Five Great Movies About Writers

Anders Danielsen Lie (l) and Espen Klouman-Høiner in Reprise.

Writers aren’t that exciting to be around when we’re working. What we do–staring into space, muttering to ourselves, typing then backspacing and typing some more–isn’t exactly dynamic. It might be why there are so few good movies about writers actually writing. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of good movies with writer characters in them; that’s fairly common. But the movies that show accurately what the writing life is like, and how it affects the writer and people around him, those are rare indeed. Here are five of my favorites (notice I didn’t say, “best”).

In the Mouth of Madness

Writers figure in a lot of horror films, most of them courtesy of Stephen King (Misery, The Shining, Secret Window).  This isn’t a Stephen King adaptation, or a Lovecraft one, but its story of writer Sutter Kane (Jurgen Prochnow), who writes like Lovecraft and has a fan base like (and the same initials as) King, carries the idea of the “best seller” to a demented extreme. With Sam Neill as an insurance investigator and director John Carpenter’s sure hand, it takes us into a world where people are willing to give up their own dreams for the common nightmares of someone else. I can only wonder, if it was remade today (which I’m sure it will be), will King be the model of success, or will it be Stephanie Meyer or EL James?
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Paris When It Sizzles

Williams Holden is on deadline to produce a script, and Audrey Hepburn is the secretary who both challenges him and keeps him on task. Holden, like a lot of us, knows when his story’s gone off the rails, so the stopping and starting over becomes part of the fun. Add to this scenes from the work-in-progress acted out by those two, plus a slew of dead-on cameos, and it becomes the kind of creative process we all like to think we have in our heads.

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A masterpiece–there, I said it–from Norway about two friends who submit their first novels on the same day. One gets rejected, one becomes a best seller, but their friendship doesn’t suffer in the ways you might think.  An amazing cast, down to the smallest parts, and a perfectly-judged emotional pitch make this one way too close to comfort in some ways. But a brilliant film nonetheless. And bonus cool points for using Joy Division under the titles.

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His Girl Friday

“Writing” can include reporting, and in fact, it used to: some of our best writers, and even me, started out as journalists back when that word meant something. Here it means Rosalind Russell as the ace reporter and Cary Grant as her fast-talking editor, who’s also her ex-husband determined to get her back. It’s a romantic comedy, to be sure, but director Howard Hawks also includes scenes of Russell doing her job, including an expert interview with a mousy convicted killer. And when the other cynical reporters take a look at what she’s written, their respect and silence–in a movie overloaded with the fastest dialogue you’ll ever hear–tells you all you need to know about her skill.

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Chinese Coffee

You probably haven’t heard of this one. It started as a vanity project by Al Pacino, who wanted a filmed record of a play he loved appearing in. Pacino and Jerry Orbach star in this essentially two-person film, adapted from Ira Lewis’s play, about a writer (Pacino) and his friend (Orbach), who feels the writer has stolen from him: not plagiarism, exactly, but more from his real life and personality. It’s good because the actors are so good, and Pacino’s direction is unfussy and solid. Plus it’s an issue every fiction writer will encounter at some point.

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Any other suggestions?

7 Comments on “Five Great Movies About Writers”

  1. My personal favorite is Finding Forrester. It’s about a young boy who wants to be a writer and a recluse who mentors him.

  2. How do you feel about movies like Stranger Than Fiction (2006), Adaptation (2002), or even something like Secret Window (2004)?

  3. Terrific post! “All the President’s Men” is one of my favs. Other than “His Girl Friday” I haven’t seen these. Thanks for helping me update my movie list and expanding my horizons! 🙂

  4. My absolute favorite is “Wonder Boys” (book by Michael Chabon). If nothing else, it will teach you to save your work.

  5. Michael G. S.: I haven’t yet seen Stranger Than Fiction,, but I feel Adaptation is really about not writing, and Secret Window, like all King’s stories about writers, is about a writer who goes crazy because he’s not good enough. There’s nothing wrong with either of them as stories, but it doesn’t really match up with my experience as a working writer. Thank goodness.

  6. Kathy, I was wondering the same thing about Stranger than Fiction. I think that the story is really interesting, but I also feel that the movie gets *a lot* of things wrong about what it’s like to be a writer, which is frustrating because the characters in it are so likeable.

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