy of film as a way of conveying the boundless mystery of a real-life personality.

A movie can do many things well: It can dish up terrific, gravity-defying action scenes. It can create worlds that never existed and make them uncannily plausible. It can act as a sort of prosthesis for the imagination, supplying spectacular colors and highfalutin visual hocus-pocus.

But what it can't do — even when it tries its best — is get to the essence of a single human soul's journey across time.

For that, you need a novel. You need the slow, methodical unfolding of a story. You need the gradual accretion of events — happy ones, tragic ones, mistakes and triumphs and accidents and turning points. A novel can deliver, one by one, the people who move in and out of any life. It can spurn the superficial. It doesn't have to take anything at face value.

You need, if you're wondering about Monroe, "Blonde" (2000), the gloomy but luminous novel by Joyce Carol Oates. Or "Lincoln" (1984) by Gore Vidal, if Abraham Lincoln intrigues you. Or "Charlotte & Emily" (2010) by Jude Morgan, if your curiosity runs to the famous scribbling sisters who turned out "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights" in between bouts of melancholy.

Those are three of my favorite novels based on the lives of real people.

Film does what it can, just as nonfiction biography does what it can. "My Week With Marilyn" is based on two memoirs by Colin Clark.

But it takes fiction — the recapitulation of a life based on an author's sustained meditation on what it all must have felt like — to provide that ineffable access, to get at the truth of another human life that is not one's own.

Here is the scene in "Blonde" when Monroe faces a command performance at a Hollywood premiere, prior to which "a half-dozen expert hands laid into the Blond Actress as chicken pluckers might lay into poultry carcasses. Her hair was shampooed and given a permanent and its shadowy roots bleached with peroxide so powerful they had to turn a fan on the Blond Actress to save her from asphyxiation and her hair was then rinsed another time and set on enormous pink plastic rollers and a roaring dryer lowered onto her head like a machine designed to administer electric shock. Her face and throat were steamed, chilled, and creamed. Her body was bathed and oiled, its unsightly hairs removed; she was powdered, perfumed, painted, and set to dry. Her fingernails and toenails were painted a brilliant crimson to match her neon mouth."

At the heart of the novel, of course, is not a movie premiere or a makeup kit, not painted fingernails or salivating audiences, but a little girl with an absent father and a mentally ill mother. Nothing in "My Week With Marilyn," nothing any actress on any screen could ever do, no much how much she resembles Monroe or channels her lacerating insecurities, can match the moment in "Blonde" when she muses, "Your body is fragile and breakable, like a doll; your body is a doll; your body is for others to admire and to pet; your body is to be used by others, not by you; your body is a luscious fruit for others to bite into and to savor."

There are some wonderful films based on the lives of people such as "Madame Curie" (1943), starring Greer Garson as the pioneering scientist, and "Young Mr. Lincoln" (1939), featuring Henry Fonda as the politico from Illinois. Perhaps not coincidentally, many of the best seem to be based on the lives of people for whom we have no video record. We can't compare Fonda's portrayal to an appearance by Lincoln on "Fox News Sunday."

But to know Lincoln, heart and soul, to get behind the speeches and the noble poses, you must go to Vidal's novel. His Lincoln is more ambitious, calculating and tentative than the standard picture — but no less heroic, because it means he knows the political stakes when he dares to propose, as the Civil War winds down, that black men be granted the right to vote:

"Then, candle in his left hand, speech in his right hand, glasses on his nose, Lincoln stepped out onto the ledge. The crowd cheered. As the tall, thin figure stood silhouetted against the glow of the transparencies across the park, (John) Hay suddenly saw Lincoln as a sort of human lightning conductor, absorbing all the fire from heaven for all of them."

And while it may sound like piling on — but in a good way — behold Vidal's striking portraits of President Theodore Roosevelt and newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst in "Empire" (1987), part of the author's audacious but utterly convincing fictional chronicle of the United States, a wildly colorful story that easily roars ahead of any film about our nation's leaders, both beloved and notorious.

Roosevelt says, "True history comes long after us. That's when it will be decided whether or not we measured up, and our greatness — or lack thereof — will be defined," whereupon Hearst quickly responds, "True history … is the final fiction. I thought even you knew that."

JULIA KELLER is the Chicago Tribune's cultural critic. She won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.

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