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Ron Howard's new work of 'Genius': Einstein with a more human twist

  • "We hope this isn't just a mini, but an anthology series that will last many years — to explore, with complexity, great thinkers," Howard said in a recent interview with CNBC.
  • The series, which debuted on the National Geographic Channel Tuesday, is based in part on Walter Isaacson's 2007 book, "Einstein: His Life and Universe."
  • Howard hopes the mix of modern themes with a historical figure will lure in jaded audiences who are getting more of their content on streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.

For famed director Ron Howard, story is still king — even when making a cable television series about the historical icon who turned "E=mc2" into a pop-culture catchphrase.

"Genius," which debuted Tuesday on the National Geographic Channel, portrays the life of the esteemed, wild-haired scientist Albert Einstein, played by Australian actor Geoffrey Rush. The series is based in part on historically relevant developments in Einstein's life, chronicled in Walter Isaacson's 2007 book, "Einstein: His Life and Universe." In a recent interview with CNBC, Howard said the 10-episode series — which debuted in 171 countries and more than 40 languages — has the potential to develop into an ongoing anthology.

"We hope this isn't just a mini, but an anthology series that will last many years — to explore, with complexity, great thinkers," Howard said. This idea could pose a challenge given the critical mass of television offerings.

Yet Howard said a compelling narrative is still most essential to his work, and "Genius" certainly qualifies. For many, Einstein's cultural cachet and scientific genius is still a source of curiosity, and Isaacson's biographical tome gives the Nobel Prize winner a whole new significance — even in a technology-saturated age.

"Storytellers have always linked immediate ideas, scenes that seem relevant to their audience, with what audiences want to see and hear, then try to push that envelope," he told CNBC.

"The same kind of quest is underway to apply cutting-edge technology to the process of narrative storytelling. ... That's expanding so rapidly that it's challenging filmmakers in ways that are really exciting."

Albert Einstein in 1921
Universal History Archive | UIG | Getty Images
Albert Einstein in 1921

"Genius" is saturated with Howard's narrative touch, using modern-day storytelling and technology to convey echoes of today's polarized political climate. Set in Berlin in the 1930s, the first episode that Howard directed wastes no time leaping into the minutiae of Einstein's personal life as society around him drifts unavoidably toward global conflict.

The first episode opens with a bloody assassination, and as the series progresses it chronicles the tumbling of the world order.

Against that backdrop, "Genius" shows flashes of Einstein's humanity in ways that are often lost in culture's elevation of his scientific genius. Howard's writing fleshes out Einstein's love of science and his reflexive disdain for the attitudes and thinking that were prevalent in 1930s Germany. It even takes a stab at demystifying an area where few have dared to trek: The scientist's romantic life.

The mix of modern themes with a historical figure is part of what Howard is hoping will lure in jaded audiences who are consuming more of their content on streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.

With big companies getting more acquisitive and producing more content, "this is a time where companies are talking to companies, and there are a lot of options out there," Howard said.

It "elevates the spirit of competition around these various mediums, whether it's short-form, long-form, big-screen, small-screen," he said. "It's a great thing for various mediums and various audiences," as well as writers who have more places to tell their stories, Howard added.