Films about Writers – Good, Bad and Trashy
In Wim Wenders’ very earnest new film Every Thing Will Be Fine, James Franco plays a young writer, Tomas, who is involved in a fatal accident and can’t seem to decide if it has affected him badly or not. The inference one is probably expected to draw is that it has had an adverse effect but literary success follows so maybe it was not such a bad thing after all. When challenged at one point in the film about his books after the accident being better, Tomas says, in a scene that might have been culled from a daytime soap: “I’m a writer. With every book I write I hope to get a little better. That’s all there is to it.”
Wenders used to make beautifully wistful films about social misfits, nostalgia and lack of belonging. That was way back in the 1970s and 1980s. These days, a few serviceable documentaries aside, his work is of a far lower stamp. Every Thing Will Be Fine does not quite plumb the depths of his career nadir, The Million Dollar Hotel, a 2000 collaboration with Bono, but it takes itself way too seriously for such an insubstantial film. Part of the problem is Franco in the main role, who despite how much he might say it on screen, does not pass muster as a writer, and certainly not a critically acclaimed one. Franco in real life is a published author, but he is also an artist and a filmmaker, none of which he is particularly accomplished at (his two Faulkner adaptations, As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury, were as pointless as they were bloodless, and thankfully barely noticed by anyone). He is more campus dilettante than Renaissance Man but another problem with Every Thing Will Be Fine is that watching mournful films about writing and writers is just not much fun. Few writers in history, the good as well as the bad, have led interesting lives (as recent events have shown, they are sometimes not even very smart) and their craft is a particularly undramatic one.
Another recent film, the French thriller A Perfect Man, directed by Yann Gozlan, makes writing very dramatic indeed by portraying it as fraudulent. Mathieu, played by Pierre Niney, is a twenty-something aspiring novelist gifted with the industriousness common to budding writers who don’t realise how untalented they are. He knocks off a novel in a hurry, probably without even rewriting it, sends it off to a Left Bank publishing house and receives a suspiciously abrupt rejection letter. He loses faith until, one day when working as a removal man, he stumbles upon a rather gripping war diary left behind by a recently deceased veteran of the Algerian War. Sensing an opportunity, he types it up and submits it as a novel. It is a roaring success, the reviews dythrambique, as the French would say, and he lands an improbably sexy young literary critic (Anna Girardot) for a girlfriend. She grants him access to the French haute bourgeoisie and the royalties on the book allow him to live comfortably until his publishers get antsy about the delay on his “difficult” second novel. Mathieu then starts getting anonymous threatening letters from someone who appears to have seen through his ruse.
A Perfect Man is a silly, enjoyable caper that is deliciously trashy but nonetheless resolves the conundrum of making a none-too-convincing character’s literary success credible. Not that it’s terribly original – its storyline is similar to the 2012 Bradley Cooper film The Words, which in turn has been accused of plagiarising a Swiss novel from a decade earlier. And while A Perfect Man cannot be considered too realistic, it does provide a palpable sense of the fear and shame one gets from going a sustained period without writing.
The better, more enjoyable films about writers tend to externalise the writerly angst in a heightened, almost baroque fashion. John Torturro’s Barton Fink struggles to write on his first job in Hollywood and winds up being framed for a murder. Two of the more accomplished Stephen King adaptations Misery and The Shining play on the anxiety of literary fame and writer’s block respectively. In Rob Reiner’s Misery, bestselling novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) falls into the clutches of Annie Wilkes, a deranged fan, played by Kathy Bates. Sheldon is promptly, ahem, “persuaded” as to the folly of killing off his bestselling character Misery Chastain and by immobilising him with some heavy-handed tactics, Annie sees to it that he has no distractions from his writing.
In Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1981), writer Jack Torrance takes on the job of winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel in the Rockies, bringing his young family with him. He is convinced that the isolation and the light workload will be conducive to getting to work on his novel. It is a feeling familiar to many writers, convinced that a retreat will be the catalyst to productivity. The reality turns out to be somewhat different with Torrance stalling for weeks on end and eventually being driven to madness, apparently by ghosts of the hotel’s past. Jack works through his writer’s block by typing “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” repeatedly, and he also takes to writing on the walls of the hotel. Though Stephen King himself disliked the film, it is, in its particular over-the-top fashion a fine parable of thwarted literary effort. The fact that Jack, in his madness, turns on his wife (Shelley Duval) and young son is a barely sublimated portrayal of the writer who allows devotion to their work destroy their relationship with their family.
One of the great over-the-top films of this type is John Carpenter’s Lovecraftian In the Mouth of Madness, a critical and commercial flop on its release in 1995, but which is a brilliantly horrific account of the power of the writer. In this case, the writer, a reclusive horror master Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow) is absent – he has gone missing and his publisher assigns an insurance investigator, played by Sam Neill, to locate him. Cane’s books have been known to induce violent hysteria in some readers and it appears his latest magnum opus, In the Mouth of Madness is the deadliest yet. The film is part satire of the publishing industry, part white-knuckle thrill ride, and is a hugely enjoyable example of a small sub-genre of film, where manipulative writers confuse and terrorise their characters.
Alain Resnais’ 1977 collaboration with David Mercer, Providence, stars John Gielgud as an ageing novelist who conceives of his relationships with his family in a series of imagined “drafts”. This approach was later used in a rather clumsier way by Marc Forster in Stranger than Fiction (2006), in which Emma Thompson was the puppet-mistress of a bemused everyman played by Will Ferrell. The recent Norwegian film Blind (directed by Eskil Vogt) features a novelist who has recently lost her eyesight and who projects her fantasies and suspicions through her writing, imagining her husband cheating on her with a younger woman, upon whom, on a whim, she bestows sudden blindness.
More successful still is Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, in which two screenwriting brothers, a fictional version of Kaufman and his even more fictional identical twin sibling Donald, are living together while pursuing wildly different projects. Charlie is tasked with adapting Susan Orlean’s 1998 non-fiction book The Orchid Thief, about rare-orchid poaching in Florida, while Donald is attending Robert McKee seminars and is pitching a trashy thriller to a Hollywood studio. The pair end up collaborating after Charlie runs aground, and they encounter Orlean, played by Meryl Streep, and the film diverges sharply, or rather desists from attempting to follow, her original text. The screenwriting credits for Adaptation are shared by the two brothers, making Donald Kaufman, along with the Coen brothers’ editor Roderick Jaynes one of the few fictional people to be nominated for an Oscar. It is also one of the few instances where real-life authors have been integrated into the meta-textual fabric of a film (Guillaume Nicloux’s 2014 mockumentary The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq is another). One imagines the rarity of this happening is less due to reticence on the part of authors than the fact that most writers are simply not recognisable enough for the conceit to be fully effective.
One of the main problems with films about writers is that the films are too often very inarticulate when talking about books. This is clear from some of the worse films of the sort, such as biopics of Sylvia Plath (Sylvia – 2003) where Ted Hughes, played by Daniel Craig actually tells the young Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow) to ‘write what you know’, and Iris Murdoch (Iris – 2001) where Murdoch’s lectures are rendered rather gauche by Richard Eyre’s terribly middle-brow direction. Jane Campion has made two of the better literary biopics in An Angel at My Table (1990), in which Kerry Fox plays the troubled New Zealand writer Janet Frame and Bright Star (2009) which dramatises the relationship between John Keats and Fanny Brawne. The first succeeds because it is based directly on the first volume of Frame’s memoirs, the second because it doesn’t concern itself overly with writing, focussing instead on the tale of doomed love.
Elsewhere, even films that have a credible writerly presence, such as Ethan Hawke’s Jesse (Hawke is another real-life writer) in the Before Sunrise trilogy, can’t escape sounding silly when talk turns to books, as a clunky conversation about Jesse’s work demonstrates in the third film Before Midnight. Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of the Michael Chabon novel Wonder Boys on the other hand undercuts the pomposity of the literary world, having a fabulously self-regarding Updikesque character played by Rip Torn (his opening words in a conference speech are “I… am… a… writer”). When Michael Douglas’ creative-writing professor Grady Tripp shows the manuscript of his long-awaited second novel to a student played by Katie Holmes, she is disheartened to find the two-thousand page behemoth is nigh unreadable, bogged down in superfluous details, such as “horses’ dental records”. Wonder Boys is an intelligent but light-hearted campus romp, its setting a site of literary ambition, both hopeful and frustrated (why else do creative writing MFAs exist other than to give a living to impecunious writers, themselves graduates of the same courses?) and it is as funny as the better Woody Allen films about writers (of which there are many, from Love and Death to Midnight in Paris).
One of the few better “serious” films about writing is the 2006 Norwegian film Reprise, directed by Joachim Trier, and written by Eskil Vogt, director of Blind. The film recounts the contrasting fortunes of two childhood friends, who attain literary fame at around the same time, one of them turning away from it after a bout of depression. Reprise is particularly good at talking about literature, in a way that most films about writers aren’t. Erik, Phillip and their circle sound like real writers in their conversations among themselves and also in their TV appearances, parroting Knausgaardian axioms about creating one’s own literary destiny by living it out. It is as annoyingly pretentious as it is credible but these are convincing young writers, possessed of a certainty they are radically reinventing literature from the cocoon of the world’s most comfortable society. Joachim Trier doesn’t spend any time showing us his heroes’ efforts at writing – the drama takes place at margins of writing – the bravado, the anguish of poor reviews and the withering confidence of the afflicted writer. Reprise is a good film about writers because it recognises that much of the stuff of writing and literary circles is, well, talk. And unlike many other such films, it can talk that talk.
Originally published by The New Statesman.