‘Dickinson’ takes beautiful creative license with poet’s life

Rick's Reviews

Hailee Steinfeld plays Emily Dickinson on Apple TV+ series “Dickinson.” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

(KGET) — Emily Dickinson is widely heralded as one of the greatest writers in American history. The world is quite familiar with her poetry but the same can’t be said for her personal history as Dickinson spent most of her life in seclusion.

That didn’t stop writer/executive producer Alena Smith (“The Affair”) from creating the Apple TV+ series “Dickinson” that takes the limited knowledge of the writer’s life and presents it with some modern touches.

The second season – featuring Hailee Steinfeld as the title character – is scheduled to start Jan. 8 on the streaming service. The first season earned a Peabody Award and GLAAD Media Award nomination.

Smith’s decision to create a TV series focused on Dickinson was based on the fact that there is so much mystery in terms of her life.

“I think Emily Dickinson’s life was built on a lot of paradoxes and ironies and mysteries,” Smith says. “There’s a lot of gaps in our knowledge of her that we get to be metaphorical and poetic with as we are filling them in.

“Emily was a person who – more or less – worked in secret but built one of the greatest bodies of works ever produced in the English language. She was a woman who was not appreciated in her own time as much as we do now that we are unpacking her life and appreciating her today. All of those reasons drew me to Emily Dickinson.”

What little is known about Dickinson is that she lived her entire life in Amherst, MA. She never married and most of her friendships were kept through letters. Only 10 of the 1,800 poems she wrote were published while she was alive and few knew of her writings until she died in 1886 at the age of 55.

The second season of the Apple TV+ series finds Dickinson in a new world where she is being pulled out of her private literary life and reluctantly pushed into the public spotlight. This creates a confusion for her as to whether fame is a good or bad thing.

Steinfeld is only 24 years old but she already has found fame. This includes an Oscar nomination for her work in “True Grit” and a Golden Globe nod for “The Edge of Seventeen.” The California native had little knowledge of Dickinson before taking on the role. After portraying the poet for two seasons, Steinfeld regrets not having been introduced earlier to Dickinson because of the impact she has had on her life.

She wants the show to reflect the artistic genius of Dickinson. The one thing she hopes comes from the streaming service series is that it introduces Dickinson to more people.

In creating “Dickinson,” Smith was faced with telling a continuing story with few real touchstones from Dickinson’s life. The use of modern music and some modern concepts not only opened up the series to a broader audience but seemed the perfect vehicle to express Dickinson’s visionary work.

Smith says, “It also lets us ask the question living today ‘How are we trapped in our own history?’”

Steinfeld adds that it was clear from the start that this series was never intended to be viewed as an autobiographical look at Dickinson.

“We take what little we know about her life and interpret the rest through her poetry,” Steinfeld says. “It is all driven and stemmed out of her work.”

Before “Dickinson,” Steinfeld worked in a number of feature films including “Bumblebee,” “Pitch Perfect 2” and “Pitch Perfect 3.” Along with being an actress, Steinfeld has also found success in the music world releasing a series of singles including the chart-topping “Starving.”

Steinfeld wrote a song that was in the first season of “Dickinson.” She believes Dickinson would have been an extremely talented songwriter if she were alive today.

“I remember just pulling up her poets and seeing that they are lyrics,” Steinfeld says. “I have in the past been intimidated by the idea of writing a poem but a song is a poem. It is a form of poetry.

“I think she would write some incredible music.”

Smith points out that many of the poems Dickinson created have either been turned into songs or at least served as inspiration for musical works.

Work on “Dickinson” started long before the 2020 pandemic created a world where isolation has become the norm. Steinfeld is certain that many people will be better able to understand the way Dickinson looked at the world through her self-imposed isolation because of what has been happening in the world.

That is what she and the rest of the cast of “Dickinson” – that also includes Jane Krakowski, Anna Baryshnikov, Ella Hunt, Toby Huss and Adrian Blake Enscoe – are trying to do.And that will continue for at least one more year as a third season has already been ordered for Apple TV+.

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