The silver screen rarely gets it right when it comes to writers, which is funny since TV and film are written by them. Understandable enough. It’s hard to take a largely cerebral activity and make it visually exciting. Most movies rely on clichés and stereotypes. Either writers suffer from massive writer’s block, which I suppose offers some form of internal complexity or obstacles, or from sophomore slumps after successful first novels. By and large fictional writers are lonely, navel-gazing losers who are always broke has-beens or never-have-beens.
The Showtime series Californication is one example. Starring David Duchovny, the series was about writer Hank Moody who was suffering a sophomore slump after his first novel God Hates Us All was turned into a fluffy romantic comedy. Moody turned to blogging, but spent most of the series brooding and humping every woman who came into his path. Or, at least, that was what I read about the series; I’ve never watched the show. Still, the fact that Hank was yet another writer with writing issues shows just how much of a cliché this type of writer is in film and television.
But not all characterizations of writers are as trite. There have been a few that at least captured what it means to be a writer. The movie Wonder Boys (2000), starring Michael Douglas, did a good job of portraying how writers think and act. In the Wonder Boys, Douglas’s Grady Tripp, an English professor and former wünderkind writer, has been slogging away on the follow-up manuscript to his first magnum opus. Tripp is frozen by expectation, both in his personal and professional life (notice how his name is Tripp, as in “tripped up”). Wonder Boys smartly dealt with the choices writers must make to hone their creative intuitions, delivering one of the best writerly advices I’ve ever heard––good writing is all about choices, a piece of advice that worked well for Tripp as his manuscript was meandering over a thousand pages and his affair with the married college administrator turned into an unplanned pregnancy. The movie, of course, was adapted from the 1995 novel by Michael Chabon, which in turn was a follow up to his successful debut, so the book and film had an honesty that most movies about writers lack.
Stephen King’s suspense thriller Misery (1990), about a writer (James Caan) who is held hostage by the fan of his successful mystery novels is an ironic twist about the relationship between writers and their fans. When Caan’s Paul Sheldon decides to kill his popular heroine Misery Chastaine, one of the novel’s fans Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) wrecks vengeance by holding him hostage in her home and tortures him until he agrees to spare Misery. But Misery is really about the pressures all popular genre writers feel in trying to strike a balance between pursuing their own artistic endeavors and pleasing a very fickle and often conservative readership who don’t like change.
Adaptation (2002), the Spike Jonze-directed and Charlie Kaufman-penned adaptation of Susan Orlean’s bestselling non-fiction book The Orchid Thief, is a meta film about the process of storytelling. The movie perfectly captures the creative process of a screenwriter (Nicolas Cage) as he attempts to adapt a largely un-adaptable book about the orchid trade. But it also does a good job of portraying the insecurities all writers feel as they embark on a new work, especially in a medium that demands commercial success over artistic expression. Going back and forth between fiction and reality, the movie soon blurs the difference and shows that all good fiction is ultimately a bit of both. The Coen brothers’ Barton Fink (1991), likewise is about the hell all writers face when they make a deal with the devil in Hollywood, selling out their artistic expression in favor of fame and success. Sunset Boulevard (1950) also takes the “Hollywood-is-hell-for-writers” turn when a screenwriter (William Holden) literally makes a bad turn while trying to outrun creditors when he stumbles into a decrepit mansion owned by one Norma Desmond (“I am big. It’s the pictures that have gotten small”). Forced to hide out at her mansion, Holden’s character is pressured into writing Desmond’s come-back picture and ends up getting a couple of lead bullets into his chest for the trouble. The relationship between the writer and the star had never been so good.
There have been a number of bio-pics about well-known writers to make it to the theaters. An Angel at My Table (1990), directed by Jane Campion, is about Australian writer Janet Frame. Frame, who was brought up poor, spent eight years in a mental institution because of her eccentricities. The film does a good job of revealing the way the active and creative imagination becomes an escape valve for those who long to find their own voices. Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994), starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, took acerbic writer Dorothy Parker and her years within the Algonquin Table as its source. Yet the film was less about Parker the writer and more about Parker’s personal life, all her failed relationships, her alcoholism, and suicide attempts. It got the tortured artist treatment without getting to why Parker was an artist in the first place. The 2005 film Capote, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as the titular writer, reveals how writers can often be social and emotional leeches using real life people as sources for their literary inspirations. The movie details the creation of Truman Capote’s seminal non-fiction mystery In Cold Blood and the relationship he developed with one of the murderers, Perry Smith. The relationship is both exploitative and tender, but the movie never offers comforting resolutions to the responsibilities of the writer to his subject. In the past decade, Hollywood has turned to the Beat writers for screen treatment, such as the forgettable Kiefer Sutherland vehicle, Beat (2000), Howl (2010), On the Road (2012). But many of these movies were more about the romantic allure of the Beats rather than their artistic output.
In the past, journalists fared much better in Hollywood than screenwriters or novelists. In Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940), starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, reporters were a quirky, funny, cynical and fast-talking lot whose off-the-cuff lifestyle was worthy of envy. In fact, Hildy, as played by Russell, gave up marriage and a life in the ‘burbs to chase the latest headlines with Grant’s Walter Burns (and really, can you blame her?). The fact that His Girl Friday was written by former hard-nosed reporter Ben Hecht probably had a lot to do with its favorable treatment his profession. Grant starred as another writer, this time an inveterate alcoholic in the Grant/Katherine Hepburn/Jimmy Stewart vehicle Philadelphia Story (1940). During the 1970s, after the New York Times fought a successful First Amendment rights case over publication of the Pentagon Papers, reporters earned a respect that found its way in Hollywood films like All the President’s Men (1976), based on the true life exploits of Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward as they covered the Watergate break-ins. All the President’s Men was the rare depiction of the often tedious and mundane research that is the bread-and-butter of true investigative journalism. Despite the movie’s well-known outcome, it still crackles with tension and suspense as Woodward and Bernstein uncover White House secrets. During the 1980s, Mike Nichols directed the Meryl Streep/Jack Nicholson vehicle Heartburn, based on recently deceased writer Nora Ephron’s marriage to Carl Bernstein, that presented a less flattering portrait of the reporter.
As years of media consolidation however led to a shift away from hard journalism to celebrity fluff, the sterling reputation journalists enjoyed has dulled. Americans now view reporters less favorably than ever before. Accusations of false reporting haven’t helped. One particular well-known case involved New Republic journalist Stephen Glass. The 2003 movie Shattered Glass depicted Glass’s (Hayden Christensen) rise and fall due to his penchant for making up feature stories for the magazine. In Shattered Glass, journalism has descended to the level of spectacle that was once reserved for tabloid rags.
Other movies about writers:
The Lost Weekend (1945)
The Singing Detective (1986)
My Left Foot (1989)
Naked Lunch (1991)
Deconstructing Henry (1995)
Henry Fool (1997)
Shakespeare In Love (1998)
Before Night Falls (2000)
The Squid and the Whale (2005)
Kill Your Darlings (2013)
- 9 Films Punched up by Famous Screenwriters (mentalfloss.com)
- Writing, Money, Auteurs (williamhogeland.wordpress.com)
- Screenwriting Advice, in Six Seconds or Less (newyorker.com)
- “Learn the craft” (gointothestory.blcklst.com)
- “Director John Sayles: Harder Now to Make a Living Off Indies” (newsday.com)