Monday, February 13, 2006

Movies about writers

Sooner or later—usually sooner—every writer tells a tale about a writer.

After all, what could be more fascinating and entertaining than our struggles and triumphs? War? Love? Barracuda attacks? Mere mind candy compared to the agonizing wait for the agent’s phone call or the scalpel-sharp prick of a reviewer’s pen.

Screenwriters are no exception to this ultimate manifestation of “Write what you know.” They explore and exaggerate our idiosyncrasies and pathologies until sane mothers everywhere learn to dread the day when their child dons a black turtleneck, buys a Glimmer Train subscription, and announces, “I want to be a writer.”

Below is a by-no-means-exhaustive sample of films that chronicle the writing process and the psychological challenges we either overcome in glory or succumb to in shame.

10. Shakespeare in Love (1998, screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard)

Playwright Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) struggles with writer’s block while creating Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. His muse arrives in the form of a cross-dressing actress cast as Romeo (Gwyneth Paltrow). Their forbidden love affair is the catalyst for an improved version of Will’s new play.

I include this movie not only for itself, but because it provided a framework for the 1999 short film George Lucas in Love (which I’d stick in here at # 9.5).

Lesson for writers: A goldmine of inspiration may lie inside your own broken heart.

9. Delirious (1995, screenplay by Lawrence J. Cohen and Fred Freeman)

Soap opera scribe Jack Gable (John Candy) gets hit on the head and wakes up inside his own show. After discovering he can control his new reality just by writing it, Jack makes his favorite character fall in love with him. Unfortunately, a new writer in the “real world” has other plans for the storyline, and their dueling realities make for some fun moments.

Unlike most of the other members of this list, Delirious isn’t a great film, but for writers it’s worth a rental just to watch Jack inhabit the scene he wrote while drunk. Imagine your worst typos come to life.

Lesson for writers: Authorial control is an illusion, even when you have a magic typewriter.

8. The Shining (1980, screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, based on the Stephen King novel)

Alcoholic novelist Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) takes a job as winter caretaker of an empty Colorado hotel, hoping the isolation will cure his writer’s block. His head does fill with creative ideas, courtesy of the hotel’s ghosts, but most of them involve chasing members of his family with an axe.

Lesson for a writer’s spouse: If you ever find reams of paper filled with “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” get out of the house. Now. I don’t care if it’s snowing.

7. Sideways (2004, screenplay by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, based on the Rex Pickett novel)

Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) has written one long, serious, and deeply personal novel—The Day After Yesterday—which, at the beginning of the movie, sits on an editor’s desk at a small publishing company. During his weeklong adventure through Pinot Noir country with his friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church), Miles checks his voice mail every day but receives no news about the book.

Just when he has hit a low point both personally and wine-wise (the two men are tasting at the swill-producing “Frass Canyon), Miles reaches his agent on the phone. The ensuing scene will cause any writer to laugh and cry in the same breath and make other moviegoers give you funny looks.

Lesson for writers: Abandon all hope, ye who enter this life. Well, 99% of hope, anyway—you’ll need that one percent to write your second novel.

6. Wonder Boys (2000, screenplay by Stephen Kloves, based on the Michael Chabon novel)

Aging hippie, writing professor, and once-acclaimed debut novelist Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) is 900 single-spaced pages into his sophomore effort with no end in sight. He and his agent (Robert Downey, Jr.) desperately need to end his seven-year publishing drought with a success.

But Grady has other problems, including his pregnant girlfriend (Frances McDormand), who happens to be the university chancellor’s wife, her recently deceased dog—shot by Grady’s protégé James Leer (Tobey Maguire)—and the protégé himself, who is a work of fiction in his own right.

Lesson for writers: The only thing harder to handle than failure is success.

5. Total Eclipse (1995, screenplay by Christopher Hampton)

This film centers on the obsessive affair between two 19th-century French poets: the brilliant teenager Arthur Rimbaud (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the older, somewhat less brilliant Paul Verlaine (David Thewlis). In their mad romp through Europe, they fight, make love, fight again, drink a oil tanker’s worth of absinthe, fight some more, and somehow find time to write some of the best poetry the world has ever seen.

Lesson for writers: If great art can redeem a cruel little twerp like Rimbaud, maybe a decent novel or two can make up for that time you cheated on your taxes. In the greater moral scheme of things, I mean.

4. Misery (1990, screenplay by William Goldman, based on the Stephen King novel)

Novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is rescued from an auto accident by his “number-one fan,” Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates). She holds him hostage and forces him to write another installment of his Misery Chastaine romance series, which he has come to despise. The most painful scene for writers to witness is not when she takes a sledgehammer to his foot but when she forces him to burn the only copy of his just-finished serious novel manuscript.

Lesson for writers: Killing off a beloved character may harm more than your royalty statements.

3. Finding Neverland (2004, screenplay by David McGee, based on the Allan Knee play The Man Who Was Peter Pan)

James Barrie (Johnny Depp) has just penned another theatrical snorefest when he meets the Llewellyn Davies family playing in the park. Together with the four boys and their mother Sylvia (Kate Winslet), he creates a series of make-believe scenarios that evolve into the play Peter Pan. A stunning opening night silences the critics and gossipmongers.

Lessons for writers: Ignore those who deride your imagination. You are more alive than they’ll ever be. Just as important: cherish those who believe in you.

2. Sunset Boulevard (1950, written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett with D.M. Marshman, Jr.)

William Holden plays Joe Gillis, a broke, failing, bitter screenwriter. He becomes involved with Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), once a silent film queen and now a narcissistic has-been wasting away in her mansion with only a butler and a chimpanzee for company.

With money and flattery, Norma persuades Joe to write her comeback script, which he knows will never be produced. Joe hates himself for becoming a hack and a kept man. He makes one last stab at real writing, but his pact with Norma has set him on an inevitable, tragic path.

How tragic? The first shot reveals Joe floating dead in a pool. He narrates the film from beyond the grave.

Lesson for writers: Hollywood can turn an artist into a whore faster than you can turn bread into toast—and the results are just as irreversible.

1. Adaptation. (2002, screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, sort of based on The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean)

The ultimate meta-narrative, Adaptation. chronicles the difficulties Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) faces in adapting Susan Orlean’s nonfiction book The Orchid Thief.

Charlie’s neurotic self-talk will resonate with any writer. Faced with a blank page, he thinks in a voice-over:

“To begin. To begin. How to start? I’m hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think. Maybe I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee. Coffee and a muffin. Okay, so I need to establish the themes. Maybe banana-nut. That’s a good muffin.”

Frequent bouts of masturbation provide commentary on Charlie’s creative process as he struggles to do justice to Orlean’s work. Meanwhile his twin brother Donald breezily pens his own preposterous thriller script following the principles laid out in Robert McKee’s classic screenwriting guide Story.

A desperate Charlie seeks out the guru he once disdained. McKee instructs him to put more of life’s drama into his screenplay, and above all, “wow them in the end.” During the movie’s denouement Kaufman simultaneously employs and undermines every Hollywood movie trope—guns, drugs, sex, car chases, and characters growing, falling in love, and overcoming obstacles.

Lesson for writers: Charlie Kaufman’s genius lies not only in his talent and originality, but in the willingness to trust his own voice. You’ve got one, too, so let’s hear it.

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8 Comments:

Well I know Nora Roberts, who is probably the most prolific and successful romance writer will be having a few of her books made into tv movies by Lifetime. And "Undead and Unwed" by Mary Janice Davidson is currently in production for a tv movie. As for fiction books about writers, one of my favorites is "Jewel Of The Sun" by Nora Roberts. The main doesn't character doesn't start as a writer but instead goes on a journey to discover herself and finds she wants to write.

Posted by: Blogger Kathy at 2/13/2006 7:45 AM

I always imagine Christina Applegate as Betsy in the "Undead" series.

Novels about writers tend to have much more nuanced portrayals about "the life" than movies. Hollywood needs to maximize the myths (alcoholism/drug use, madness, writer's block, narcissism--oh wait, that last one isn't a myth) for dramatic or comedic purposes. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but it does give us writers a bad reputation. Which can be a good thing.

Posted by: Blogger Jeri at 2/13/2006 7:59 AM

Hehehe that is too funny. As for who is gonna play Betsy, don't know yet. MJ doesn't have any of the details up on her website yet. But she does have up the covers for the UK release of her Undead books and Betsy actually has a face on those.

Posted by: Blogger Kathy at 2/13/2006 9:37 AM

P.S. When do we get a preview of the cover for your Luna release?:-)

Posted by: Blogger Kathy at 2/13/2006 9:40 AM

Um, I don't know. I've seen a mock-up (it's gorgeous, of course :-), but I'm not allowed to show it until it's final. They're going to do some more tweaking, I think. My guess would be around May or June? Or March or April. Possibly July.

Posted by: Blogger Jeri at 2/13/2006 10:14 AM

Or August or September. :-)

Posted by: Blogger Kathy at 2/13/2006 11:08 AM

One I didn't see in the list that I always liked is Throw Momma from the Train. Larry Donner (Billy Crystal) is bitter that his ex-wife got famous off a book she stole from him. Danny DeVito plays Owen, a writing student who mistakenly believes Larry wants to trade murders with him, a la Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (which Owen saw at Larry's suggestion). Anne Ramsey earned an Oscar nomination as Owen's mother. Throughout the movie, Larry is struggling with writer's block, never able to finish the openning line of the book, "The night was...."

Posted by: Blogger Andrew at 2/16/2006 5:48 PM

I never saw that one, Andrew. I didn't even realize it was about a writer. They kinda left that out of the trailer.

Posted by: Blogger Jeri at 2/16/2006 10:43 PM

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