Friday, March 1, 2013


In The Hours, there's a scene to gladden the heart of any writer. Nicole Kidman plays Virginia Woolf going into her study one morning in 1923 to begin a new novel. She snuggles into an armchair with her feet propped up on a footstool and a writing board across her lap, dips her pen in ink and begins scribbling in longhand on a sheet of paper—and the opening sentences of her landmark novel, Mrs. Dalloway, spring  complete onto the page, without false starts or corrections. Ah, we writers think, THIS is the way it's supposed to be!

I love movies about writers and writing, and since my friend Sally recently asked me what my favorite movies-about-writing were, now's my chance to share a few titles. There are enough of them out there to constitute a little movie sub-genre of their own—odd since the act of writing is one of the least cinematic activities you can imagine. Basically, you have a person staring a piece of paper (or a monitor) while all the action takes place inside the person's head. Not exactly what you'd call the money shot.   

Movies about writers fall into two categories: those based on novels or stories whose protagonists are thinly-disguised versions of the novelist, like My Brilliant Career, and those that purport to contain biographical information about real-life writers, like The Hours or Wilde. Of course, the more flamboyant a writer's personal life, the more likely it will be commemorated on film—and the less likely it is that the film will bother showing any actual writing. As Oscar Wilde in Wilde, Stephen Fry spends most of his screen time dallying with pretty boys and tossing off witticisms. We never catch him writing; we see him attending premieres of plays that are already a fait accompli.

We do see Joseph Fiennes' Will Shakespeare sit down to his writing desk in Shakespeare In Love. This charming bit of humbug is certainly no biography, but it contains a fanciful image of creative voodoo as Will rubs his palms together and spins around before sitting down to transform an unwieldy and much-rewritten, "Ethel, The Pirates Daughter" into "Romeo And Juliet." In the same spirit, that entertaining pastiche A Knight's Tale gives us Paul Bettany as Geoffrey Chaucer, not yet the mature author of The Canterbury Tales, but a young, vagabond huckster who proclaims, "I'm a writer. I give the truth…scope!"

But few writers will buy a ridiculous scene in Julia, in which 1930s playwright Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda) is having such a bad day at the typewriter, she grabs the cumbersome machine and throws it out the window. Now, an old upright typewriter is no laptop; it takes a serious amount of strength and determination just to lift the damn thing up. In real life, a writer in a paroxysm of creative frustration might rip the page out of the machine and tear it into tiny pieces. But it's unlikely that a professional writer—in the middle of the Depression!—would throw the means of her livelihood out the window. It's a lame Hollywood ploy to make the boring craft of writing look exciting.

In my favorite writing movies reality and imagination merge in a fever of creative dementia. The fine Japanese film The Mystery Of Rampo imagines a story about real-life '30s mystery writer Edogawa Rampo. Obsessed by a woman whose life mirrors one of his thrillers, Rampo starts writing a new novel to shape her life, and the vibrant melodrama of his fiction plays off against his grey, repressive real life in eye-popping and spellbinding ways.

In adapting William S. Burroughs cult novel Naked Lunch, director David Cronenberg expands the delusional-junkie narrative into a wicked study of the nature of the creative urge: periodically, the writer protagonist's typewriters morph into large, wisecracking cockroaches with unholy appetites. (What writer can't identify with that?)

Probably my all-time favorite is the absorbing biographical memoir The Whole Wide World, about pulp writer Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian. In the film whenever Howard (played by Vincent D'Onofrio) is dreaming up one of his plots, or when anyone opens up a magazine to one of his stories, ambient noise fades out of the soundtrack replaced by the low grumble of distant prehistoric battle, the muted clank of swords, a fluting of ancient pipes and far-off screams. The viewer is lured to the very brink of chaos—the chaos of the unfettered imagination. For me, that's the closest the movies have ever come to portraying the authentic delirium of the writing life.


  1. great post - I hadn't heard of some of these but will check them out.

  2. I want an animated gif of Jane Fonda growling in frustration and throwing that typewriter out the window. It's so bad, it's camp.

  3. Also, typewriters in that era were really heavy! It wasn't like tossing a laptop around . . .