The Writing on the Screen: 20 Great Movies about Writers

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The Writing on the Screen: 20 Great Movies about Writers

Writing is many things, but dramatic isn’t often one of them. So it’s funny how many movies there are about writers. Historical writers. Fictional writers. Famous writers. Failed writers. Poets and playwrights, novelists and screenwriters. Sometimes, it’s a famous author’s famously weird off-page life that captivates us (lookin’ at you, William Burroughs) or a history of personal tragedy or political persecution. Sometimes, it’s a more ineffable fascination with the creative process itself. Maybe it’s always that. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, there are vast numbers of writer movies that are just not very good. (There’s only so much smoking and hair pulling you can watch, and quite often, writers just aren’t all that dramatically compelling.) But filmmakers and scriptwriters are devoted enough to the idea to have come up with a whole lot of ways to portray the numinous, and sometimes wildly dysfunctional, thing that is being an author. Here are 20 movies exploring the life of the writer.

1. Adaptation (2002)


Spike Jonze’s metamovie is based on Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief. The script is written by Charlie Kaufman and stars Nicolas Cage as … Charlie Kaufman. And his imaginary twin, Donald. Although purportedly an adaptation of Orlean’s book, it’s really a movie about creativity and writer’s block; the events of the book are pretty tangential. It’s a bizarre film, combining elements of absurdist (and dark) comedy with a kind of passionate High Romantic treatise on obsession and a multilayered meditation on writing about writing about writing. Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton and Cara Seymour all turn in excellent performances, and Cage introduces “I need a muffin” as a euphemism for inability to focus. This film might come closest of any film about the craft of writing to depicting how strange and consuming and quixotic an endeavor it really is.

2. Adult World (2013)


So you wanna be a protégé, huh? Good luck with that. Scott Coffey’s modestly scaled film about an aspiring young poet (Emma Roberts) who ends up working in a porn shop is peppered with rife, stinging little comments about aging and ebbing relevance that hit especially hard for people who grew up alongside John Cusasck. Cusack plays Rat Billings, the asshat washed-up writer she’s stalking for “mentoring.” As is terribly often the case, being repeatedly rejected by this guy gives her a certain School of Hard Knocks education that a welcoming mentor never could.

3. An Angel at My Table (1990)


No one does writer movies quite like Jane Campion. An Angel at My Table is based on the work and life of New Zealand writer Janet Frame, who is portrayed as a child (Alexia Keough), an adolescent (Karen Ferguson) and an adult (Kerry Fox). Campion’s lyrical, intimate compositional sensibility and surefooted pacing are much in evidence, and the story is a paean to idiosyncrasy and the sheer beauty of human creativity. There’s a distinctly writerly attention to detail, and even at two-and-a-half hours long it totally sustains your attention. A beautiful film.

4. Barton Fink (1991)


I’ll. Show. You. The. Life. Of. The. Mind. John Turturro, John Goodman and the indispensable-in-a-writer-movie Judy Davis star in the Coen brothers’ film about why being a writer is hell. (“Talk to another writer! You throw a rock in here, you’ll hit one. And do me a favor, Fink: Throw it hard.”) Turturro’s titular character (generally recognized to be an avatar of Clifford Odets) is a New York playwright who has come to Hollywood in the golden age when real writers wrote for the pictures, and has promptly found himself in over his head. Goodman is his … neighbor, in the hotel where he’s living. And Judy Davis is an emmanuensis for a character who is probably Faulkner (John Mahoney), and a love interest. A brutal treatment of the brutal treatment of creative professionals, the film is relentlessly intense, funny and horrifying in generally equal measure, and takes on the perceived divide between high and low culture, servitude and slavery, and the thin line between creative and destructive impulses. It’s genius.

5. Before Night Falls (2000)


Being gay in Castro’s Cuba in the 1940s was not easy. Julian Schnabel’s impressionistic imagining of the life of Cuban exile Reinaldo Arenas stars Javier Bardem as the persecuted poet and novelist. Schnabel’s painterly film style and sense of visual imagery are worth attention for sure, but the engine of the movie is Bardem’s forceful, cliché-resisting performance. Arenas comes across as tragic, but not especially noble, a man who was indeed persecuted by his government but who might arguably have been unhappy wherever he’d incarnated. It’s a way of being many people seem to associate—often wrongly—with artistic impulse, but yes, the trope exists for a reason.

6. Before Sunset (2004)


It’s not every day that a sequel earns its right to exist both in the context of and independent from its predecessor, but this human-scale little drama pulls it off. Richard Linklater’s meditation on romance and inspiration follows Ethan Hawke’s novelist Jesse on a European book tour, where he’s reading from the book inspired by his run-in with Celine (Julie Delpy) almost a decade ago-and spending one out-of-time day with her to try and figure out what might’ve been. Linklater makes intelligent use of languorous long takes to underscore how little time the characters have to find some kind of closure-how little time any of us have, really. It’s not easy to make a film that relies on things like idealism and emotional generosity. But I’m glad people still try. When it’s successful, the result can be kind of stunning. Before Sunset is wistful without schmaltz, thoughtful without ponderousness, and fundamentally kind. Not a given with films about writers! And kind of a treat.

7. Bright Star (2009)


Oh, poor John Keats. The annoyingly talented Romantic poet managed to produce a stunning and quite substantial body of work before his death at the ripe age of 24. (Tuberculosis ran in the family, and mercury poisoning probably hastened the inevitable.) His source of inspiration was a woman named Fanny Brawne. Their romance happily ended up in the capable hands of Jane Campion, whose compositional eloquence is perfect for the period and the characters. Ben Whishaw plays the doomed young poet and Abbie Cornish his vivacious muse. As much as the Writer Dude and Female Helpmeet thing can get old, this particular poet’s short and largely painful existence gives a different scope to the chasing of love and posterity, and the trope is more than justified by Campion’s brilliant pacing, a lighthearted script about a very sad story, and a performer who could almost out-Keats Keats.

8. Henry and June (1990)


Philip Kaufman’s film about the relationship between Henry Miller and Anais Nin (and Miller’s wife, June) is decidedly not about a striving male writer and a passive female muse. It’s also probably the sexiest writer movie ever-certainly sexier than anything either of these literary smut-peddlers ever penned. Maria De Madeiros is pitch perfect as the liberated and adventurous Nin. Fred Ward was equally born to play Miller. And Kaufman’s fantasia, excerpted from Nin’s diaries, beautifully illuminates how lived experience feeds artistic imagination.

9. Impromptu (1991)


Is there a writer movie that Judy Davis doesn’t belong in? We would argue: Probably not. In this one she plays the inimitable George Sand, the 19th century noveliste who left her husband and kids and moved to Paris, wore trousers, smoked cigars and had dalliances with the likes of Frederic Chopin. The film is hardly a serious look at Sand’s body of work, but it’s a hell of a fun fantasia about a bunch of famous artists who intersected. Hugh Grant plays Chopin, Julian Sands is Franz Liszt, and Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters and Emma Thompson all put in appearances. It’s not supremely hard-hitting, but it is well-acted and very witty, and a great example of the lingering power of mythos that develops when constellations of artists come together.

10. Midnight In Paris (2011)


Yep, it’s Woody Allen, and yeah: I know. But this film has a whimsical, stylish thing going on that cannot be denied in good conscience. Owen Wilson is Gil Pender, a hopeful novelist in love with Paris the way Allen has always been in love with New York-and he finds himself tumbling into a Golden Age fantasia of the city and hobnobbing with Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. It’s a sentimental movie, and oddly intoxicating—an escapist movie about escapism.

11. Misery (1990)


Dear Stephen King: Being a famous writer isn’t that bad. The-um-monarch? Of horror fiction has been graced with more than one pretty damned good adaptation of his work, and one of the best is Misery, Rob Reiner’s treatment of a story about the dark side of literary success. Kathy Bates is utterly terrifying as an obsessive fan who rescues a famous novelist (James Caan) from a car crash and holds him captive. (Next level “deadline pressure” ensues.) While there are technically a handful of secondary characters, almost the entire film is a pas de deux between Bates and Caan, which evokes the claustrophobic, panicky pressure of having to be creative under time constraints before you even get to the part where an evil superfan is threatening your life. A genuinely creepy ars poetica from a writer who has always excelled at finding horror in the quotidian.

12. Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994)


The doyenne of the Algonquin Round Table, Dorothy Parker, was a famously acerbic wit whose talent was largely squandered in drunkenness and who suffered a famously long tailspin until her death at age 74. In Alan Rudolph’s biopic, she’s played affectingly by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and the film’s populated by an ebullient swirl of writer characters, many of whom were famous in their day and nearly none of whom are well known now. The main men in Parker’s life are played wonderfully by Campbell Scott (the slightly long-suffering Robert Benchley), Andrew McCarthy (her two-time, as opposed to two-timing, husband Eddie Parker) and Matthew Broderick (her screenwriter paramour Charles MacArthur). Tough, smoky and a bit tragic, Leigh’s Parker holds court in nearly every scene, one quip after another, until the accumulated weight of all that levity just about flattens you. If you don’t know anything about the Algonquin Round Table, maybe it’s enough to know they basically gave birth to The New Yorker and maybe it isn’t; I’m not sure. The color and sound and wit and swagger might still be compelling without knowing any of the backstory, but it might also be a little tiring-in any event, it’s a worthy depiction of the pitfalls of falling prey to your own hype.

13. My Brilliant Career (1979)


Judy Davis, Judy Davis, Judy Davis. Oh: Also, Gillian Armstrong’s breakout directorial jaunt. Part period piece, part coming-of-age drama, the film tracks Australian author Sybylla Melvyn as she transits from girlhood to a rather unconventional adult life for her time and place, rejecting marriage (to a love interest played by Sam Neill) and repressive Victorian norms in pursuit of her passion. The bones of the story are fairly conventional, but this film scored widespread acclaim for a reason-principally Davis’ superlative acting and Armstrong’s quietly powerful, high-clarity, modest yet confident directorial style.

14. Naked Lunch (1992)


Sometimes I have anxiety dreams set in a place that looks like a labyrinthine, surreal North African city. I have no idea where my subconscious got this landscape, but once I saw Naked Lunch it was clear David Cronenberg was having the same dream. (I’m not sure how to feel about this.) The great trainwreck writer William Lee (a stand in for Burroughs, played by Peter Weller) is the subject of this wonderfully depressing and creepy film (and his wife is played by-yes!-Judy Davis!). He’s addled, addicted to cockroach-exterminating chemicals and shoots his wife in the head while playing “William Tell” at a party (true story). From there, he descends into a nightmare-scape of paranoid fantasy in which he hallucinates that his wife is still alive, and that he’s being pursued by shadowy forces. The film is visually stellar, superlatively weird, and will make you want a hot shower very badly. Especially after watching him with that typewriter. A transgressive, deeply disturbing vision of a writer’s sometimes unhygienic relationship with his own mind.

15. The Pillow Book (1996)


Does anyone come close to Peter Greenaway for painterly visual sensibility? The Pillow Book, a riff on an ancient Japanese diary of courtly life, centers on a 28-year-old model named Nagiko (Vivian Wu), who is … on a quest? She is obsessed with calligraphy and poetry and on the prowl for carnal experience-specifically including a lover whose body she can write on and who can write on hers (Jerome, played by Ewan MacGregor). The film unspools in Greenaway’s signature blend of the sensual and the macabre set against a backdrop of saturated, intense compositions. It’s fetishy and a little weird and visually amazing: an erotic paean to the physical act of writing.

16. The Player (1992)


Robert Altman’s brutal send-up of the “killer” film industry opens with an unbelievable and iconic eight-minute tracking shot through a film lot, and never really lets up. Technically, “protagonist” Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) is a studio exec; the writer, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, is, let’s just say, more object than subject. But in all the self-referential Hollywood films about Hollywood I’m not sure there has ever been a sharper one-and the term “murder your darlings” is extremely apt. Sixty-five celebs make cameos, Greta Scacchi plays an ice princess, and the pen might be mightier than the sword but they both quail before the power of the producer’s checkbook. Dark, cutting (except for tracking shots!) and mordant, The Player evokes exactly why writers don’t have an easy job.

17. Quills (2000)


Critics took issue with historical inaccuracies in Philip Kaufman’s Marquis de Sade film, but Kaufman wasn’t overly concerned with the actual life of the actual French writer so much as in what the man who gave rise to the term “sadism” represents: pornography, cruelty-kink and the libertine madness of the pathologically privileged. Geoffrey Rush stars as the evil aristocrat as he is spending some quality time in an asylum and having Maddy the laundry girl (Kate Winslet) secretly smuggle his writings to the publisher. Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix) supports his continued writing, maybe imagining it will help the guy to get it out of his system. But the new doctor, Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) is as much of an asshole as his patient, and that awakens a certain chemistry. Philip Kaufman directs with his usual eye for emotional subtlety over shock value, as shocking as de Sade was and for some of us still is; the interplay of sensuality and violence, madness and calculation are well underscored by strong performances from the principal actors. And if you want to take it as an ars poetica, I think the criminally kinky libertine writer having to smuggle his ideas out of an insane asylum while being taunted by a keeper as sadistic as he is himself is … well, hopefully self explanatory, and definitely rich.

18. Shakespeare In Love (1998)


I went into this film without an excess of high expectations, only to discover it’s a clever freaking film that not even Gwyneth Paltrow can ruin. Joseph Fiennes is a nervous, slightly sweaty and profligate young Shakespeare searching for love and inspiration. Paltrow is his fictional paramour Viola de Lesseps, a high-born young lady who disguises herself as a boy in order to audition for a role in a comedy that ultimately becomes Romeo and Juliet. A rich and expertly decorated little mille-feuille of references and literary jokes ensues, but not at the expense of real feeling, of which there’s a surprising amount. Ben Affleck, Colin Firth, Judi Dench, Geoffrey Rush and Rupert Everett (among others) flesh out a rock-star cast, and the writing is witty and quick and sweet-natured. (We love you, Tom Stoppard!) A valentine to the most enduring Western playwright of the last several centuries and an unexpectedly profound meditation on the muse effect.

19. Sunset Boulevard (1950)


Content, content, content. Billy Wilder’s masterpiece is a film noir treasure as well as a badass writer-movie. Though it’s ostensibly the story of Gloria Swanson’s yes-really-iconic fading silent film star Norma Desmond, the real engine of the thing is William Holden as the screenwriter she hires to help her reclaim her relevance in the age of “talkies.” Part love story, part noir-intrigue, part cutting commentary on the film industry, it is with good reason a touchstone-maybe the touchstone—film about filmmaking and Holden’s Joe Gillis is a disturbingly deft portrait of a working writer. Especially the part where he’s locked into Desmond’s Havisham-esque mansion and ultimately turns up facedown in the swimming pool…

20. Wonder Boys (2000)


If watching this movie fills you with an inexplicably romantic attachment to the idea of being a college English professor, we more than understand and we forgive you. Michael Douglas pulls a compelling tour of duty as blocked (but I guess tenured) professor Grady Tripp, a man whose last book is getting dangerously long in the tooth. Depressive and thoroughly stoned, Tripp is sleeping with a colleague’s wife, and has two perplexing students (Tobey Maguire and Katie Holmes) who complicate things in various ways. This film, based on a Michael Chabon novel, is a film about posterity, and it has a certain intelligent avoidance of easy-payoff tropes, a lot of quite well handled complications and a certain quiet observant dignity that is a relief after a lot of films that work overtime to glorify “the creative process,” which is often not very glorious at all.

Amy Glynn is a writer. No one has made a movie about her yet, but we like to think they could if they put their mind to it.

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