Monday, July 11, 2011

Film To Books: Top 3 Movies About Fiction Writing

We don't talk much about film here at The New Dork Review of Books, but we shall today — and in a rather bookish context, no less. Don't worry, I fully realize the "best movies based on books" conversation has been done to death. That's not where we're going here. Instead, let's look at some really outstanding movies about the process of writing fiction. 

Now, naturally, there seems to be a ton of movies about screenwriting and playwriting, and a ton of novels about writing fiction. But there is a definite dearth of movies about writing fiction. There is your The Hours (a pseudo-biopic of Virginia Woolf), there is your Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (which, I haven't seen, and so the actual connection, if there is one, to Virginia Woolf is unclear to me), and there is your The Door In The Floor, a fantastic film based on the first section of John Irving's novel A Widow for One Year. If you haven't seen this last one, starring Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger, throw it up on your Netflix queue post-haste.

But those aren't the three movies I want to talk about. The three movies I want to point out all have one thing in common: They're actually about the fiction-writing process. That's not an easy thing to pull off on film — fiction writing being the loneliest, most solitary of arts. However, all three of these films show both writers' internal relationships with their craft, and also how the process of writing fiction emanates outward from the writer to affect those around, whether family or fans. Let's take a look.

3. Finding Forrester One of the great Sean Connery's last film's, this Gus Van Sant (of Milk and Good Will Hunting fame) vehicle tells the story reclusive writer William Forrester and his at-first hesitant, and then willing, collaboration with an inner city high school kid, who between basketball games, also happens to love writing fiction. It's a good look at the dangers of stereotype, as well as a great portrait of a student-teacher relationship. It's not real deep, if I remember correctly, but it is entertaining — though it's more of a mass-market, rather than indie-film type of entertainment.

2. Starting Out In The Evening This film about a perky graduate student (Lauren Ambrose) writing her master's thesis about an aging writer (Frank Langella) successfully takes a sort of bizarre young-woman's-idol-worship-of-older-man love story beyond the cliché. It also touches on a lot of literary themes: the sources of inspiration, "the madness of art," and even the uphill battle for literary novels in today's publishing environment. The superfluous, dull side story of Langella's character's daughter (Lili Taylor) and her relationship troubles put a dent in the film's overall merit, but on the whole, it's very, very good.

1. Wonder Boys This is one of my favorite movies of all time. The short tagline that comes up on the channel guide whenever this movie's on best sums it up: "A professor and his student collide with life." The cast (Michael Douglas, Frances McDormand, Ripp Torn, Tobey Maguire, Robert Downery Jr., Katie Holmes) is fantastic. It's an infinitely quotable film ("Oh, Professor Trip, you're bleeding." "No shit, James.") And it's a film that just makes you happy about being into books. And if you don't laugh out loud with James as Ripp Torn proclaims " a writer," well, you better check your own pulse.

As always, let's discuss. What did you think of any of the three films above — specifically, in how they treat the fiction-writing process? Any other fiction-writing films you'd recommend?

(Yes, I realize two of these three — Wonder Boys [Michael Chabon], Starting Out In The Evening [Brian Morton]— are actually based on novels. But that doesn't make it any less of a feat to show how fiction writers write, how what fiction writers write affects others, and how fiction writers interface with the world.)


  1. Adaptation is a pretty good movie having to do with the process of writing ( despite having Nicolas Cage x2 ).

  2. Wonder Boys is a favorite of mine as well and I do recall Finding Forrester(even have a FF bookmark despite the fact that the movie isn't based on a book).

    Stephen King has some wicked fun with this topic in stories like Secret Window,Secret Garden which became the film Secret Window with the most delightfully evil performance by Johnny Depp a few years ago.

  3. The Shining. Whenever I have writer's block, I go through the throwing a ball against the wall, staring out the window, and killing my fam--- I mean, typing out "All work and no play. . ."

  4. Oooh! I've got a more obscure film- Christopher Nolan's (Batman Begins, Memento)Following, about a writer who gathers material for his writing projects by observing and following people about London. Eventually, one of the men he follows confronts him and conflict ensues. Great film!

  5. The Hours is a favorite and Wonder Boys is definitely one of my all-time favorites. My favorite line is when Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire are at the house and the policeman comes back and doesn't set the parking brake and Douglas says "Oh no, the puberty police is back!"

    I am going to download Starting Out in the Evening in just a few moments. I'm already a Lauren Ambrose fan from watching Six Feet Under so I'm sure I'll enjoy it.

    Great post, thanks!

  6. Polanski's film The Ghost Writer is an interesting take on that type of writing (I know, not fiction, although that may depend on the text..),and Paperman is a quirky film about writer's block. I love Wonder Boys the novel, but have never seen the film. Next stop, Netflix.

  7. I remember a film called 'The Paper' with Michael Keaton, Glen Close and Robert Duvall. It's not about fiction book writing; but a tabloid newspaper editor. When I first watched it, I didn't understand it; but then I saw it a few times more and totally enjoyed it (I think it was because I was a little young to watch it first time around).
    I have 'Finding Forrester' on dvd; and have always loved Sean Connery's work for the longest time. No matter what he's in, he can adapt himself to fit the character. This film always get me writing with the rhythm of the typewriters... love that sound; how he shouts at Jamall to 'Punch the keys, for God's sake!'

  8. I think that doing justice to books via film is almost impossible. "Finding Forester" is a wonderful movie.

  9. I'm going to recommend the movie "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story" with Steve Coogan. The film adds another plot layer as it is about the filming of the unfilmable book. Since the book deals with the writing of itself, I think it qualifies as an answer to your question on filming the fiction-writing process. Regardless, the film brought tears of laughter and is worth the rental.

  10. @Charlie - I thought about Adaptation, but that's more about screenwriting than fiction writing. You're right, it's definitely about the process of writing, and it's very good movie, despite a double dose of Nic Cage. *Shudder*

    @lady T - And speaking of Stephen King, I suppose Misery would qualify at some level. Creeeepy!

    @Listener - I thought about that one too, but I think that's less about writing fiction or writer's block and more about just going nutso. Great movie, also!

    @Holly - I just added that to Netflix queue. Thanks! Chris Nolan + film about writing = no-doubt-about-it win! And it's only 70 minutes. Can't wait to se ethis.

    @Sarah Ann - Ha - yeah, that's a great line, too! I also love the line, when they break into Sara's parent's house, that it's "the kind of house you'd like to wake up in on Christmas morning." What an exceptional description for coziness - Chabon's a genius!

  11. @Christine - The Ghost Writer's been in my queue for ages, and I'm having trouble talking myself into it, given the whole Polanski pedophile thing. I know that shouldn't matter, but, well, it does.

    @Mozette - Good call - The Paper is a good film. And you're right, Sean Connery is a god - PUNCH THE KEYS!

    @Man - Well, I'd argue that these two films based on books do great justice to their books. Finding Forrester is very good.

    @Clinton - Awesome recommendation - thank you. Hadn't heard of that before, but Steve Coogan is almost always great. And that film sounds like it definitely fits the bill. Cheers!

  12. Have you seen Stranger Than Fiction with Will Ferrell and Emma Thompson? It's also about the fiction writing process and while it's probably less serious than the films you mention (I haven't seen any of them) it's worthwhile to watch. Funny, but serious at the same time.

  13. I love in Finding F when he rips off a first draft while talking. To me, first drafts are usually horrible so I completely related. In Wonder Boys - book so diff from movie in the ending at least - I loved how the main character could not finish the novel, how he included the dental records.

    Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf - not about VA, but an amazing play/movie - I think Albee is one of the greatest living playwrights. This and THE GOAT are two of my faves.

    I love every Virginia Woolf part of The Hours. The other parts are fine, but the Woolf parts are my faves.

    Also, I agree with Brenna - Stranger than Fiction is terrific.

  14. @Holly - I've had The Following in my queue for a while and always mean to watch it.

    @Charlie - favorite part of Adaptation is easily when Brian Cox gives his speech. I love it.

  15. @Brenna - Totally forgot about Stranger Than Fiction - good call. Funny and serious at the same time is a good way to describe it - how serious could anything with Will Ferrell ever really be?

    @Libby - Wonder Boys is the one and only example where I'm terrified to read the book, because I love the movie so much. Absolute opposite of normalcy. Great scene with the unfinished novel blowing in the wind all over the parking lot. I'll have to check out The Hours - not a huge Michael Cunningham fan, so it's been back-burnered.

  16. I'm jumping in late, but my immediate first thought was Stranger than Fiction. Love the process Emma Thompson goes through. It's also the only Will Ferrell movie I like.

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