Mel Gibson & Sean Penn Team For Oxford English Dictionary Drama 'The Professor And The Madman'

When you hear the words “Oxford English Dictionary,” you might think of fussy British logophiles poring over musty books in the depths of a library. And while the OED is the standard when it comes to defining the English language, the story of how it came together is actually pretty bonkers. Which perhaps makes the casting behind this upcoming true story drama sort of perfect.

Mel Gibson and Sean Penn will be the unlikely lead stars of “The Professor And The Madman.” Based on Simon Winchester‘s terrific book (summer’s almost over, but it’s a great cottage read), the film will be written and directed by Farhad Safinia (who penned “Apocalypto”), and tells the story of the creation of the first Oxford English Dictionary by Professor James Murray (who will be played by Gibson). Part of what makes the OED so authoritative is that researchers go back to find the first use of any given word, providing a detailed history of how it has evolved. Back in 1857 this was quite the task, and Murray’s job was made even more complicated thanks to Dr. W. C. Minor (Penn’s role), an inmate at an insane asylum who submitted more than 10,000 entries. Here’s the book synopsis:

It is known as one of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters. The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary began in 1857, took seventy years to complete, drew from tens of thousands of brilliant minds, and organized the sprawling language into 414,825 precise definitions. But hidden within the rituals of its creation is a fascinating and mysterious story–a story of two remarkable men whose strange twenty-year relationship lies at the core of this historic undertaking.

Professor James Murray, an astonishingly learned former schoolmaster and bank clerk, was the distinguished editor of the OED project. Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon from New Haven, Connecticut, who had served in the Civil War, was one of thousands of contributors who submitted illustrative quotations of words to be used in the dictionary. But Minor was no ordinary contributor. He was remarkably prolific, sending thousands of neat, handwritten quotations from his home in the small village of Crowthorne, fifty miles from Oxford. On numerous occasions Murray invited Minor to visit Oxford and celebrate his work, but Murray’s offer was regularly–and mysteriously–refused.

Thus the two men, for two decades, maintained a close relationship only through correspondence. Finally, in 1896, after Minor had sent nearly ten thousand definitions to the dictionary but had still never traveled from his home, a puzzled Murray set out to visit him. It was then that Murray finally learned the truth about Minor–that, in addition to being a masterful wordsmith, Minor was also a murderer, clinically insane–and locked up in Broadmoor, England’s harshest asylum for criminal lunatics.

The film is currently being shopped around to buyers, with plans to start shooting in October. Certainly, the source material is strong and you can’t ask for two more potent leads in Gibson and Penn, and if anyone can make the creation of a dictionary cinematically interesting, it’ll be those two. [THR]