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My Favorite Films About Writers and Writing. (An Aside)
Once upon a time, I functioned as a bona fide L.A. film critic, and using those past laurels as manifest destiny, I hereby present a highly subjective list of my favorite films. I believe these flicks will inspire or motivate (or at least cajole) writers who want to write. Or perhaps who need to write. Mainline a few of these to cure writer’s block! I—almost—guarantee it.
However, don’t mistake this list as being Every Movie Made About Writing. I mean even King Kong featured a screenwriter (Adrien Brody in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake, for instance) but I’d hardly confuse that flick as an overt literary metaphor. And if I’ve omitted some worthy flicks in this admittedly idiosyncratic list, I’ve erred on the side of optimism rather than those fatalistic efforts… as our every waking moment in front of a rusting Olivetti or flickering PC screen is
punishment challenge enough. Thus, a few too-close-to-reality based “bummer” films (e.g.; Girl Interrupted, Leaving Las Vegas) while undeniably writer-centric—and while excellent dramatic interpretations—don’t ignite that spark within me of seriously wanting to write. Thank you, but I’m depressed enough sitting comatose in front of my laptop, words swimming like hungry trout in a deep pond and my cerebral hook lacking the slightest worm of creativity.
I have ranked this list with little suspense—from my most favorite to the rest of the best, and with a few Honorable Mentions, in accordance with God’s midnight whispers and my own personal eccentricities. I have not seen every literary-inspired or author-depicted film ever made, and hopefully I shall find time for those I haven’t yet seen… just as soon as every novel on my own to-write list is finished and published.
By the way, the films presented are fiction or fictional biography, and don’t include documentaries. So, in order of personal preference:
- Barton Fink. 1991. Wr(s): Joel and Ethan Coen. Dir: Joel Coen. • Barton Fink (a wonderfully twitchy-eyed John Turtorro) is a successful playwright, lured to Hollywood where his talents and soul are gradually disassembled by the unscrupulous, clueless powers-that-be. This one’s a hallucinogenic descent into a world gone mad—much like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Marc Caro’s The City of Lost Children—too mesmerizing not to watch on multiple occasions. The Coen bro’s aptly capture every writer’s waking nightmare, telling their tale of Faustian inevitability with haunting resonance—and yet retaining a shred of eerie optimism that continues to push the hapless Mr. Fink forward.
- Ruby Sparks. 2012. Wr: Zoe Kazan. Dir(s): Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris. • Paul Dano plays Calvin, a literary prodigy who struggles after the astounding success of his first novel. To counter his writer’s block, Calvin invents (or thinks he’s invented) a muse named Ruby Sparks to spur his creative juices. Yet the muse grows impatient and Calvin becomes increasingly tormented—resulting in a brilliant, sensitive and poignant portrayal of a writer who must come to terms with both his creativity and sensitivity. Soon likely to be a cult classic. Additionally fantastic about this flick, Zoe Kazan, who plays Ruby Sparks, wrote the screenplay. Ah, talent!
- Midnight In Paris. 2011. Wr/Dir: Woody Allen. • Just when you think he’s vanished into the celluloid mists of memory, Woody Allen concocts the perfect bedtime fable. Owen Wilson plays Gil, a struggling L.A. writer who is—well, who’s sort of lost in time. Amazing performances by various historical legends, with too many sly, respectful pokes at the cultural illuminari to even count. And since one could make the assumption that Gil’s illusions are merely hallucinations (personally, I don’t—but one could) I feel the flick most wonderfully personifies those many, many, many blissful hours of “thinking about writing,” rather than the brutal act of writing itself. But, yeah, both Wilson and Allen perfectly capture the soul and essence of every writer’s favorite daydream.
- The Wonder Boys. 2000. Wr(s): Michael Chabon (novel); Steve Kloves (scnply). Dir: Curtis Hanson. • Woe be the aging lit prof with a best-selling novel seven years behind him and only half-baked, unfinished ideas ever since. Even worse, cue the bright, peculiar writing student with a natural ability and a bro’ crush on his professor. Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire cover two generations of literary eccentricity in a bittersweet (mostly sweet) tale about coming to terms with one’s talent. When an almost-finished novel blows away in the breeze, (no back-ups, of course) we feel the pain like few other cinematic punches.
- Shakespeare in Love. 1998. Wr(s): Marc Norman, Tom Stoppard. Dir: John Madden. • Okay, so the guy’s work was obviously inspired by love. (And by ghosts, but that’s another list.) This is one of those rare films that captures an enticing love story, and a seemingly far-fetched, what-if scenario that ultimately plays out as utterly believable—and so aptly depicts the endless agony of writing and rewriting. (Seems, in fact, that Romeo and Juliet was originally conceived as a comedy entitled Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter). Take note of the wonderfully synchronized plot, a splendid piece of innovative writing. A great cast (Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush) maintains a marvelous balance of frivolousness and sincerity—and somehow, like the play itself, everything works out as it should in the end.
- Anonymous. Wr: John Orloff. Dir: Roland Emmerich. • Conversely (re: Shakespeare in Love, above) 2011’s brilliantly addictive Anonymous depicts William Shakespeare as little more than a drunken hack, used as a convenient front by the highly educated Edward De Vere, who happens to be the Earl of Oxford, an heir to the British throne. The Earl delights to pen both romantic interludes and political propaganda pieces, meant to rouse the rabble. And thus—who really was The Bard? Might he have been the Earl of Oxford? The world’s first conspiracy theory perhaps. The facts, as presented here, are hard to dismiss as complete rubbish, and Rhys Ifans portrayal as the well-meaning Earl will itch your brain—and make for some stimulating contemplation with other illuminari over apple Martinis at The Algonquin (now the Blue Bar) or The Library.
- Stranger Than Fiction. 2007. Wr: Zach Helm. Dir: Mark Forster. • (Also known as the only Will Ferrell film I like.) Ferrell plays Harold Crick, a mild mannered IRS agent. One day he wakes up to discover his life isn’t his own, but rather is being systematically created, one page at a time, by a tortured novelist. Surrealistic? Yeah, sure—but also unique! Worse, he comes to realize that he’s the doomed hero of a soon-to-be-completed modern tragedy. Emma Thomson plays the eccentric writer keystroking Mr. Crick to an early grave. (Basically, this flick’s looking at the writer from the written protagonist’s POV.) But one can’t get into a writer’s mind much more deeply than this. With Maggie Gyllenhaal and Dustin Hoffman.
- The Muse. 1999. Wr(s): Albert Brooks, Monica Johnson. Dir: Albert Brooks. • One may question why I’ve include this witty Hollywood farce (rarely a favorite on any Top 10 “Hollywood-insider” lists) while omitting the far more recognizable, Robert Altman directed/Michael Tolken penned The Player. While the latter veers off into a darker realm of twisted wishful thinking, The Muse remains steadfastly on track, with wonderful performances by neurotic scriptwriter Albert Brooks. Also with Andie McDowel and a brilliantly ditzy Sharon Stone…as the muse. With tongue-in-cheek cameos by Jeff Bridges, James Cameron and Martin Scorsese, among others, The Muse manages to nicely balance pathos and desperation with a knowing chuckle or two. It’s not that I don’t like The Player… just this one rarely strays from the eternal struggle to produce word after word after word.
- American Splendor. 2003. Wr(s): Harey Pikar, Joyce Brabner; Dir(s): Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini. • Should one dare to consider a cult graphic novel writer a writer? Of course, one should. One who writes, writes, est-ce pas? Paul Giamatti gives a stellar performance as the late, great Harvey Pekar, whose everyday struggles to simply survive are already legion in the graphic underworld. American Splendor nicely choreographs an ordinary day in an unordinary life.
- Finding Forrester. 2000. Wr: Mike Rich. Dir: Gus Van Sant. • Marred (imho) only by one-scene-too-many before the credits roll, the film nevertheless nicely captures the emotional conflicts between mentor and acolyte. Student writer Jamal Wallace discovers the famous, painfully reclusive William Forrester (Rob Brown, Sean Connery, respectively) and a wary friendship follows. Despite the somewhat unique—albeit intriguing—perils that the relationship presents, the love of writing remains firmly cemented at the core of this film—and sometimes love hurts.
Some runners-up, and personal favorites, although not quite (imho) necessary rocket fuel for inspiring writing—although very good flicks!:
- Sunset Boulevard. 1950. Wr(s): Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman Jr. Dir: Billy Wilder. • This one’s perhaps the most dubious omission on the above list. (Yes, in terms of sheer cinematic genius, it’s one of my own personal Top 10 films. And I presumed it would make the cut here. However, surprisingly, it didn’t and for reasons explained below.) Billy Wilder’s psychological film-noir classic isn’t so much concerned about the act of screenwriting as it is about that deliciously unrelenting spiral into madness—both the writer’s and, metaphorically speaking, Hollywood’s as well. Whether the flick holds up as a current masterpiece depends upon one’s ability to pull 21st century values from a story already three-quarters of century old. Personally, I view most young writers today just as crazy as their literary forbearers; the act of writing is no less tormenting as it was way back then. What Hitchcock’s Psycho is to the crime thriller, Sunset Boulevard is to slow-boiling Hollynoir—and, yeah, this one holds enough enough to make writers blink twice. A spine-tingly little cautionary tale—and a primer for anyone looking for examples on how to craft extraordinarily bizarre characters. But I don’t think Sunset Blvd’s gonna make you jump up and race to finish your novel.
- Almost Famous. 2000. Wr(s): Cameron Crowe. Dir: Cameron Crowe. • Mr. Crowe’s semi-autobiographical film about a (too) young Rolling Stone spec writer trying to delve deeply into the psyche of his favorite band. This one’s a quintessential film about rock music (think Eagles) in the 70s, that peeks behind the stage lights and power amps; the superb journey of a young writer simply trying to get it right. The film’s at its best when young William (Patrick Fugit) struggles to get his writing off the ground, interviewing the band and occasionally under the cynical tutelage of crusty Lester Banks (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Outstanding too is groupie—although don’t call her that!—Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). And with an incredible ensemble cast (Bill Cruddup, Zooey Deschanel, Frances McDormand, Jason Lee). Nifty soundtrack, of course.
- Finding Neverland. 2004. Wr(s): Marc Norman, Tom Stoppard. Dir: Marc Forster. • Johnny Depp depicts playwright J.M. Barrie, whose friendship with a young family—most prominently inquisitive Peter—inspires him to write Peter Pan. Told with a soft, warming glow of reminiscence; the film shines as Barrie’s fertile mind plays out in various sequences of his cinematic daydreams.
- Slaughterhouse-Five. 1972. Wr: Stephen Geller. Dir: George Roy Hill. • A kind of a personal cheat—but I love Kurt Vonnegut’s antiwar homage to WWII. As seen through the eyes of hapless Billy Pilgrim as he begins typing his personal journal (and one might say through the memories of Vonnegut himself), the film is a gentle yet poignant joust with time. As in traveling through. Including both war atrocities and alien encounters, knowing it’s based on Vonnigut’s own experiences (to a degree) makes the unfolding plot seem completely rational to me.
- Roman de Gare. 2007. Wr(s): Claude Lelouse, Pierre Uytterhoeven. Dir: Claude Lelouse. French/Subtitled. • A wonderfully eccentric ensemble film about a writer in crisis (but also a murder mystery and romantic farce). The catch is: What’s real, what’s fiction… and what’s the difference? French icon Dominique Pinon stars as novelist Pierre Lacois—who sometimes confuses reality with… well, something else entirely. Nice for a rainy afternoon with the subtitled-savvy.
- Squid and the Whale (The). 2005. Wr/Dir: Noah Baumbach. • The Berkmans are a family of NYC intellectuals (mom’s a fledgling writer and dad’s a published lit prof—I mean, how normal could they be)? Sons Walt and Frank strive for normalcy but completely fail. On the surface, just another dysfunctional family outing (e.g.; Running with Scissors; The Family Stone; Little Miss Sunshine, This is Where I Leave You…) yet as a writer, I can’t help but feel the subliminal lament of a writer’s unfulfilled destiny infusing every scene. (Maybe one has to be a writer to get it, or maybe I’m just confusing eccentricity as being part of the territory?) In either case, a nice ensemble cast includes Jeff Daniels, Jesse Eisenberg and Laura Linney.
- World According to Garp (The). 1982. Wr(s): John Irving (novel), Steve Tesich (scrnply); Dir: George Roy Hill. • My personal all time #1 Favorite Novel did not fully translate (at least in within the confines of this category) into a film about “writing” or about “a writer.” It’s a nice film, with a sweet cast, and yet Robin Williams’ portrayal of T.S. Garp was more about the escapades of the central character than the inner conflictions of the man as a writer. (The book delved far more deeply into Garp’s psyche.) Still, very much worth the ride.
- Last Station (The). 2007. Wr & Dir by Michael Hoffman. • A mesmerizing, dramatic late-life biography of Leo and Sophia Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, respectively.) A little political, a little eccentric, more than a little egoic—often humorously—this one’s a fairly accurate portrayal (imho) of a genius in decline and those inevitable squabbles that occur in his final hours.
- Genius 2016. Wr: John Logan. Dir. Michael Grandage. • Based on the 1978 National Book Award-winning Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg, Genius stars Colin Firth, Jude Law and Nicole Kidman. This worthwhile biopic recounts Scribner’s book editor Max Perkins (Firth), who shredded (for the best) works by Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. Having trouble compromising with critics and criticism? Brace yourself and watch this flick. Twice.
And, yes, I know the following films are, however indirectly, partially about writing or writers. And yes, many of these films have admirable, even wonderful, cinematic qualities; themes and characters and overarching messages. I admire many of these films and a few—e.g.; Get Shorty, The Name of the Rose, Sideways—get preferential viewing every time I discover them on late night cable. However, for whatever reason, these miss the motivational or inspirational quality I seek in this blog. Some begin to interpret a writer’s inner demons, but end up in the mystery, murder or mayhem category. Or else a romantic jaunt that, if nothing else, proves that once in a great while, even a fiction writer can find love! So, while many of these films are worth a look, I wouldn’t exactly shop here implicitly for literary inspiration.
Adaptation. A nice, slick, sleight-of-hand flick… but ultimately a surrealistic, psychological thriller about a screen writer.
Atonement. Sorry, but I feel this one’s a gimmick flick—with a supposedly boffo twist that let the air out of this balloon for me.
Becoming Jane. A gentle brush stroke of a movie, more biopic than creative primer (especially if one chooses to view Pride and Prejudice as her own fictional autobiography.)
Bell Jar (The). A poignant journey into depression, this one’s not so much a writer’s anguish as it is anguished writing and, like Girl Interrupted, the story may inspire some writers with a stark verite… but for most of us, I’m not sure I’d call it inspirational. Frankly, a story like this (imho) should inspire survival, not capitulation—writing as a means of personal salvation—so I find it difficult to suggest it as motivational.
Bright Star. I should probably see this one.
Capote. More about the man’s eccentric lifestyle than his creation of work. Worth a look simply for Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Kathleen Keener, but a very good biopic.
Deathtrap. Less about writing than about manipulation. But terrific film-noir.
Deconstructing Harry. OK, let’s face it. Most Woody Allen films are about writers to some degree. But about Woody Allen to a greater degree. Complex and complicated. So take Midnight in Paris and run with it.
Door in a Floor (A). A primer in why writers shouldn’t drink. (Alas, but we sometimes do.)
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. More or less a biopic on speed, and whatever else one can concoct by mixing pharmaceuticals found in the bathroom cabinet.
Front (The). Awesome intentions, but more about the McCarthy era blacklisting of screenwriters, with a light dusting of actually being a hack writer (Woody Allen) used by banished writers during that era. But Zero Mostel is priceless.
Get Shorty. A film I find utterly fun, and a nifty Hollywood farce. But not so much about the writing as, well—as about everything else that goes on in Hollywood. Based on Elmore Leonard’s novel… so what’s not to love?
Ghost Writer (The). Not really. It’s political intrigue that uses a writer as both a plot tool and fall guy.
Girl, Interrupted. As mentioned above, this intense psychodrama isn’t necessary a push toward writing, but for those writers who are desperate to bleed an intense personal story (fictive or not) on paper, this film may indeed be inspirational in terms of depth and honesty. An excellent drama, and excellent performances by Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie. It’s based on Suzanna Kaysen’s memoir of her own experience in a mental hospital in the late 60s.
Hotel New Hampshire (The). Lovely film. With a slight undercurrent of “being a writer” flitting around the edges. A coming of age tale—with beautiful performances by Tobey Maguire and Michael Caine.
Hours (The). Um, sorry—but no.
Infamous. This one’s that other Capote film (Toby Jones matching Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s panache in playing the title role). Sandra Bullock plays Harper Lee. No less poignant than Capote—and equally worth the viewing. If you’re a Capote fan, see them back to back. Seriously.
Julie and Julia. Okay, so this is a film about occasional blogging—and, yes, that counts as writing—and about relationships…and about food, of course (the titular Julia is, of course, Julia Child). But I can’t argue that some writers might find the film quite inspirational. So by all means, check it out. With Meryl Streep and Amy Adams; directed by Nora Ephron.
Kill Your Darlings. Ah, a murder mystery masquerading as a morality tale about the ‘Beat Poets’ era (in the late 1950s) with Allen Ginsberg (a surprisingly droll Daniel Radcliffe), Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs poised to invent the literary consciousness of the brooding ’60s. Yet the ambiance turns from period piece (cool enough) into a noir-esque caper of lust and mistrust—deliciously ironic perhaps—but, still, not exactly a primer for motivating novelists in the here and now.
Leaving in Las Vegas. New to writing? No, no, finish your book before you see this one.
Misery. More or less a film about a deranged and psychopathic relationship… with an unwitting writer. Personally, I think most of us would be thrilled to have a reader with so much passion…although probably with far less angst.
Motorcycle Diaries (The). Marxist revolutionary Che as a reluctant, journal-scribbling antihero? A sensitive portrayal and a worthy, well-crafted biopic. See you in Habana!
Name of the Rose (The). Mentioned for a slight—yet extraordinary—plot twist that earns the film a solid nod here. Not exactly about writers, but very much about writing—and particularly about “censorship.” A nifty period piece about the Dark Ages. With Sean Connery, too.
My Left Foot. More a biopic than a writer’s flick. But extraordinary man, Jim Sheridan. Profound drama.
Naked Lunch. Heh. Directed by David Cronenberg. Watch it with the lights out at night. Then we’ll talk.
Player (The). Yeah, but it’s really a spoof about Hollywood. From a writer’s POV. (But I did oh-so-love Tim Robbins in this role.)
Prick Up Your Ears. The moving and tragic biopic of 60’s British playwright Joe Orton, with a wonderful performance by a young Gary Oldman as Orton. However the film veers decidedly into Orton’s gay lifestyle (with failed novelist Kenneth Halliwell) and leaves any sense of art and craft in the distant background. Yet if you’re having trouble choosing your friends as a new novelist, this is a worthy, if horrific, cautionary tale.
Royal Tenenbaums (The). Um, sorry. No.
Shining (The). About a writer, but not really. A writer’s ghost story perhaps. Note: Stanley Kubrick had each—each!—of Nicholson’s faux-manuscript pages individually typed for that classic “All work and no play” shot. Classic Kubrick perfectionism!
Sideways. Not really. A funny poignant buddy film, and Paul Giamatti’s character plays a disgruntled writer, but this is more about a buddy-lovin’ road trip than writing.
Stand By Me. A coming of age story of four young boys—one who becomes a writer.
Starting Out in One Evening. I should probably see that.
Sophie’s Choice. Not so much a film about writing as it is about a writer’s passive passion with the eventual characters of an yet unforeseen novel.
Swimming Pool. Nice flick, but mostly murder mystery. What’s real? What’s illusion? Ah…
Third Person. Not what it seems. A nice approach, but it’s pretty much a psychological drama. A fairly low-key (very low body count!) Liam Neeson stars. Want to climb inside the mind of a writer? This one might work for you.
Trumbo. An excellent little (meaning, not an intentional blockbuster) film starring Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren and Diane Lane, about screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. In 1947, Trumbo was a major Hollywood’s screenwriter (whose films include Exodus, Spartacus, Roman Holiday), and who wrote the exceptional, must-read anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun. blacklisted for his political beliefs. This one reveals the hypocrisy and absurdity that permeates Tinseltown.
2046. I hear this one’s pretty astounding, a hypnotic, non-linear film by Chinese director Kar Wai Wong, about a sci-fi writer and his lost loves—present, past and future. I’m looking forward to finding this one somewhere soon.
Wilde. A marvelous, dramatic period piece about the life (and, of course, scandals) of Oscar Wilde. With Stephen Fry and Jude Law.
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