When James Parrish first asked me to write for the JRFJ, he had been told I had been an English major and worked in academia. During one conversation, he told me that he had operated under the assumption that many people interested in the artistic production of the written word would also be interested in artistic production of film. In my case (and, I assume, the case of many others), James was correct, and his assumption leads to the interesting correlation between writing and filmmaking.
On the surface, the two activities would seem to have little in common. One employs written language that remains still and stable; the other captures images in motion. But after the development narrative cinema, filmmaking came to rely upon the production of written words as either directions for actors or cameras or dialogue. The narrative directions and dialogue would accompany cinema’s primary responsibility to capture images in nature. (Please see Jacob Dodd’s piece on cinematography.) Likewise, much modernist literature (T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf) came to employ the rhetoric of new visual technologies as it sought to explode older orders and structures. So I suppose that a symbiotic relationship exists between the written word and the captured image.
Yet making films about writing can often be laborious and tedious. Capturing images about the act of writing down sentences and crafting metaphors almost inevitably fails to capture the wonder of the actual literature, and such failure seems to lead to a host of stereotypical replacement images: tweed jackets, perfect calligraphy, and dens filled with overflowing bookshelves. (After all, nothing says “writing” or “writer” more than tweed, calligraphy, and bookshelves.)
On occasion, though, writers can become rather good fodder for film. Of course, their ability to become that wonderful film fodder has little to do with their own writing ability and more to do with the human drama in which they produced their writing. Good writers do not necessarily make good subjects, and some bad writers undoubtedly make wonderful subjects. My list of favorite films about writers contains some writers to whom I am rather indifferent, to put it politely. For the purposes of my list I have excluded fictional creations (such as Barton Fink) and kept the term “writers” exclusive to those who have produced “literary” writing (fiction, poetry, drama, and creative non-fiction). And while my own emotional reactions were not one of the parameters that excluded some films from consideration, I will admit that many of these films made me weep. One of the overarching themes among these films is the often sad, romantic stories about how writers attempted to find deep human connections while immersing themselves within their craft.
The other main theme that runs through these films is the exceptionally strong performances by the actors. Some of the films may have their faults, but those faults cannot lie at the feet of the actors. So, without further ado, my five favorite films about writers.
Bright Star – directed by Jane Campion (2008). This story about John Keats (Ben Whishaw), my favorite writer among the films I have listed here, went rather unnoticed when it was released. Campion is skilled and understated in her portrayal of John Keats’s and Fanny Brawne’s (Abbie Cornish) unrequited love story. The film underscores not only the characters’ own turmoil at their inability to wed, it also critiques the societal forces that prevented them from doing so.
When Fanny’s little sister, Toots (Edie Martin), wraps her arms around Keats and says “I love you,” I broke down in tears. I cannot recall a more genuine utterance of those three words in all of film.
Capote – directed by Bennett Miller (2005). Capote did not make me cry, although it did unnerve me. Chronicling how Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) researched and wrote his non-fiction classic In Cold Blood, Capote examines how a writer can come to exclude the rest of humanity, and even ignore his/her own humanity, in the pursuit of art. Hoffman is engaging as he depicts Capote’s cruel and indifferent nature toward the subjects of his work.
Catherine Keener also has a nice turn as Nelle Harper Lee.
Finding Neverland – directed by Marc Forster (2004). At times it seems impossible to believe that Johnny Depp has ever played anyone else other than Jack Sparrow, the iconic pirate from the never-ending Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Yet he proves his mettle here by playing J.M. Barrie, the creater of Peter Pan. Finding Neverland constantly finds itself in danger of crossing over into the realm of sappy, yet the film’s solid artistic direction and cinematography, along with the performances by Depp and Kate Winslet, provide it with gentleness and affection.
Iris – directed by Richard Eyre (2001) Kate Winslet also appears here, this time as the younger Iris Murdoch. Judi Dench plays the elder version of great twentieth century British writer. Jim Broadbent, who deservedly won an Oscar, plays Murdoch’s devoted husband John Bayley, who must shepherd his wife through Alzheimer’s disease, which turned the vibrant, robust writer into a shell of herself. It is another love story that is touchingly done.
Shadowlands – directed by Richard Attenborough (1993). Finally, I have one more weepy, romantic story about a British writer. Anthony Hopkins plays C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia books. He falls in love with Joy Gresham, played wonderfully by the always underutilized and undervalued Debra Winger; Gresham becomes terminally ill, and Lewis must cope with her death and provide comfort to her young son Douglas (Joseph Mazzello).
The lesson behind this list is this: if you desire to see me cry, create a tragic love story involving a British writer. If you desire no such thing, weave a tale about an American writer emotionally manipulating death row inmates.