Films About Writers: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

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Sorry to be late with this post. I spent the last few days recuperating from a movie I saw over the weekend. The Words is about a writer who plagiarizes the work of another writer, gains fame and fortune, and is then confronted by the real author. It should have been a good story, if not a particularly cinematic one. Instead, it was a particularly egregious offender in a long line of terrible movies about writers.

 

Part of the problem is surely that it is so difficult to make anything dramatic of the writer’s process. If you were to set up a WebCam in front of my computer, here’s what you would see: Writer stares at screen for 20 min.; writer types a sentence; writer stares at screen. Repeat.  Not exactly the stuff of scintillating cinema. Moviemakers, and readers in general, tend to mistake the product for the process. The most exciting book in the world is written in the same sedentary fashion as the most tedious.

Naturally, filmmakers need to spice it up. Teeth are gnashed, hair is ripped out at the roots, grooves are worn in old wooden floors. Shakespeare In Love was one of those: an otherwise estimable film that couldn’t resist tarting up the writing process with histrionics, as if the plays were written not in ink but in blood. The Words featured an early montage of such melodramatic agonies of creation. I smirked, but with a sinking sensation. Next came the scene in which a publisher summons the writer, praises his book to the skies, and then declines to publish it. I nearly choked on my popcorn. As if!  Filmmakers go to immense pains to make every detail of their police and CIA procedurals as realistic as possible. Why, then, is it okay to write such a ludicrous scenes about the writer’s life? No publisher ever calls a writer in to reject his work in person. It is done through intermediaries: his agent, if he has one, or an e-mail, or simply through no reply. When I saw that scene, I knew I was in trouble. The film also had difficulty differentiating between the roles of publishers and literary agents, very basic stuff. And when it quoted from the miraculous purloined book in question, the prose was so flat and boring (think Hemingwayesque, if Hemingway had had a tin ear instead of perfect pitch) that the whole premise of the story was undermined.

According to the movies, lots of writers are psychotic. It seems to be a professional hazard. See Meryl Streep as the romance novelist from hell in She Devil. Johnny Depp develops a split personality in Secret Window, while in As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson suffers from multiple psychological problems. Writers are always being pursued by characters from their own books (especially if the book in question was written by Stephen King) or vengeful fans (ditto). You’d never see writers in films as they are in real life: working stiffs with kids in school and mortgages to pay.

Still, every once in a while, a film gets it gloriously right. I loved Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle,  the story of Dorothy Parker, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and the Algonquin Round Table: the writers’ Camelot brought to life. Capote was a brilliant movie about a writer who falls in love with his subject but sacrifices him for a better ending to his book. I felt it says something true about writers. And who could forget the Coen brothers’ hallucinatory Barton Fink? John Goodman as Satan is perfect, and so is John Turturro as the aspiring screenwriter who vacillates in a very writerly way between hubris and terror.

How about you? What are the best and worst movies you’ve seen about writers?

About Barbara Rogan

I am the author of nine novels, including A DANGEROUS FICTION, published by Viking and Penguin. I'm also a former editor and literary agent. Currently I teach fiction writing on my online school, www.nextlevelworkshop.com.
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12 Responses to Films About Writers: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

  1. s.p.bowers says:

    I saw a Frasier episode once where where he and Niles tried to write a book. The whole process, and their expectations, were laughably unrealistic. Though being a comedy maybe that is what they were going for.

    • In that movie I’m recovering from, the protagonist, an unpublished writer, works full time on his writing with the expectation of becoming a successful writer within two years. He mooches off his father and his beautiful, successful wife and is devastated, emotionally destroyed, when his first book doesn’t sell. To me, this clearly marked him as a deluded fool, but the movie didn’t intend him to be seen that way—it presented his career plan as admirable and feasible, if only he were a better writer.

      I’m still wondering why film makers work so hard to write realistic cop and spy stories, but are perfectly content to film ludicrous tripe about publishing and writing!

      • Bob Rozakis says:

        I would have to disagree with you about “realistic cop and spy stories,” Barbara. Most police officers rarely, if ever, fire their guns. And most espionage is carried out by people who no one even notices, quietly stealing information rather than getting involved in explosive escapes and high-speed chases. Like the agonizing writers portrayed on the screen, what we see of cops and spies are stereotypes created by Hollywood.

        • Sure, Bob. And I suppose you’re going to claim that most female cops don’t wear skin-tight clothes over hour-glass figures, or that most CIA agents don’t look like Angeline Jolie. Where do you get your information?!

  2. Claire G says:

    One of my all time favourite movies is Stranger than Fiction, featuring an oddly excellent performance by Will Ferrell as a novel character brought to life, with Emma Thompson as his “author”. It’s a bit hard to explain without giving away the twists and tricks, but it’s a brilliant movie. If you haven’t seen it, do check it out 🙂

    • Lori Benton says:

      I liked that one too, Claire.

      Another writing movie I enjoyed is My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, with Chris Gorham and Alyssa Milano. Sweet, and not TOO far out in left field, writing-reality wise. Except where it means to be.

    • Super film! I’ve often wondered if my characters “heard” me writing their lives….

    • deniz says:

      I liked that one too Claire.

      I don’t remember any ridiculous scenes in Shadowlands, but perhaps they didn’t show C. S. Lewis working.

      Would love to see that Dorothy Parker film!

    • Claire, I’d totally forgotten STRANGER THAN FICTION. I agree: a clever idea, well-executed. ADAPTATION started out well, I thought, but then lost its head entirely–didn’t it end with a shoot-out in a swamp, which almost never happens to the writers I know. 😉 Never heard of MY GIRLFRIEND’S BOYFRIEND. Sounds like fun, though.

  3. I was just reminded of the film Adaptation where the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman projects himself and a fictional twin brother into the story. Very funny. I just caught a lecture on TV that Kaufman gave in GB. Such a non-Hollywood character! He was very nervous and fidgety but offered some really down-to-earth advice on screenplay writing that really applies across the board for anyone pursuing creativity regardless of the medium.
    In the film Kaufman (in the guise of Nicholas Cage) is wandering around aimlessly, getting in the way, on the set of a movie he’s written. Someone asks who that guy is. The answer: “Eh. That’s only the writer.” Yes, that film had some good moments.

  4. Jon Etheredge says:

    “Romancing the Stone”. Joan Wilder made me want to be a writer, if for no better reason than self-preservation. I have a persistent fantasy in which I knock on the outer door to a jungle stronghold in the foothills of Columbia and am greeted by a gun-wielding drug kingpin who recognizes me from my jacket covers. Difficult as it is to admit, the fantasy falls apart when he calls me “Joan” and I look down to discover that not only am I in a blouse and skirt, the fabric is sweat-stained and torn and my butt looks big!

  5. The high art of film has captured the brilliant moments of literary minds and their processes in countless adaptations of the lives of our favorite authors. You can read my own Top 20 Greatest Movies of All Time about Writers at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2013/06/top-20-greatest-movies-of-all-time.html

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