This week, audiences will meet the first-ever filmic representation of David Foster Wallace. Jason Segel embodies the enigmatic American literary icon in James Ponsoldt’s “The End of the Tour,” a rousing tête-à-tête between Wallace and a journalist (played by Jesse Eisenberg) who spent three days with him for a Rolling Stone feature. The film got us thinking about the way writers are represented in movies, from their ethical struggles to their deepest personal demons. Here are seven of the most interesting movies made about writers.
Nicolas Cage stars as both Charlie and Donald Kaufman in this labyrinthine work of metacinema directed by Spike Jonze. Real-life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman wrote the story, which chronicles his personal struggle to adapt Susan Orlean’s nonfiction book “The Orchid Thief” into a movie, even as dramatic elements of the book begin to seep into his personal life. Beyond the script’s technical prowess, what’s significant about “Adaptation” is the scope of writerly themes it manages to explore. By writing an insecure main character who experiences a literary cocktail of depression and writer’s block, Kaufman (the real-life screenwriter) exorcised his own personal demons into the movie, providing candid insight into the slog of the struggling writer. Kaufman also introduces the tension between artistic integrity and the pressure to sell out. His mastery of narrative is writ large in movie’s ability to write itself as you watch, rendering “Adaptation” one of the only films to successfully mimic the intricate — and insane — layers of the writing process.
Leave it to Stephen King to turn every writer’s dream into a nightmare. Most aspiring authors spend a lifetime chasing the whims of would-be readers; romance novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) will do absolutely anything to escape his “number-one fan,” who has him trapped in a personal hell. Rob Reiner’s adaptation of King’s novel finds Sheldon immobilized after a bad car accident in a snowstorm. While at first Sheldon considers himself lucky to have been rescued by a nurse, Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bathes), who also happens to be a self-professed Sheldon fanatic, it soon becomes clear that Annie’s intentions are…less than helpful. In a sadistic turn of events, Annie holds Sheldon captive in her house, forcing him to rewrite entire parts of his trilogy to her liking. When he shows resistance, Sheldon’s “punishment” ranges from bodily mutilation to being forced to eat dead rats. What’s fascinating about “Misery” is not only its depravity, but also its subversion of the archetypal writer’s story. Instead of suffering writer’s block, Sheldon writes with a knife to his throat to save his life; instead of struggling to pursue more intellectually stimulating material, Sheldon must conform to the desires of his fan, thereby imprisoning himself in the very pop fiction identity from which he yearned to break free.
Philip Seymour Hoffman gave what some called a career-best performance as the eponymous novelist in “Capote,” Bennett Miller’s adaptation of “In Cold Blood.” The film follows Truman Capote as he travels on assignment for The New Yorker to a small Kansas town to investigate the gruesome murder of a local family. Capote slowly ingratiates himself to the residents, eventually gaining access to the prison where the defendants are being held. The stark, keenly observed film sheds light on the complex relationship between writer and subject as Capote grows increasingly attached to one of the murder suspects. As the their friendship progresses, Capote sheds his journalistic carapace and the emotional intimacy causes him to lose touch with his assignment. “In Cold Blood” and “Capote” exist in tandem as two of the most enlightening investigations into journalistic integrity. Though Capote throws everyone — including himself — under the bus in service of a great story, he fails to realize that the searing consequences are ultimately what make his experience worth reading (and watching).
Director Joachim Trier and actor Anders Danielsen Lie have been at the vanguard of Norwegian cinema since their 2006 collaboration, “Reprise,” about the trials and tribulations of two aspiring writers who also happen to be best friends. Philip (Danielsen Lie) and Erik have long dreamed of literary fame, but when they each mail in their first manuscript, their paths diverge in ways neither had anticipated. Erik’s book is rejected while Philip’s is published, catapulting him to quick celebrity. Unequipped to cope with his fame, Philip suffers a psychological breakdown and is hospitalized. Erik, meanwhile, supports his friend while continuing to chase his ambition. With the help of voiceover and kinetic editing, the film’s energy embodies the pursuit of the elusive creative instinct. At times, it even feels as if the characters themselves are writing the narrative: It stops and starts and rewinds like the world the writers inhabit, constantly in flux and challenging them to reinvent the wheel. “Reprise” feels as romantic and full of potential as its characters’ dreams, and when those dreams are subject to disillusionment, the audience is taken along for the plunge.
The pinnacle of achievement in the realm of ghostwriting is being selected to pen the memoir of your country’s leader. Thus, the protagonist of Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer,” played by Ewan McGregor, is elated when the British Prime Minister approaches him with the task of finishing his memoir. But for The Ghost, this job will come at a price. As he delves into the archives and begins uncovering the Prime Minister’s history, The Ghost encounters more than a few dark secrets. Planted in the pages of the unfinished manuscript are clues from The Ghost’s predecessor, who suffered a “tragic accident” after unearthing a network of information linking the Prime Minister to the CIA. Polanski’s tense thriller builds to a rattling crescendo as The Ghost grapples with his responsibility to the truth, even if it may cost him his life.
6. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” tells the extraordinary true story of Jean-Dominic Bauby (Mathieu Almaric), the larger-than-life editor of French Elle who suffered full-body paralysis at the age of 43. At first thought to be braindead, doctors discover that Bauby is, in fact, fully mentally equipped. The problem: He can only move his eyes. A dedicated nurse works tirelessly with Bauby to devise a language that involves merely blinking, and when he expresses interest in writing a novel, the nurse spends months transcribing Bauby’s thoughts to the page. Schnabel uses stunning impressionist imagery and poetic language to depict a creative man at his nadir, with only his rich memories and visual mind-scape to call home. “Diving Bell” is a breathtaking exploration of the limits of the imagination and the insatiable human will.
7. Barton Fink
Like “Adaptation,” “Barton Fink” was the Coen brothers’ solution to the writer’s block that plagued them while writing “Miller’s Crossing.” But unlike “Adaptation,” “Barton Fink” goes for the jugular. This satirical masterpiece eviscerates Hollywood with black comedy and a whole lot of fire. When New York intellectual playwright Barton Fink (John Turturro) moves to Hollywood to pursue screenwriting, he is met with a harsh, unrelenting reality full of writer’s block, duplicity and death. The antagonist’s iconic line —”I’ll show you the life of the mind!” — suggests that being a writer can have dark implications on sanity.