The image of a writer’s life is for a lot of people (mostly non-writers), a romantic vision of mystery, wonder, creativity and intrigue. And hey, maybe that’s true for some writers! Writers can be curious and sometimes downright weird folk (I can say that, I am one) and as such can make for great film characters. Sometimes. It’s true there have been some dismal films about writers (Young Adult (2011) and The Man From Elysian Fields (2001) spring to mind first) but there are also dozens and dozens of brilliant writerly flicks. Way more than 5. So, straight up apologies to Barton Fink, an honorary 6th in this Top 5 List.
The writers in the films below come from all walks of life – from struggling screenwriters to family man novelists, outraged teenage fantasy authors and writers quite literally writing to survive. Their stories are all different, in a number of respects, but one thing the writers all have in common is that they are all driven forward by the power of the written word.
Directed by Rob Reiner
Starring James Caan and Kathy Bates
Based on one of Stephen King’s most popular (and best) novels, Misery is a story about Paul Sheldon, a writer who winds up crippled and captive in the house of his number one fan, Annie Wilkes after she rescues him from a car wreck.
Annie is an utter nutter and is so outraged at the direction Sheldon has taken her favourite book series in his new manuscript. She insists, with some horrific motivation, he writes another novel according to her wishes. In and out of drug fugues, beset with major injuries, not all of which came from his car accident, Sheldon plugs away at his new novel fearing for his life what Annie will do to him is he doesn’t please her in every way.
The Misery novel is far superior to the film (and we covered why here), but as a stand alone movie, Misery isn’t bad at all. James Caan is great as the driven novelist who despite all of the odds against him and his work, including a typewriter with broken keys, finds he ends up writing some of his best work. And Kathy Bates is Annie Wilkes to a point of perfection no other actor could reach. She’s obsessive and deadly but really, what author wouldn’t want someone to love their work that much. Honestly.
Interesting fact: in his memoir, On Writing, Stephen King mentions that Misery is a kind of metaphor for his own writing under the imprisonment of drugs, not a psycho fan.
Gentlemen Broncos (2009)
Directed by Jared Hess
Starring Michael Angarano, Jemaine Clement, Sam Rockwell
This oddball film might have slipped under more than a few radars on its limited release, but it is a must watch for all fantasy fans and particularly fantasy writers. As long as you’re prepared to not take anything about writing fantasy too seriously.
Young amateur novelist, Benjamin Purvis attends a fantasy writing workshop run by one of his writing idols, Ronald Chevalier. Benjamin enters a competition with his novel ‘Yeast Lords’, an epic fantasy high adventure centring on the hero Bronco. The competition is judged by Ronald Chevalier who had ripped Benjamin’s idea to shreds during the workshop but ends up stealing the book and publishing ‘Yeast Lords’ for himself. Flight of the Concords‘ Jemaine Clement is hilarious as the over the top famous novelist, Chevalier and I’d really like to know if the film makers had any famous novelist in mind when they were writing his character.
At the same time, Benjamin’s story has been crudely adapted into a film by a local amateur filmmaker. The excerpts of the film adaptation of ‘Yeast Lords’ are utterly hilarious – think of the calibre of fantasy from films like Zardoz (1974) or Yor, Hunter from the Future (1983) – and Sam Rockwell as the hero, Bronco is just superb.
With a butchered film version of his story and a plagiarised copy of his novel, Benjamin loses all hope until his Mum saves the day and he gets the chance to live every amateur fantasy novelist’s dream.
Gentlemen Broncos is full of not so subtle digs at the fantasy genre and fantasy writers but it’s done without malice and all in the name of quirky humour. Which this film has in spades.
Directed by Spike Jonze
Starring Nicholas Cage, Chris Cooper, Meryl Streep
In Adaptation, famed real life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman attempts to adapt Susan Orlean’s non-fiction book, The Orchid Thief into a film. And this is exactly what the film is about. Kaufman writes himself as a character into this film, who ends up writing the very film we are watching. I don’t really like to use the word postmodern, but that’s exactly what this endlessly self-referential film is. It’s also weird and funny and everything you’d expect from a Charlie Kaufman film.
The movie is not a one hundred percent true account of Kaufman’s experiences nor a direct adaptation of The Orchid Thief. The romance between Orlean and the orchid thief, John Laroche is made up, as is Kaufman’s twin brother, Donald. Although on the film’s release there was much speculation as to whether there actually was a Donald Kaufman. This was played up by the filmmakers and the fictional Donald even received a co-writing credit and was nominated for an Oscar.
Adaptation is a film about three types of writers – the uptight New Yorker journalist Orleans looking for passion and a new way of looking at the world; the endlessly anxious and weird Charlie Kauffman who wants nothing more than to write the greatest most intelligent and ground breaking script ever but continues to struggle against his own expectations and the pressures of endless creative freedom; and Donald who, much to Charlie’s annoyance wants to write an action thriller blockbuster. The contrast between Charlie and Donald’s writing is a point of continued humour with Charlie refusing to accept that anything good can ever come out of a screen writing lesson or genre cinema in general. The film itself makes for an amusing response to Charlie’s theories.
The World According to Garp (1982)
Directed by George Roy Hill
Starring Robin Williams, Glenn Close, Mary Beth Hurth, John Lithgow
Based on the novel by John Irving, The World According to Garp might very well be the most romantic vision of a writer and his life ever put onto page or screen. And that’s not a bad thing.
The World According to Garp is a weird story full of quirky characters, drama and comedy and at the heart of it all is T.S Garp. Garp is an optimistic fellow who wanted nothing more than to be a writer, a husband and a father and ends up doing exceptionally well at all three (though with a few indiscretions) overcoming every set back with a curious enthusiasm. Early in his writing career, his mother, Jenny Fields writers her own book, A Sexual Suspect that becomes an international best seller and turns her into a feminist icon, bringing a whole world of extremes to Garp’s life.
This isn’t so much a movie about writing, as some of the others in this list are, but a chronicle of the life of this particular writer and all of the joys and tragedies he and his family experience. There are probably more tragedies, but this is still a film filled with hope and warmth and that’s what makes it so special. Garp is a wonderfully rounded character as cynical and judgemental as he is open, accepting and good humoured. There’s a reason this book was a best-seller and the movie still so fondly remembered.
Stranger than Fiction (2006)
Directed by Marc Foster
Starring Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah
Stranger than Fiction is one of those rare kind of films that after you watch it, you instantly need to watch it again and again. Or perhaps that was just me.
Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, a fastidious IRS agent who one day starts hearing a woman’s voice describing everything he does. Identifying the voice as some kind of narrator, Crick consults with a literature professor, Dustin Hoffman, who helps him identify the narrator as reclusive writer Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), and discovers he is actually a character in one of Eiffel’s books. All the worse for him, Eiffel is a tragic writer and all of her protagonists end up dead.
Meanwhile, Eiffel is struggling against a publisher’s deadline for her most recent novel in which Crick is the doomed main character. Author and character eventually meet and both Crick and Eiffel have to discover if what is written as Crick’s life is the only choice he has.
In the process of trying to choose his own destiny, Crick throws off his routines and starts taking all sorts of chances he has never taken and trying all sorts of new things. This leads him to fall in love with anarchist cookie baker, Anna (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and find himself a while new lease on life.
Stranger than Fiction is a marvellous bit of surreal realism. It’s dark and funny but at the same time a life affirming and heart warming story about fate and choosing your own adventure and destiny, and struggling to write to a deadline.
My favourite line – one of many – sees Eiffel’s productivity assistant (Queen Latifah) tell her that sitting in the rain is not going to write a book. Eiffel: ”That illustrates exactly how much you know about writing books.” Writers will laugh.