In a cinema culture awash with sequels, reboots and franchise movies, another hugely popular trend, in both film and TV, is origin stories. The most recent example of this was premiered at the Screen Actors Guild Awards last weekend. This summer, TNT will broadcast a new show called ‘Will’ which tells the “wild story” of a young William Shakespeare’s arrival onto “the punk rock theater scene in 16th Century London”, according to Entertainment Weekly. We’ve seen Bruce Wayne’s parents murdered and Peter Parker bitten by a radioactive spider on countless occasions, but it’s clearly not just superheroes who get the origin story treatment. Alongside Shakespeare, Nelson Mandela, Stephen Hawking, Charlie Chaplin, and recently, Barack Obama, have all had their early lives rendered in film.
What makes the lives of all these superheroes and public figures so attractive for dramatization is a background of adversity or a life-changing event that influenced their future. Charlie Chaplin’s childhood in poverty, Stephen Hawking’s struggle with motor neurone disease, and Nelson Mandela’s experience of revolution and prejudice; the harrowing tale of Wolverine’s early trauma, Dr Strange’s career-ending car-wreck, and Tony Stark’s life-threatening injury are all defining moments in the lives of the superheroes we know and love. The moments that took our heroes, real and fictional, from ordinary to extraordinary.
So, what other real-world icons have lived lives worthy of the big screen? The list is endless and it’s incredibly difficult to narrow it down, but here are five celebrities with extraordinary lives who deserve their own origin story.
As a child, Joanne Rowling was, in her own words, a “basic common-or-garden bookworm, complete with freckles and spectacles” according to Bloomsbury. Reading and writing fiction were heavy influences in her childhood spent in rural England, marked by her mother’s illness and a strained relationship with their father. After her mother’s passing in 1990 and a short-lived marriage in Portugal, Rowling moved to Edinburgh, Scotland with her infant daughter where several dark and difficult years living on welfare lay ahead. In the end, it was her own imagination which would come to the rescue. The story goes that the idea for the Harry Potter books came to her on a train journey and the rest is history.
It has to be said that Rowling has already had her past recreated in an albeit unauthorized biopic on Lifetime in 2011. Magic Beyond Words: The J.K.Rowling Story fell on largely deaf ears, but time has moved on since its broadcast and there is now a better platform for this sort of real-world drama.
Rowling’s Wizarding World defined one generation and has recently been given a new lease of life in the first of five Fantastic Beasts films. But the mother of all this magic has her own rags to riches tale that would make a film her huge fanbase would pay good money to see.
Perhaps an unexpected member of this list is Aussie comedic actress, Rebel Wilson, who made a sizeable impression on pop culture with her role in Bridesmaids and then her rendition of Fat Amy in Pitch Perfect. She has earned a reputation as a hilarious and larger-than-life character who possesses zero inhibitions.
As for her childhood, it was unconventional to say the least. Her parents were professional dog handlers and the family were constantly travelling all over Australia in their caravan, selling canine products. Wilson passed the time people-watching while her parents worked, hoarding material that would later come in handy in her stand-up comedy. Her real turning point, and the climax of our origin story, came shortly after leaving the University of New South Wales when Wilson travelled to South Africa as a youth ambassador and contracted malaria. During a fever-induced hallucination, she claims that she saw herself winning an Academy Award to rapturous applause. The acting dream was born.
Although Wilson has been known to tell tall tales in the past, fact or fiction, this is one origin story sitcom that needs to be made.
Michael Jackson’s life could be a Shakespearean play for all its dramatic and unlikely twists and turns. He was a man who shaped pop culture like no other has since. Despite the controversies that plagued his twilight years, it became abundantly clear after his death that whatever had gone before could not detract from the immense respect and love that the world had for the visionary pop star and his uniquely Thrilling music.
Jackson was lonely but ambitious, internationally famous but enigmatic, and he felt the burden of fame weighing heavily upon his slim shoulders. As the cute and confident lead singer, Jackson experienced incredible success from an early age with family group Jackson 5 under the watchful eye of his unrelenting father. As the group set about defining a new era of popular music, he was already on a path towards an inevitable solo career with the help of producer Quincy Jones. Jackson would become one of the biggest black artists America had ever produced, but this was just the beginning of a story that would be tainted by child molestation charges, social and racial scorn and drug dependence.
Just imagine the primetime TV series you could make about his life? The singer robbed of a childhood by fame and a difficult father, and a culture-defining musical career which descended into controversy towards an untimely death. I’d watch it.
Known for entertaining and inspiring the nation as host and producer of the award-winning Oprah Winfrey Show, Oprah’s accomplishments in media and her enduring philanthropism have established her as one of the most admired and respected public figures today. Born in rural Mississippi, Oprah was back and forth between her father’s home in Nashville and a Milwaukee ghetto, where her mother lived with her two half-brothers. Her childhood was subject to poverty and sexual abuse by trusted family friends from as early as nine years old. Despite this, her confidence was unwavering and her public speaking abilities were self-evident from an early age.
Finally settling with her strict father in the relative safety of Nashville, Oprah flourished in her new environment of structure and rules. At 17, she won a full scholarship to Tennessee State University, and in her freshman year, Oprah was offered a job by the Nashville CBS affiliate. At the tender age of nineteen, she became Nashville’s first African American co-anchor on the evening news.
From there, her presence was rarely absent from the public conscious. In 1986 her show was launched and went from strength to strength, earning huge respect for sticking to what she believed in rather than following the direction of other talk shows. Through her weight loss, philanthropy, acting, interviewing and producing, Oprah has inspired millions, and her origin story has all the criteria for an incredibly moving film.
Any self-respecting follower of popular culture will know the name Stan Lee. We have this man to thank for almost everything that defines Hollywood today. Quite why his life hasn’t yet been gifted to the screen is frankly a mystery.
Born Stanley Martin Lieber in New York in 1922, he and his family experienced financial difficulties during and after the Depression, forcing them to live in a one-bedroom apartment and Stan to balance his schooling and reading with any employment he could get. He was hired by Timely Comics as a teenager and soon graduated from menial tasks to a more creative role as interim editor. He returned to the company, now Atlas Comics, after a short stint in the military and in the late 1950s, his publisher asked him and colleague Jack Kirby to create a new superhero team to compete with DC Comics. Then came the birth of many of the most famous superheroes ever created, including the ‘X-Men’, ‘Hulk’, ‘Iron Man’, ‘Thor’, ‘Spider Man’, ‘Doctor Strange’, etc. By 1975, Lee had become the public face of Marvel Comics, a position he inhabits to this day.
Perhaps one of the most influential contributors to popular culture of his generation, Stan Lee is a character with huge charisma and creative drive who continues to be heavily involved in the exploits of his creations even as he approaches 100 years of age. Acting, writing, producing, his energy is incredible and his story inspiring.
So there we have it, a short list of just a few of the celebrities whose lives have been so dramatic and influential that they are more than worthy of the screen, big or small.
Which other public figures do you think should have their lives dramatized for film or TV? Let us know in the comments.