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‘Dickinson’ Corrects the Narrative on Emily Dickinson’s Queerness, Humor, and Spirit

"Wild Nights With Emily" filmmaker Madeleine Olnek analyzes the Apple TV+ series, which features Hailee Steinfeld as the teenage poet.

Dickinson Trailer Apple TV Plus

Hailee Steinfeld in “Dickinson”

Apple/Screenshot

It’s been a very good year for Emily Dickinson fans — and even better for the gay ones. Earlier this year saw the release of “Wild Nights With Emily,” Madeleine Olnek’s whip-smart romp starring none other than comedy icon Molly Shannon as the long misunderstood poet. Aside from being wildly entertaining, the film helped to re-vamp Dickinson’s image as a reclusive spinster — a myth that helped sell her work to a sexist public and has been widely disputed by Dickinson scholars. Most vitally for LGBTQ fans of one of our greatest American poets, “Wild Nights With Emily” spotlighted her long term romantic relationship with her childhood best friend and sister-in-law, Susan.

“Dickinson,” one of the first original series from Apple TV+, accomplishes many of the same feats, albeit with a bigger budget and more screen time. Created by Alena Smith, “Dickinson” stars Hailee Steinfeld as a teenage version of the poet and offers a stylish, humorous, and contemporary portrait of her life in mid-19th century Amherst, Massachusetts. Replete with anachronistic music choices, passionate lesbian sex, an opium party, and a hilarious Jane Krakowski as an anxious Mrs. Dickinson, “Dickinson” shrewdly packages Emily Dickinson as cool for the next generation of poetry fans.

“I loved that it was a teen drama starring Emily Dickinson, because it’s exciting to think of teenagers watching it,” Olnek told IndieWire in a phone interview, after she had watched the first five episodes. “My understanding is that’s how they intended it. There are so few representations of queer life that when something is done as well as they did it, it’s really very important and very special.”

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Olnek spent years researching Dickinson for her offbeat screenplay, gaining special access to the letters and handwritten poems in Harvard University’s archives. Even so, she experienced pushback to her “interpretation” of Dickinson. One critic ignored the significant scholarly backing, calling the film a “revisionist portrait,” and accusing Olnek of “treating the argument as if it were settled once and for all.” “Dickinson” is one more nail in the coffin of the default assumption of Dickinson as a lonely heterosexual. That’s important, Olnek explained, because queer stories are so often rendered invisible — even the most well-documented in university archives.

Dickinson Cast Flowers

“Dickinson”

Apple TV+

“People can’t imagine a future for themselves until they can see the past clearly,” the director said. “It used to be that every gay person or every queer person had to invent themselves, because they were told to believe that they hadn’t existed before this moment. Sanitized history.”

Olnek praised “Dickinson” not only for embracing the relationship between Emily and Susan, but for its direction and cinematography. In the second episode, Emily and Susan sneak into a lecture on volcanoes delivered by a famous scientist. Director David Gordon Green intercuts the lecture with the first sex scene between Emily and Sue, a passionate and loving scene which Olnek called “smokin’ hot.”

“It’s really great how they incorporate the present and the past, and the cinematography is so striking. It really brings the world to life. The camera pulls you into that world,” she said. “I loved that montage around the volcanoes, and intercutting it with the sex, and what David Gordon Green did in those episodes. He really included sort of the sex of the poem, in the cutting, too, not just the images. People often talk about the flow of Dickinson’s words, and it’s great that we can have that experience of the poem.”

Olnek was also impressed by the attention to detail in “Dickinson,” right down to using the exact same wallpaper from her childhood bedroom. Emily attends the volcano lecture (in full drag, no less) even after her father, played by Toby Huss, expressly forbids her from attending. The tense relationship with her parents was another accurate detail of her life. “She dealt with so much around being the daughter of the most important family in Amherst, and they really capture that. Toby Huss is so good. He really conveys that New England sternness in this really interesting way. He was a very domineering force in Emily’s life, and they were close, too.”

Molly Shannon in “Wild Nights With Emily”

Greenwich Entertainment

Viewers may be surprised to learn how funny “Dickinson” is, as evidenced by the character of Emily’s quick wit and defiant disposition. In addition to upending the spinster myth and showing her queerness, the image of Dickinson’s sense of humor is another important step in reframing her myth. Most screen portrayals of Dickinson, such as Terence Davies’ 2017 film “A Quiet Passion,” go starkly in the other direction.

“A writer is not someone who is shut down and dead, so that idea of having her be humorous is true to life, because she was funny, she was very funny,” said Olnek.

Though the recluse narrative still persists, which Olnek calls “the last little tenacious thing hanging on there,” “Dickinson” offers a refreshing display of the poet’s spirited nature, ambition, and sense of romance. That’s pivotal not just for Emily Dickinson, but for all women figures — historical and fictional.

“That recluse narrative was kind of like how for women in literature — even female characters in novels — it always used to be that any female character who had some agency was punished in some way, like they were beheaded or thrown from a horse, they met some punishment for having agency. With the Emily Dickinson narrative, it was kind of like she came pre-punished, so it was OK that she was this brilliant success because we were all convinced she had lived life as a miserable drudge.”

All episodes of “Dickinson” are now available to stream on Apple TV+. Universal Pictures will release “Wild Nights With Emily” on VOD and online in February 2020.

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