I have always been fascinated with how cinema depicts writers and the craft of writing. Much of what appears on the big screen, the huge publicity tours and massive advances, is pretty far from the mark in terms of reality for all but the most successful authors. That said much a lot that cinema gets right: the hard grind of getting the words on a page to make the deadline, dealing with rejection, struggling with envy in relation to more successful colleagues, the constant effort of staying relevant, etc. There are so many films that touch on aspects of being a writer and writing, but here are ten of my favourites.
House by the River (1950)
Struggling writer, Stephen Byrne, makes an unsolicited sexual advance on his new maid that ends up with her falling to her death down the stairs. He bundles her body into a sack and throws it in the river that runs past his house, smears the maid as an unreliable hussy who has run away, and milks the ensuing publicity about her disappearance for all it is worth. Signing books in a local shop, he overhears a customer opine that successful writers should write what they know. Now knows how to murder, Byrne has an idea for his next book. Everything goes well, until the body washes up. A lesser known effort by director, Fritz Lang, who helmed classics such as Metropolis (1927), M (1931), and The Big Heat (1953), House by the River delivers a wonderful tale of opportunism, murder and writing in just 83 minutes. Features a line many authors will have heard at some point in response to their work: ‘Gee, I’d love to be a writer, too.’
In A Lonely Place (1950)
Dix Steele is a cynical Los Angeles scriptwriter with a violent streak, whose career is in trouble. His agent throws him a gig adapting a novel for the screen for a director well known for his mainstream fare. Steele takes the job, even though it involves exactly the kind of writing he loathes. Meanwhile, an unfortunate coincidence sees him implicated in the murder of a local woman. Fortunately, his neighbour, Laurel Gray, confirms he was at home at the time the women died. The two start a relationship and fall in love. It does wonders for Dix’s writing but can he quell his violent temper? Based on the 1947 book by Dorothy B. Hughes, In A Lonely Place is tight, claustrophobic crime film, a terrific story about writing, and one of the few film classic noirs to directly tackle domestic violence.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
The key takeaway message from this film is that if you’re offered a writing gig that seems too good to be true, that’s because it probably is. That the job in Sunset Boulevard does not turn out well for the writer concerned, is signalled from the very start, when the body of the main character, Joe Gillis, is found floating face down in a swimming pool of Hollywood mansion. An opportunistic screenwriter down on his luck, Gillis, gets drawn into the increasingly disturbed fantasy world of former silent film star, Norma Desmond, who hires him to help her break into talking films. One of the most twisted cinematic takes made on the Hollywood dream, Sunset Boulevard is part romance, part film noir, and one of Billy Wilder’s best efforts.
Horror writer Stephen King has devoted considerable attention to the darker side of authorship. If you want evidence that trying to write can drive you mad, look no further than the screen adaption of The Shining (1980). Another example is Rob Reiner’s adaption of his psychological horror, Misery. Annie Wilkes loves her period romances, particularly the Victorian romance series featuring the character, Misery Chastien. When the author of the Chastien series, Paul Sheldon, has a car accident near Wilkes’s house in a remote part of snow swept Colorado, she rescues him and helps him recover. Then she reads his latest book, in which Misery is killed off. The psychotic Wilkes keeps Sheldon prisoner and forces him to rewrite the story so that her favourite character lives, while he plots escape. Misery is a disturbing spin on the challenges of writing under pressure, as well as a primer on how to deal with the occasional possessive fan.
Barton Fink (1991)
Joel and Ethan Coen reportedly wrote the script to this film in three weeks while they were experiencing problems making their 1990 film, Miller’s Crossing. Set in the early 1940s, Barton Fink is an up and coming left-wing New York playwright who takes a job pumping out films scripts for a Los Angeles production company because he believes it will bring him closer to the spirit of the working person. Assigned his first job, a wrestling film, he settles into a cheap hotel where he is promptly struck by a massive case of writers block. Barton Fink employs comedy, crime and horror tropes to deftly skewer the prejudice around high/low writing culture. Having your own problems getting that manuscript finished? Maybe take the advice given to Fink at one point: “Talk to another writer! You throw a rock in here, you’ll hit one. And do me a favor, Fink: Throw it hard.”
The Player (1992)
What writer has not plotted revenge, at least in their head, against an editor or publisher that has rejected them? Ambitious, manipulative, Hollywood film executive, Griffin Mill, is battling career trouble and increasingly disturbing death threats from a writer whose script he has rejected. Mill could perhaps solve the latter problem, if he could only figure out which of the multitude of potential writers it could be. He confronts the most likely subject, an encounter that ends with Mill killing the writer. Mill appears to get away with the crime, which is one challenge out of the way, until the threats start coming again. Director Robert Altman’s black comedy is a combination love letter/hate mail to Hollywood.
Into the Mouth of Madness (1994)
“Do you read Sutter Cane?” Cane is an elusive best selling novelist whose books – ‘horror crap’ as they are referred to at one point – start to have strange effects on the millions of people who read them. Sleazy freelance insurance investigator, John Trent, is hired by Cane’s publisher to locate the writer and retrieve the missing manuscript of his latest book, Into the Mouth of Madness. Accompanied by Cane’s editor, Trent tracks the author to Hobb’s End, a small town that does not appear on any maps. Once there, they experience a series of increasingly horrific events, including mutating people, homicidal children and strange visions that are eerily similar to the plots of Cane’s books. Come for the wonderful pre-CGI nineties special effects, stay for John Carpenter’s innovative take on horror as one of the most despised of fiction genres.
Paperback Hero (1999)
Not the greatest film about writing ever made, I’ll grant you, but Paperback Hero deserves a mention due to its wonderful and uncannily accurate take on the prejudices around romance fiction. Outback truck driver, larrikin, and all round good guy, Jack Willis, writes a romance novel. He sends it to a Sydney publisher, who, to his surprise, accepts and publishes it to great success. But “because blokes aren't supposed to write them,” as Willis puts it, he submitted the book under the name of his tom boyish crop dusting pilot friend, Ruby Vale. Things quickly go south when the publisher’s representative turns up in their small outback town, wanting to meet the author and whisk her off to Sydney for a major book tour. I for one, would definitely read any writer described as ‘the Wilbur Smith of romance fiction’, as Willis’s book is referred as to at one point in the film.
The Lives of Others (2006)
Authors can be a rather self-absorbed lot, with their various writing issues and dramas. But how about the challenges of being a writer in a police state? Gerd Wiesler, a captain in the former East Germany’s feared Stasi secret police, is assigned to undertake electronic surveillance of a dissident playwright, Georg Dreyman, and his prominent actress lover. Wieslar has doubts about the job, but the pressure on him to find something on Dreyman mounts after the writer is suspected of penning an article in a West German magazine that accuses East German authorities of repressing figures of the country’s high suicide rate. Don’t be fooled by all the 1980s analogue technology, German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others is a searing depiction of writing in a state of complete mental and physical siege.
You have to give this one some time, as it does not immediately come off as being directly about writing. Based on the novel of the same name by Ian McEwan, the story begins in an idyllic country estate in pre-war England, where 13-year-old wannabe writer Briony Tallis sets in train a horrifying course of events when she accuses the lover of her older sister of a shocking crime that he did not commit. Part romance, part war story (including a gripping depiction of the horror and confusion of Dunkirk evacuation), Atonement is a perceptive and, at times, disturbing, take on memory, the line between fact and fiction, and who is left standing to tell the story and how they choose to do it.
About Andrew Nette
Andrew Nette is the author of two crime novels, 'Ghost Money' and 'Gunshine State'. 'Ghost Money' was shortlisted in the 2010 Victorian Premier's Literary Awards in the category of Unpublished Manuscript by an Emerging Victorian Writer. His short fiction has appeared in a number of print and online publications, including the anthologies 'Crime Scenes' and 'The Obama Conspiracy: Fifteen Stories of Conspiracy Noir'. His online home is www.pulpcurry.com. You can find him on Twitter at @Pulpcurry.