Wednesday 22 November 2017

My Top Five Movies about Writers, by Dan Metcalf

I'm not going to lie, I'm a movie fan. I was a movie fan even before I was a book fan, and there is nothing I love more than sitting down in the cinema or slouching on the sofa with a film and a jumbo bucket of popcorn bigger than my own head. As writers, we have been much maligned in movies; we are often protrayed by filmmakers as sensitive types prone to outbursts (HOW DARE THEY!). So for my post today I thought I would show you my top five movies about writers.

1. Adaptation is a 2002 movie directed by Spike Jonze. It focuses on the real-life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) and his not-real-life twin brother Donald, as Charlie is tasked with adapting the 1998 non-fiction book The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean. Adaptation is both the movie of that book, and the story of the process of writing it. Confusingly, the screenplay is credited to both Charlie and Donald Kaufman.
With me so far? No? It’s a tricky thing to describe, so here’s the Wikipedia entry (with spoilers). 

Kaufman writes himself as a neurotic worrier, a loner and introvert, which is ably played by Nicolas Cage. The twist comes when looking at Donald, the twin brother who does not exist in real life, but in this fictional world is excitable, enthusiastic, and has a lust for life. He is unconcerned by how others perceive him and is in every sense the other half of Charlie. Charlie however, can’t stand him. The film also portrays Susan Orlean as a Manhattenite journalist who is seemingly bored with her cosy life, and is drawn to the wild character of Laroche, the Orchid Thief of the book’s title. For Kaufman, it seems the life of a writer is a lonely and despondent one.

The real twist comes when the twins take action to try to save Charlie’s meandering screenplay, and experience a moment of resolution. In the ensuing climax SPOILERS: Donald is shot and the end scene sees Charlie come to terms with his brother’s death, and seemingly inherit the hope and positivity that Donald embodied.
The film is a must-see for its plays on film structure and the nature of writing as an internal pursuit, and the performances are top notch - the brilliant Meryl Streep alongside Chris Carter and the double helping of Nic Cage (who I normally can’t abide). A film which seemingly rejects the classic Hollywood film structure, but really embraces it.

2. Wonder Boys is based on a novel by Michael Chabon and adapted to the screen by soon-to-be Harry Potter scribe Steve Kloves. It centres on Grady Tripp, a novelist and writing professor who over has been trying to complete his novel for the past seven years. Ah, the procrastinating writer! If what Hollywood says about novelists is true, then it is a wonder that any novels get written at all, as the movies would have us believe that most writers walk about in our dressing gowns, watching quiz shows, knocking back Jack Daniels and occasionally looking guiltily at the typewriter in the corner. (The reality is, of course, that only half of this is true).

Tripp’s problem is not that he can’t write – he can’t stop writing. The manuscript has waffled on for hundreds of pages and he can’t seem to grasp hold of the narrative. He has a body of work, but even he struggles to call it a ‘novel’.

The plot takes us around a weekend from hell, in which Tripp picks up his agent who is hungry for the promised manuscript, babysits a troubled student, accidently bumps off his lover’s dog, and tries to avoid sleeping with his lodger. It is all excellently written and played, and the performance by a pre-Spiderman Tobey Maguire of the depressed and dramatic student James Leer who appears to be the next Big Thing, is one to be noted.

The screenplay has a great charm and memorable scenes, in what could have been played out as a Fawlty Towers-type farce. Kloves manages to get us to like both the pot-smoking Tripp and the almost catatonic Leer as they act disgracefully. One of my favourite films and one which every writer with an interest in great characters should make time to watch.

3. Misery is the infamous book by Stephen King about a writer kept prisoner by his mentally unstable 'biggest' fan. The movie was made by Rob Reiner, the director who defies pigeonholing by making wildly different movies such as This is Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally. Don't expect to see shades of any of those previous films in Misery, however; the script is eerie and dark, with great turns by James Caan (who sits in bed for most of the movie, lazy so-and-so) and Kathy Bates.

Stephen King is famed for writing about writers (I guess he's in the 'Write what you know' camp) and I would have included The Shining in this list, were it not for Stanley Kubrick's perculiarly cold interpretation of King's very personal novel, about a writer marooned in a snow-bound hotel dealing with his very murderous demons.

4. The Player is Robert Altman's film based on the novel by Michael Tolkin. It stars Tim Robbins as a merciless Hollywood Executive who comes across an unhinged screenwriter and kills him in the heat of the moment. 

Not a great role for the screenwriter to be honest, but it is the details of the movie and its portrayal of LA lifestyle and the business of show which really earns it its place on this mini countdown.

5. Barton Fink is a masterpiece of letting the camera linger. John Turturro plays a gritty yet sensitive playright from New York who reluctantly travels to Los Angeles to work in moving pictures. 

He is alienated by Hollywood and its facade, and is trapped in his own private hell as he faces writer's block in a sweaty hotel room which he shares with a mosquito. Famously written by the Coen Brothers (Miller's Crossing, The Big Lebowski) in a time when they were suffering from writer's block themselves, it gets across what it is like to be stuck inside your own head. Also features a terrifying turn from the usually-cuddly John Goodman.

So that's my five. Yes, I left off Wilde. And Sylvia. And Finding Neverland (Can't watch it without blubbing anyway). But it's MY five. What's on yours?
Dan Metcalf is a children's writer, author of Codebusters and The Lottie Lipton Adventures. Say hi at


Steve Gladwin said...

Great list thanks, Dan. And of course Reiner's Stand By Me is told from the viewpoint of a writer too. You've wet my appetite.

Sue Bursztynski said...

No need to apologise for loving films! I wish I could remember the title of that Sean Connery one where he's a reclusive writer. And he's in The Russia House as a publisher searching for a Russian writer. "Who are you?" he asks. "What do you do for a living?" The man he has just met says bitterly that he is an outcast. "Ah," says the publisher."Always nice to meet a writer."

On your list, I'm only familiar with Misery, but I read the book, not saw the film.Scary! I enjoy reading Stephen King's non-fiction, including th essay in which he described his joy at receiving a ream of green onion-skin paper at uni, which he describes as being like a fifth of Scotch to a drunk. Classic!

Babylon 5 - Some Book References

Joan Lennon said...

Stranger than Fiction with Emma Thompson as the writer.

Susan Price said...

I'll watch anything by the Coen Brothers...

Dan Metcalf said...

Joan, Stanger than fiction is my favourite movie ever! (Top 5 anyway) somehow overlooked it being about a writer!

Sue - I think that was Finding Forrester? Good movie. Gus Van Sant I think (though too hot on the heels of Good Will Hunting, which was the same movie but with maths)

Steve - Yes! Been a while since my last viewing of SBM.

Keep 'em coming!

Unknown said...

What about "Secret Window" with Johnny Depp?