A brief guide to films about writers

James Oliver

The film industry has never treated its writers very well, so we might ponder why there are so many movies about Men and Women Of Letters, most of which portray simple scribes in ways that flatter their profession. Maybe it’s the quiet revenge of the poor, put-upon screenwriter? James Oliver presents a compact guide to how films depict wordsmiths. 

Role Models

The biopic is one of Hollywood’s staple crops and writers are one of the preferred subjects, if not always for the reasons we might hope.

This was spelled out most clearly by Kate Winslet. When asked for her opinion of Iris Murdoch—whom she was then portraying (in Iris)—Ms. Winslet gushed: “I'm a great fan of hers but I haven't read any of her books. I just don't have the time.”

Now, there are those who might say her books were Iris Murdoch’s principal achievement and a better claim to fame than the tragic decline into dementia that the film of her life highlighted. But those churls obviously never tried to get a film green-lit.

As Winslet knew, most biopics can freely ignore a writer’s work—which is to say, their actual writings—in favour of other stuff.

For instance, the various films about Oscar Wilde (The Trials of Oscar Wilde; Wilde) concentrate on the destruction of his reputation rather than how it was built, while Ralph Fiennes’ The Invisible Woman is about Charles Dickens’ unacknowledged young lover rather than his writings (or, indeed, actual invisibility; the title is only figurative, alas).


Anne Hathaway in Becoming Jane. Image via libropatas

And if you don’t know anything about the author? Hell, you can just make it up! So it was that Jane Austen and William Shakespeare were sexed up for Becoming Jane and Shakespeare in Love respectively. Then again, as writers, they’d probably appreciate the professional courtesy of rearranging reality into something more interesting.

 

 

Research

Creative writing classes instruct their students to write about what they know and movies are very good at showing writers acquiring the experience that they will later spin into gold. Chiefly, this seems to involve getting hammered.

Take Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend: one day, his character might author a really good book about being a hopeless alcoholic, if only he could dry out long enough to write it. Hunter S Thomson was more disciplined, which allowed for films about his bacchanalian experiences—disguised in The Rum Diary and Where The Buffalo Roam, less so in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Both those were lightweights compared to the fictionalised William S Burroughs in David Cronenberg’s The Naked Lunch: accidentally killing his wife, palling about with giant insects and ingesting stupendous quantities of drugs. Unsurprisingly, the resultant text has yet to be picked for Richard & Judy’s Book Club.

 

 

A Writer at Work


Image via screenanarchy 

One problem the movies have is that writing itself just isn’t very cinematic: it’s not terribly interesting to watch someone sit at their desk with a quill/pen/typewriter (and even though we are most firmly in the word processing era, many movies persist in showing writers chained to these unwieldy machines).

Sometimes, though, the act of composition becomes heroic. Poor old Jean-Dominique Bauby had a massive stroke that left him with control of only one muscle, in his left eyelid. This he used to dictate the memoir which became the film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

Most writers are less determined, not that you’d know this from the flicks: when we do see them at work, we only seem to catch them when they’re actually writing (tap-tapping away at their typewriters most of the time) which, as every writer knows, is laughable: where’s the procrastination? Where is the staring out of the window? Where is the terrible realisation that everything you have completed so far is utter rubbish?

One film gets it almost entirely right: Adaptation is, at least in part, a story of ingenious delaying tactics and authorial anxiety. Even if its main character does insist on using a bloody typewriter.

 

 

Material Rewards


Image via listal

You can tell that movie writers represent the fantasy life of real-world word slingers when you see just how wealthy they are. Movie writers are minted, able to afford to live high on the hog in huge houses (Laurence Olivier’s game-playing crime novelist in Sleuth) or sojourn in the sunshine (Charlotte Rampling’s crime novelist in Swimming Pool).

And it’s not just crime novelists! In Joseph Losey’s Eve, critical sensation Stanley Baker gets to swan about Venice and squire Jeanne Moreau—one can almost hear the screenwriter sighing with pleasure as he put all that on the page.

Best of all is Yukio Mishima, as seen in Paul Schrader’s superb biopic Mishima. He seems to have been successful enough to afford his own private army. An inspiration for hacks the world over, then.

 

 

"The Unacknowledged Legislators of the World"


Image via outnow

Mind you, while the J K Rowling-esque financial success of writers in movies is implausible enough, it’s rather more credible than some of the other things cinema seems to think writers are capable of.

Writers in cinema don’t just provide entertainment or provoke reflection. Oh no—they are capable of much more, up to and including spiritual transformation. Watch The Lives of Others for proof: you’ll see a hard-bitten East German Stasi agent redeemed by The Power Of Art under the unwitting influence of a dissident writer.

And even if that seems somewhat improbable, it is as nothing to Lady in the Water, in which a struggling writer is given inspiration by the titular aquatic muse to compose a book that will, we are told, one day stop war/heal disease/make the buses run on time. That this character is played by the film's writer/director M Night Shyamalan in no way makes one think this is a colossal act of hubris.

 

 

Misery

But, oh dear, sometimes it doesn’t go so well. Sometimes writers face problems, and we’re not talking about occupational Carpel Tunnel syndrome either.

There is the terror of the blank page—no film has ever been so good on the subject of writer’s block as Barton Fink, written when its creators The Coen Brothers got stuck writing Miller’s Crossing.

The flip side in Wonder Boys, in which Michael Douglas has no problem churning out the pages, just no idea of how to shape them, bring them to an end or what they might actually be about.

The most extreme example of creative difficulties is The Shining, in which Jack Nicholson composes an experimental novel, tentatively entitled "All Work And No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy". The film was adapted from a novel by Stephen King, as was Misery, in which an author (James Caan) discovers he has less control over how his work is received than he might like.

The ultimate indignity, though, must be what happens to Joseph Cotten in The Third Man. It’s not just that this hack writer is made painfully aware of his limitations as an artist, it’s that he discovers how poor he is at spinning plots compared to his best friend who—horror of horrors—is only an amateur...

Read more: All you need to know about Jack Nicholson 

 

 

Realism

Sometimes, though, the movies offer a more honest account of what it means to put words on the page and the people who are called to do so. Very often, these films seem to star Paul Giammati: in Sideways, he's a struggling writer with a burgeoning booze habit and a pile of pages that no-one’s interested in.

He plays a not dissimilar character in American Splendour, only this one is drawn from life: Harvey Pekar, a dishevelled Graphic Novelist who took the "write about what you know" mantra more literally than most and filled the pages of his (acclaimed) comic book with the most mundane details of his life to award-winning effect.

And even more traditional biopics can play fair. Let’s bow out with one of the very best films about writers, Jane Campion’s Bright Star. It’s about John Keats, here presented as a young man with poetry in his heart and ink on his fingers—for writing involves industry as well as inspiration.

We see him through the eyes of his beloved and there’s no grand revelations (we’re spared a scene where he dashes for his quill after he hears a nightingale singing), just an honest account of a man who will have created work that will live forever before he sits down to his dinner.

 

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