I want to do things a little differently today. As some of you may know, I have had a lifelong passion for writing, and spent much of my life trying to write novels – it’s part of why I chose this creative outlet, actually. It’s probably no coincidence then that I love movies that involve or revolve around the lives and work of writers. When someone truly understands what it’s like to love and struggle for (or with) writing, it translates really well onto the screen, so I thought I’d give a few recommendations of my own and then ask you all to share your own favorites. Click on to check them out.
I’m going to just jump right into it:
The first film on our list is based on the book, The Orchid Thief, in a manner of speaking. And by that I mean the film is a dramatization of the act of adapting the original book to the screen, as well as a Hollywood-style dramatization of the story of The Orchid Thief itself. The star-studded cast includes Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Judy Greer, Tilda Swinton, Maggie Gylenhaal, and several others, with Nic Cage playing twin brothers and screenwriters. I won’t spoil the surprise twist of the film, but it’s a bizarre film with all sorts of commentary about bringing truth to art or selling yourself out for success, writer’s block (more on that later), and on how truth can be stranger than fiction.
As Good As It Gets (1997):
Jack Nicholson is Melvin, an embittered and bigoted writer living with OCD. After his neighbor, a gay artist, is assaulted in a robbery, the two form an unlikely friendship. The film mostly revolves around Melvin’s offbeat romance with single mom waitress Carol, played by Helen Hunt, but Melvin’s writer background seeps in at some of the most interesting times. And as you can see, Jack has some of the best lines.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998):
Very little indeed in this film centers around the craft of writing itself, but Johnny Depp’s narration as the original gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson is so prosaic and rings so true to the spirit of a writer, which should be of little surprise really, considering the movie is adapted from Thompson’s own book of the same name. Thompson and his lawyer embark on a disoriented and dreamlike trip to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race for an unnamed magazine.
What their sponsors don’t know about is the suitcase full of grass, alcohol, uppers, downers, and drugs of all kinds that were brought along for the trip (pun intended). The movie, like the book on which it is based, is also a window into a certain moment of time in America: Woodstock is over, the hippies are disappearing, and the world is moving on. Through all the drug-addled antics, there is a sort of melancholy about it, and it’s all roundly enhanced by Depp’s narration as Thompson.
Finding Forrester (2000):
Sean Connery stars in this heartwarming tale from the golden age of heartwarming tales: the Nineties (I know it came out in 2000, but it was a holdover from that time – check out movies like The Majestic and October Sky if you don’t believe me). Jamal Wallace is a black teen living in the Bronx, playing basketball with his buddies. His life is small and his future probably will be too . . . until Wallace enters the apartment of the reclusive author William Forrester on a dare. When the two mistakenly encounter each other, they enter a deal: Forrester helps Wallace improve his writing, as long as Wallace asks nothing about Forrester’s life.
I love watching the process of writing on the screen. What writing can and probably should be is how Forrester describes it: write and write like mad, because a first draft does not come from a spark of inspiration but from word vomit (but if you do find that spark, then by all means write). When you have sucked all the words out of you, then you edit. It’s a mistake many rookie writers make, thinking their first drafts should come out looking like the published draft of Catcher in the Rye, when the reality is even that book’s first draft was probably garbage. Writing is a process. You’re the man now, dog!
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014):
The focus of this movie, really, is on a murder conspiracy between Adrien Brody, Ralph Fiennes, and Tilda Swinton, but it’s the framing of this story that gives the movie its magic. Jude Law is The Author, a revered novelist in the fictional Eastern European country Zubrowka. In one of his most beloved novels, the titular The Grand Budapest Hotel, he recounts one of his visits to the decaying establishment and his encounter with the aging proprietor.
The aspect of this film that most shines to me is The Author’s explanation – and the film’s demonstration – of a writer’s process of receiving stories. As a writer myself, I do often find that the stories come to me in my everyday life. Writers are observers first, and it is their unique gift and privilege to document the interesting and weird happenings of life in the written form.
Moulin Rouge (2001):
Ewan McGregor is Christian, a penniless English writer who has moved to Paris to write about love. Not knowing a thing about love, young and naive Christian has a fortuitous run-in with Toulouse-Lautrec, who takes him to the famed Moulin Rouge to help pitch his idea for a musical. Christian ends up falling for the dancer Satine, and it all goes to hell from there. This was one of the first movies I remember seeing with writing being a prominent element of the film, and it was also used here as a framing device (not quite as brilliantly as The Grand Budapest Hotel, however). Even if you’re not a fan of romance films or musicals, it’s well-acted and funny.
Stranger Than Fiction (2006):
Will Ferrell is Harold, an IRS auditor who realizes one day that he hears his life being narrated in his head. His world is turned upside down when the narration tells him that he is going to die. As it happens, a writer struggling with writer’s block, Karen, is writing a novel that is his life. When the two ultimately meet, Karen must decide whether to spare this poor man, who she had no idea was real, or commit to her art and allow him to die.
The writing element that stuck out to me was the writer’s block. I think a lot of people assume that writer’s block is simply about running out of ideas or not having ideas for how to proceed; these people have it wrong. Writer’s block comes from fear, whether a fear that what you write will not be good or from a simple fear of the blank page. This fear plagues writers of all walks of life, from amateurs to established authors, and I was pleased to see it acknowledged.
Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame stars as the legendary classic Hollywood screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo. This film is based on the true story of the titular screenwriter at a time when fear of Communism had overrun all sense of rationality and decency. Trumbo, having been formerly affiliated with American socialists, is subpoenaed and then blacklisted from Hollywood by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. But he hatches a plan: all of the blacklisted screenwriters in Hollywood will go on working as ghostwriters for B-movies at King Brothers Productions. If you know your history, you know how it all turns out.
Whisper of the Heart (1995):
This is my favorite one from the list and the only animated film from the lot. A Studio Ghibli film not made by a Miyazaki, Whisper of the Heart tells of Shizuku, a junior high school student who loves to read. Stopping by an antique shop, her imagination is captured by a cat statuette named the Baron standing in the middle of the shop. The statuette has a counterpart lost in parts unknown, a tragic tale that inspired Shizuku to write a story about the Baron, searching for his lost love Louise.
Out of this entire list, I love this movie the most, because Shizuku’s passion for writing is the focus of the film. I love watching her struggle to express herself and to get the words onto the page, to watch her sweat and bleed for her need to unleash something creative into the world. Ultimately, in a way, she succeeded: the movie received a sequel of sorts, The Cat Returns, in 2002, purporting to tell the story of Shizuku’s novel.
The World According to Garp (1982):
Somehow I saved the oldest movie in my selection for last. The life of Garp starts as a comedy and slowly descends into tragedy, and indeed it starts with little baby Garp and follows his life as the boy becomes a man. All of this happens against the backdrop of the rise of the second wave of feminism, spearheaded by the protagonist’s strong-willed mother. Garp and his mother both become writers and while Garp becomes a respected and academically acclaimed albeit obscure writing talent, his mother becomes fabulously famous and wealthy as a result of her politically-driven autobiography.
There is very little writing to do with the second half of the film, but it is nice to watch stories come together from Garp’s everyday observations, and see how like a writer, he makes connections that form a cohesive story. The film has not aged well, but it is a fascinating watch nonetheless.
Well, this was fun, and I hope a nice break from the usual format. I know a list of ten movies is just barely breaking the surface, so here are some other great writing films to peruse:
- Barton Fink
- Blue Car
- The End of the Tour
- Finding Neverland
- Sunset Boulevard
- Swimming Pool
I hope you all enjoyed this, and maybe found a good recommendation or two in these lists. On the other hand, I am aware that this list is very . . . monochromatic, so I’d be interested to hear if you have more diverse recommendations of your own. See you next week!
What did you think of these movies? Do you have movies about writers or writing that you would recommend? Share your thoughts in the comment section!