Monday 15 February 2016

Seven Fascinating Films about Writers

By Nick Cross

I like films. I like writing. So perhaps it was inevitable that I would like films about writers. And once you scratch the surface, there are quite a few of them. Of course, most films start as a screenplay which has to be written by one or (more commonly) several people, so perhaps it’s not surprising that those writers occasionally turn inwards for inspiration. What is surprising about it is that writing as an activity is just about the least filmic thing ever invented, with its furrowed concentration over a keyboard, unintelligible muttering or pacing around with a half-smoked cigarette. I have never in my life pulled a sheet of paper from a typewriter, screwed it into a ball and thrown it in the bin. Yet this motion is one of the great clich├ęs of writing in the movies.

All this having been said, there are some really fascinating films about writers, writing and the creative process. In fact, I went through my own collection and found twenty-seven:

You'll be pleased to know that I'm not going to try to write about all of these, or we'd be here all day! What follows is a wholly subjective, roughly chronological celebration of seven films about writers. Action!

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Billy Wilder made some incredible movies in his 40 year career, but Sunset Boulevard is perhaps the best. Gritty and yet somehow also dreamlike, the film mercilessly takes down the Hollywood system. The lead character Joe Gillis (played by William Holden) is an embittered screenwriter who is so down on his luck that he takes a job with fading star Norma Desmond (played by genuine faded silent movie star Gloria Swanson). The two become trapped in a toxic co-dependent relationship, as Joe nurtures Norma’s ego by rewriting her terrible screenplay about Salome, a film she is convinced will catapult her back into the limelight. Meanwhile, back at the studio, Betty the script reader has taken a shine to one of Joe’s original scripts, and the two fall in love as they work in secret on the project. It’s a dynamic that is to end in tragedy for just about everyone, yet Sunset Boulevard is so skilfully made that it isn’t depressing. Instead, it’s a dark, cynical film, crammed with pithy dialogue and filmed in gorgeous black and white.

The Shining (1980)

Worst writing retreat ever. Jack Nicholson thinks that winter in a snowbound hotel will help him to finish his novel, but in fact he gets distracted by a constant stream of ghosts, sexy dead ladies and homicidal rage. The scene where his wife finds the draft of his “masterpiece” is one of the most chilling things ever, and imagine being the poor intern who had to type all that! (trivia fans may like to know that obsessive director Stanley Kubrick had the pages retyped in French, Spanish, German and Italian for the regional releases of the film)

Although I loved the Stephen King novel it was based on, the movie version of The Shining took many years to work its magic on me. Actually, what made me finally fall for the film was seeing it on a big screen for the first time, after years of watching it on television. Perhaps it isn’t true that I fell for the film as much as fell into it – the long, languid tracking shots that Kubrick uses exert a hypnotic pull that draws the cinema viewer into the horrific story.

Stand By Me (1986)

Nowadays, every other film seems to be a superhero origin story, but Stand by Me is unusual in being a writer origin story. Another project from the pen of Stephen King, the 1950s set tale of four boys going in search of a dead body is just a great, great film, full of kids doing and saying totally inappropriate stuff that they would never be able to get away with in a modern setting. When the boys gather around the campfire, lead character Gordie’s emergent storytelling skills come to the fore in the tale of a very unusual pie-eating competition. This is a scene that no-one who’s seen the film can forget (and also the main reason my wife refuses to watch it again). But mainly, the film is a triumph of writing, acting and directing – especially notable because the director Rob Reiner was on an incredible seven film streak of absolutely classic movies* at the time!

Barton Fink (1991)

What is it about writers and creepy hotels? In the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink, John Turturro plays a pretentious playwright who goes to Hollywood in the early 1940s and somehow winds up contracted to write a wrestling B movie. Trapped in the seedy Hotel Earle, Barton finds the screenplay impossible to write - not because it is hard, but because it's much too easy. His self-image of being an "important writer" makes him unable to lower himself to such formulaic material. Barton is obsessed with capturing "the voice of the common man," but wholly unwilling to actually listen to anyone who fits that description, such as his suspiciously friendly hotel neighbour played by John Goodman. From these basic elements, the film spirals into a Kafkaesque nightmare that swept the board at the Cannes film festival. However, Barton Fink was a notorious flop at the cinema and is wilfully strange, even by the Coens' standards. It's a cryptic and elliptical movie that's easier to admire than like, shifting unsettlingly between satire, period drama and horror.

Adaptation (2002)

Adaptation is perhaps the ultimate movie about the writing process (though that doesn’t necessarily make it the best). Metafictional to a fault, the movie arose when screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (a hot property after the success of Being John Malkovich) took on the job of adapting Susan Orlean’s non-fiction book The Orchid Thief for the cinema. Unfortunately, it was a nearly impossible task, and Kaufmann found himself horribly blocked and under severe deadline pressure. Rather than do what most of us would do – which is walk away from the project – Kaufman instead rewrote the movie to be about his struggle to adapt the book. Nicolas Cage plays Kaufman in the movie as a horribly neurotic loser, as well as taking on the role of his (fictional) twin brother Donald, whose effortless success at screenwriting infuriates Charlie at every turn. The movie also features a fictionalised Susan Orlean (played by Meryl Streep) and even finds space for Brian Cox having a wonderfully hammy time playing Robert McKee. Yes, that’s Robert McKee, author of the seminal screenwriting book Story.

As you can imagine, this is a film that tends to divide audiences. I have even found that it causes me to have wildly different reactions each time I watch it. The first time, I was amused but confused. The second time, I thought it might be the greatest film ever made. The third time, I found myself intensely annoyed by the final act, in which Kaufman wrecks the structure of his own film to make a rather glib point about the formulaic structure of Hollywood movies.

Will there be a fourth time? Such is the strange allure of Adaptation that I think it’s quite likely...

Ruby Sparks (2012)

This recent but relatively little-known film has a surprising amount of magical realism for a Hollywood studio production. Paul Dano plays Calvin, a lonely, blocked author (yes, another one) who begins typing a story about his dream girlfriend, Ruby Sparks. He is more than a tad surprised when said girlfriend suddenly turns up in his apartment and turns his life upside down. Yes, it’s a version of a classic romcom plot and there’s more than a little of the "manic pixie dream girl" archetype to Ruby (played by Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the screenplay). But the plot twists nicely as Calvin discovers that he can change Ruby’s behaviour by rewriting her story on his apparently magic typewriter. Thus, the film becomes about the balance of power in relationships, culminating in a mesmerising scene of almost literal puppetry as the full extent of Calvin’s control over his “character” is horribly revealed to her. It’s a brave scene in a film full of clever ideas about the power of writing, and it even manages to have a happy ending!

Saving Mr Banks (2013)

A movie about the writer of Mary Poppins, released by Disney? Self-congratulatory slush alert! And yet, Saving Mr Banks manages to become so much more. A lot of this is down to Emma Thompson, whose wonderfully snarky PL Travers douses the movie in vinegar to offset the sweetness. And also Tom Hanks playing Walt Disney, who has to do a lot of the emotional heavy lifting, especially in the (genuinely) tear-jerking climax. Yes, some of the backstory about Travers' alcoholic dad is a bit contrived, but this is a film that bravely examines the demons that drive writers to write, while also causing them to be somewhat resentful of their own talents. And try to imagine what it would really be like if you had your book taken away from you and made into a big-budget Hollywood musical – I’ll wager you’d be a bit grumpy about it too.

So, those are just a few of the films about writers out there. What's clear from this cross-section is that the writer on-screen often acts as an analogue for the creative team behind it, expressing their joys and frustrations about the creative process.

If I had more space I might have included films such as Capote, Wonder Boys, Stranger than Fiction, Misery or even the Charles Bukowski biopic Factotum (a film so obscure that I can't imagine anyone else has even heard of it, much less seen it). And there are loads of TV series with writers in them, such as Bored to Death, 30 Rock, Castle, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip or even Murder She Wrote. But no-one (apart from Angela Lansbury’s fan club) wants to know about that!


*This is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Stand by Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery and A Few Good Men (since you asked).

Nick Cross is a children's writer, Undiscovered Voices winner and Alphabet Soup maker for SCBWI Words & Pictures Magazine.
Nick's writing appears in Stew Magazine, and received a 2015 SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.


  1. Great post Nick, I'm a big film fan, and i'm always fascinated how they portray writers.

    1. There are more all the time, such as Trumbo which just came out at the cinema.

  2. The only one of those I've seen is Sving Mr Banks, which I thought was wonderful. I know, I know, I've missed some of the classics on that list! I'll get around to them, eventually. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I love Stranger than Fiction. Emma Thomson's writer is hilariously oddball and the idea that Will Ferrell was hearing his life being dictated was brilliantly played. Little did he know...

    1. Professor Jules Hilbert: The only way to find out what story you're in is to determine what stories you're not in. Odd as it may seem, I've just ruled out half of Greek literature, seven fairy tales, ten Chinese fables, and determined conclusively that you are not King Hamlet, Scout Finch, Miss Marple, Frankenstein's monster, or a golem. Hmm? Aren't you relieved to know you're not a golem?

      Harold Crick: Yes, I am relieved to know that I am not a golem.

    2. I love this bit

    3. I did think hard about including Stranger Than Fiction but I didn't want to have two Emma Thompson films in the list. For me, Saving Mr Banks edges it as the better film.

  4. Excellent as always - a trip down memory lane, too! Thanks.

  5. What about As Good As It Gets ... that moment when a fan asks Melvin (Jack Nicholson): "How do you write women so well?" And he replies: "I think of a man. Then I take away reason and accountability."

    1. I haven't seen that one for a while - I'd forgotten his character was a writer.

      When I thought about it, there were also lots of films with journalists in them - some of those probably qualify as films about writers, but some (All the Presidents Men, say) are more about the investigative process.

  6. There was also a hilariously bad film in which a blocked author is accused of a murder. Whodunit? The agent! (Sorry can't remember the title ... it was worth soldiering through it on late night TV for the pay off!

  7. THis is so good! I would LOVE to have a film made from one of my stories. Did you mention 'Misery'? I really do love The Princess Bride as well!

    1. I did mention Misery right at the end, and if you look carefully it's in my DVD pile photo. But there were already two Stephen King inspired films on the list as it was...

  8. "The Shining: worst writing retreat ever" - love this.
    Also, slightly nervous about having booked a retreat if you come along, because saying the worst ever is kind of tempting fate...?


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