I’ve been busy at work recently. Really busy. So I haven’t done much writing or blogging or tweeting or anything like that. All I’ve really had headspace for over the last couple of months has been working, worrying about my daughter’s GCSEs (now finished), worrying about the EU referendum (now it’s us that’s finished), and slumping down in the evening to watch TV or a film. Accordingly, you’ll have to excuse me if I recycle the theme of my earlier post and jump back into the fascinating world of films about writers.
There were lots of suggestions after my February post about films I could have included, and I’ve tried to cover some of those here. But I’ve also watched loads more that I’d like to tell you about...
The Front (1976)
Written, directed by and starring several people who were themselves on the blacklist, The Front was an unlikely vehicle for the first Hollywood film to deal with the communist witch-hunts. Given the weight of the subject matter, it struggles to be truly funny and comes off as more of an amusing drama. But the cast (especially Allen) are great and it’s definitely worth a watch if it pops up on TV in the middle of the night.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) / Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008)
For those who have yet to be exposed to its lunacy, the (very) basic premise of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is that journalist Raoul Duke has been sent to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race, and taken his “attorney” Dr Gonzo along for the ride. But it quickly becomes a quest to find the heart of the American Dream, fuelled by the most excessive ingestion of illegal narcotics this side of Scarface. Terry Gilliam is the perfect choice to capture the visual textures of drug use, and he creates some wonderfully disturbing imagery to accompany the characters' hallucinations. It’s a film that is often riotously funny, providing fish-out-of-water humour as Duke and Gonzo act in violation of all accepted social norms. But the humour gradually pales, with the film turning nastier in its final third. Despite copious voiceover, Fear and Loathing struggles with a story that is utterly dependent on Thompson's voice to succeed on the printed page. Without that, the characters (especially the repellent Dr Gonzo) become more monstrous than they are amusing.
The documentary interviews figures as disparate as Ralph Steadman, Jimmy Buffett, Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Carter in its quest to discover what made Thompson tick. The portrait that emerges is of a volatile genius, frequently intoxicated and as happy taking down the system with words as he was letting off one of his many automatic weapons. This apparent paradox - the fiercely patriotic libertarian left-wing dropout - is what fuels the best of his writing. Watching Thompson being interviewed also confirms what lengths Johnny Depp went to in order to capture his voice and mannerisms for Fear and Loathing. Sadly, recent media stories about Depp’s booze-fuelled rages suggest that he may be taking Thompson's life lessons a little too close to heart.
Stranger than Fiction (2006)
From this clever magical-realist conceit, Stranger than Fiction spins out an amusing comedy-drama which is part character study and part metaphysical “what-if?” Ferrell is surprisingly effective as the repressed, obsessive-compulsive tax clerk who realises he needs to get on with living his life before he dies. The chain-smoking Emma Thompson, meanwhile, portrays one of the most neurotic authors ever seen in a movie, under pressure to deliver her first novel following a ten-year writer’s block. The “death at the end” concept is a brilliant ticking clock that drives the narrative – we simultaneously see Karen’s need to be rid of the book she hates and Harold’s need to persuade her not to kill him. I won’t spoil the ending by telling you who wins!
Young Adult (2011)
Aside from an amusing scene where Mavis tries to sign books against the store’s wishes, the writing aspect of her life is mostly presented as an ironic voiceover. This is a clever device, with Gossip Girlesque romantic prose juxtaposed against Mavis’s increasingly unhinged real life campaign to reclaim her sweetheart.
With its borderline psychotic lead character, Young Adult is not a film designed to give you the warm and fuzzies. But this defiantly sour and uncomfortable movie does offer a few laughs, and a kernel of truth about the human condition - even if I’m not convinced by its central thesis about children’s writers!
Goosebumps the movie is equal parts 80s & 90s nostalgia (hello Gremlins!) and modern meta-snark. Jack Black gives a terrifically deadpan performance as Stine – he somehow manages to be hilariously funny just by looking serious and disapproving throughout. But it’s a double triumph, as Black also gets to unleash his wacky side by playing the voice of his nemesis, Slappy the evil ventriloquist's dummy. The film is sometimes a bit over-stuffed, throwing every Goosebumps monster it can find at us, but better too much ambition than too little!
So there you have it – seven more fascinating films about writers. It’s an eclectic mix, though poor Misery missed out again because I didn’t have time to rewatch it before the deadline. Another notable omission was Crimson Peak, a film where the main character is a writer, but it seems to be merely a convenient character device to set the plot in motion and is then forgotten for much of the film.
Until next time (when I’ll have to come up with a new idea), happy viewing!
Nick Cross is a children's writer and Undiscovered Voices winner.
Nick's writing appears in Stew Magazine, and his most recent story is The Man Who Bought the World in issue 14. Nick received a 2015 SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.