Movies about Real Writers

Reading a good novel or poem can be like sitting down inside the author’s head and looking out.  Seeing a good biographical film about a writer, on the other hand, can give you the pleasant illusion that you’ve socialized with your idol for an hour and a half—that you’ve seen him or her from the outside.  Here’s a list of movies that put me in good company (alphabetized by author’s surname, followed by the author’s given name and then, after an em dash, the title of the film; movies featuring more than one historical writer have multiple listings):

Arenas, Reinaldo – Before Night Falls (wonderfully played by Javier Bardem)

Austen, Jane – Becoming Jane (played by Anne Hathaway; a chick-flick, which, unlike its subject’s magnificent books, will only interest people who are preoccupied with the vexed and giddy kind of romance it depicts; deals mainly with the years when Austen was writing Pride and Prejudice, though the composition of her first masterpiece is only an occasional, furtive scribbling in the background of her flirtations with her “beau,” played by James McAvoy)

Barrie, James Matthew – Finding Neverland (played by Johnny Depp; depicts the author during the period when he was composing Peter Pan, showing him as an eternal child whose absorption in his imagination leaves him aloof from his spoilsport wife but makes him a hit with other people’s kids)

Byron, George Gordon – Byron (this is a two-episode BBC miniseries, in which Jonny Lee Miller plays the title role.  The show plays down the romanticism that tends to flourish around Byron and portrays him as a great writer who was also a bit of a preening, egotistical ass—and this makes him much more sympathetic)

Capote, Truman – Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman (RIP) in a landmark performance that depicts the composition of the great nonfiction novel In Cold Blood)

Carroll, Jim – The Basketball Diaries (played by Leonardo DiCaprio; focuses more on addiction and recovery than on writing)

Dinesen, Isak – Out of Africa (Meryl Streep plays the Baroness in this loose but great adaptation, which is often more candid than the autobiographical books on which it’s based)

Flynn, Nick – Being Flynn (played by Paul Dano; Nick, an aspiring writer, goes to work at a homeless shelter and finds his father, a failed writer, staying there)

Joyce, James – Nora (focuses on Joyce’s relationship with his wife, Nora Barnacle (of whom, on hearing her last name, Joyce’s father said: “She’ll stick to him”).  She did stick to him—and this movie will convince you of what an amazing feat that was.  It depicts Joyce, as played by Ewan McGregor, during the years when publishers were fleeing from him in droves, and it proposes an answer to the burning question: “What did Nora do for Jim on their Bloomsday date?”)

Keats, John – Bright Star (played by Ben Whishaw.  The film focuses on his relationship with Fanny Brawne and portrays him as the earnest, sensitive, and otherwise Keatsian young man you’d expect)

Lawrence, David Herbert – Priest of Love (played by Ian McKellen; Lawrence is both trollish and cherubic here, somehow, and Frieda (Janet Suzman) is a barking virago; after a few scenes showing Lawrence’s tribulations during WWI, the film deals with the last few years of his life, when he was traveling extensively and writing Lady Chatterly’s Lover)

Miller, Henry – Henry and June (Fred Ward plays Miller as a randy Brooklyn wise guy; based on the book by Miller’s lover, diarist Anais Nin)

Mishima, Yukio – Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (Played by Ken Ogata.  A great film about a great writer who went off the rails because he insisted on being as uncompromising in his life as he was in his art.  This is one of those stories that no one would be able to swallow if it were packaged as fiction; the climax is Mishima’s seppuku ritual at a military base that he and his cadre of jackbooted boy-toys had briefly overrun)

Murdoch, Iris – Iris (played by Kate Winslet and Judi Dench in two excellent performances, which show Murdoch in the years just before she was published and in the years after she’d lost her mind to Alzheimer’s.  Roger Ebert aptly points out that this is like making a movie about Shakespeare which jumps from the years when he was parking horses outside a London theater to the years when he’d retired to Stratford—all the anni mirabiles are missing.  But the contrast between the very beginning of her great career and its sad end is poignant)

Musset, Alfred de – Children of the Century (a terrific performance by Benoît Magimel, depicting George Sand’s brilliant but dissolute lover)

Nin, Anais – Henry and June (played by Maria de Medeiros of Pulp Fiction fame; Nin is shown to be as sexually curious and radically self-absorbed as she actually seems to have been)

Plath, Sylvia – Sylvia (ably played by Gwyneth Paltrow; focuses on her courtship with and marriage to Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig), who, the film implies, gained some advantage over Sylvia simply by belonging to the sex that’s allowed to keep writing while the children are crying, and for which obsession with work is nobility, not selfishness.)

Proust, Marcel – Time Regained (this is more of an honorary mention; the guy in the bed in the cork-lined room is “Marcel” the narrator, not Marcel the author—but the depiction fits the author’s circumstances in his final years, so it’s worth a look.  “Marcel” is played here by Marcello Mazzarella, an actor who’s been in a bunch of films but only has an entry in the Italian Wikipedia)

Rimbaud, Arthur – Total Eclipse (follows his affair with Paul Verlaine, during the years when Rimbaud was composing some of the most visionary poetry ever written—all before his retirement from literature at the age of 19!  Rimbaud is played by Leonardo DiCaprio)

Sand, George – Children of the Century; Impromptu (Juliette Binoche in the former, Judy Davis in the latter.  The former depicts her as a rather staid old matron, even though she isn’t meant to be old; the latter depicts her as a cross-dressing firecracker)

Thompson, Hunter S. – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (played by Johnny Depp; if you’ve done a lot of drugs, this movie will warm your heart like an old song; if you’ve never gone in for artificial highs, you’ll find it pointless and boring); Where the Buffalo Roam (played by Bill Murray)

Tolstoy, Leo – The Last Station (Christopher Plummer plays Mahatma Tolstoy as a jolly old coot who was cajoled into fanaticism by his pet sycophant, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti))

Verlaine, Paul – Total Eclipse (this movie might as well have been called The Total Eclipse of Paul Verlaine.  He’s played by David Thewlis; see the listing under Rimbaud, above.)

Wilde, Oscar – Wilde (Stephen Fry plays Wilde in a brilliant performance; one of the opening shots, in which the pink-suited and boutonniere’d Wilde plunges walking-stick-first through a gaggle of barristers, encapsulates his portrait in this film (except that the barristers won in the end, to the world’s regret))

Woolf, Virginia – The Hours (thank god they stuck that snoot on Nicole Kidman—she couldn’t have pulled off this portrayal without it.  Woolf comes across here as more sullen and serious than her authorial voice would lead you to expect, but her segments of the film are set during a time when she was ill)

Fictional films about writers: All the movies above were scripted with a certain license, but they’re based more or less on the available facts.  I don’t want to miss this opportunity to recommend a few of my favorite entirely fictional films about writers: Sunset Boulevard (this movie will terrify any screenwriter who’s having trouble making a living); Sideways (you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll burn your manuscript, and then you’ll learn that even an unpublished novel has its uses); Finding Forrester (Gus Van Sant makes another film about an out-of-the-blue underclass genius; features Sean Connery as the literary god who mentors the young waif); and a particular favorite, a whimsical fictional movie with “cameos” by a number of historical authors, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (a struggling young novelist magically goes back in time to that most recent of cultural golden ages, 1920’s Paris, where, according to George Orwell, there was such a glut of artists that you could have rounded up as many as 30,000 painters, most of whom were cranks—and I imagine that you couldn’t have thrown a baguette without hitting an aspiring author.  But, if you could find them in the throng, Pound, Joyce, Stein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and a host of other geniuses graced the city in those years.  The struggling writer in Midnight in Paris (Owen Wilson) has run-ins with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein, and enjoys a brave, shining moment in which T.S. Eliot puts in an appearance.  Anyone who’s ever fantasized about visiting Paris in the ‘20s will love this film).

If anyone ever reads this, please don’t hesitate to comment with the names of any good movies I’ve missed.

Leave a Reply