Writers on the big-screen

I hadn’t considered until very recently how many movies there are out there about writers. I’m not talking about books made into films. I’m talking about actors who play writers. I suppose since there’s a writer or two or four behind every film it makes sense; writers write what they know.

But the other evening, in the theater to watch “Margot at the Wedding,” (in which Nicole Kidman plays a writer), I began to think about the great number of films about writers and writing. Before the film, we watched a trailer for “Starting out in the Evening” which is about a has-been novelist. A few weeks ago, I saw “Dan in Real Life,” and Steve Carrell played a newspaper columnist.

But there’s a difference between a character who happens to be a writer and a character whose writing becomes part of the plot; the fact of their writing is central to the story. I’m thinking of films like “The Wonder Boys” or “Adaptation,” or “Capote .”

During the two hours I was in the theater absorbing “Margot at the Wedding” and the trailer for “Starting Out in the Evening,” it dawned on me how on-screen writers usually are presented as people with few positive traits. In general the characters that filled “Margot at the Wedding” were awful people all around, but a scene during that film, in which Nicole Kidman’s character was interviewed in front of an audience by another writer, actually made me think, “My god, writers are the worst people!”

I can’t think of a film in which a writer was portrayed in a positive light, secure in his or her own abilities. Even in the whimsical “Stranger than Fiction,” Emma Thompson plays a solitary chain-smoking novelist who has it in for her character. Michael Douglas’ character in “The Wonder Boys” is a disaster. Paul Giamatti’s writer-character in “Sideways”: lost and lacking in hope and self-confidence. Above all, writers in films are seen as selfish, aren’t they? Look at the two egotistical writer-parents in “the Squid and the Whale.”

I know it sounds as though I am surprised by the portrayal of writers this way, but I’m not.  The portrayal — the selfish writer, bad at relationships, absorbed in his/her own work — well, there’s an element of truth in every stereotype, isn’t there? I guess I’m only surprised by how many films I can think of in which this is the case. Can anyone think of any films in which a character whose writing is central to the story comes off as inspiring/positive/selfless (or at least less selfish)? I’d love to see one.

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7 thoughts on “Writers on the big-screen

  1. That’s a bit loaded of a question. If the story is about writing, and not a writer, that means that the conflict providing the drama will be about the writing, and that means the character doing the the writing will have to be selfishly advancing their writing at the expense of the other characters’ wishes in the piece. I mean otherwise likeable characters will have to get obsessed for there to even be a movie. See Barton Fink, The Paper, even nonfiction like Shattered Glass or RKO 281.

  2. I know what you mean. I guess what I’m saying is, even movies that aren’t really about the act of writing (for example “The Squid and the Whale,” “Sideways,” “Margot at the Wedding”) but contain characters who happen to be writers offer them up as selfish and awful.

    Also: Journalists seem to get better treatment in movies, in general, than novelists, unless of course, the movie is about a journalist gone wrong, i.e. “Shattered Glass.”

  3. Dan (in Real Life) seemed likeable and sane, although he falls under the “journalist” one. Did you capture the Johnny Depp writer who lives in a cabin…gosh, I’m trying to remember what the name of that film was. I loved that movie (because I love Johnny Depp), but he was wacko.

  4. This is a minor character, but I thought of the novelist in “Love, Actually.” You know, the guy whose novel pages blew into the pond and the cute girl leaped in and tried to get them. He was a nice, well-adjusted sort.

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