For World Book Day: an article celebrating some of our favourite depictions of writers and writing on film.
Think about how beautifully cinematic a blank page is. That vast white expanse, pure as the virgin snow around an abandoned Colorado Hotel. World Book Day got us thinking about how irresistible we find cinematic depictions of writers and writing. We’re here to tell you about some of the best. But since that, on it own, wouldn’t be enough fun, we’re also here to tell you about some of the strangest and silliest too. Let’s begin with a cautionary tale…
Tom Hanks as Dermot Hoggins in Cloud Atlas
Listen, we know our readers are a sophisticated and witty lot. But when you get to the wine and nibbles stage of whatever galley opening / film premiere / book launch you attend next, and you (perhaps a little emboldened by booze) feel like cutting some loudmouth oaf to the quick with one of your acerbic slights, beware lest you suffer the same fate as Sir Felix Finch in the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas. Finch has given ‘Knuckle Sandwich’, the autobiographical novel written by Irish(ish) hard-man Demot Hoggins a bad review, complaining of an ending that is ‘flat and inane beyond belief’. Hoggins, after a chat with his publisher and our narrator (played by Jim Broadbent) responds thus:
Elsa Lanchester as Mary Shelley in Bride of Frankenstein
James Whale’s sequel to Frankenstein begins with Mary Shelley enduring a dark and stormy night, and some seriously shonky negging from Lord Byron. Lanchester (who also played The Monster’s bride) has a glint in her eye throughout the sequence, one that suggests both confidence and disquiet about the darker corners of her imagination. And I particularly like the thing she does with her head when she adds ‘… I think’ after her assertion that her book will be published – as if cheekily acknowledging that the qualification is a performance, the kind of coquettish self-deprecation these two men expect. She knows her creation will be live on, be hard to kill. Now, admittedly, this Mary Shelley seems to have written a story that has more in common with the Universal picture than the one you will remember from the book. But watch this and you’ll want to seek out the whole film:
Tom Hollander as Ewan Proclaimer in Maybe Baby
At first the idea of Ben Elton calling his comic parody of Irvine Welsh ‘Ewan Proclaimer’ might seem like clumsy and tin-eared, almost to the point of being offensive, as if Ben could not be arsed to think about more that two Scottish things when he had to come up with a name for the character. But you have to remember how brilliant a writer Ben Elton is. You can tell Ben is brilliant because there is a scene in Maybe Baby where Hugh Laurie (who also plays a writer) is stuck for inspiration about how to write a female character. So he reads his wife’s diary and laughs out loud at the funny lines she has written in there, exclaiming ‘this is great stuff!’ – but of course, that great stuff was actually written by Ben Elton! And he isn’t even a woman. He wrote like a woman and was funny at the same time, so must be insightful and witty. We just need Hugh laughing to make sure we get it. So, Scottish people say shite instead of shit and hate the English, and here is the man who brought us Rev embodying these national characteristics.
Paul Sheldon and Jack Torrance in Misery and The Shining
(a contribution from MrMoth)
Stephen King is the best and worst advert for being a writer. On the one hand, who wouldn’t want to be Stephen King? Author of several indelible horror classics, creator of imagery that haunts the world’s imagination, rich beyond comprehension. On the other hand, who’d want to be a writer in a Stephen King story? Tortured, bullied, imprisoned, sent mad, murdered and, worst of all, frequently suffering from terrible writer’s block. Two of the most celebrated adaptations of his work centre around such struggling novelists.
The infamous hobbling sequence in Misery is a distillation of every sublimated strike at King’s voracious, insatiable readership. Those hammer blows are aimed at his audience, and the adapter’s decision to change the book’s homespun amputations into sledgehammer strikes was the right one. King isn’t physically diminished by this pressure; he is crippled, broken, intact but useless. We feel it all the more keenly for it not being a gory scene.
It’s a well-worn fact that he hates Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, but the reveal of Jack’s novel-in-progress is King’s recurring obsession with the pain of writing boiled down to a single brilliant moment. Jack is the villain of The Shining, much more straightforwardly in the film than in the book, and he’s not alone among King’s author protagonists. Secret Window and The Dark Half both feature evil writers who, it turns out, are simply versions of the hero.
Yes, who’d be a writer in a Stephen King story? When your fist uncurled from your pen, there would be four half-moon shapes in your palm from your fingernails.
Emmanuelle Devos as Violette Leduc in Violette
Violette was one of the best films released last year and more people should see it (you can find it on some video-on-demand services). It’s a film to make you hungry for books. Devos’s performance and Marcel Provost’s direction evoke the way Leduc fetishized them – when you see a row of paperbacks on screen you want to reach out and run your fingers across the spines. All real authors have to get to know loneliness, and in a long sequence where Leduc writes, the film captures how solitude and memory are painfully transformed into prose. If that all sounds like too much hard work, then it’s also a great film to make you fall in love with reading in cafes all over again. It may make you want to smoke while you do it though, so remember you can’t do that anymore.
Jude Law and Tom Wilkinson, as the Author in The Grand Budapest Hotel
When I first saw The Grand Budapest Hotel, I thought the first and last scenes of the girl at the statute of The Author, and the scenes with Tom Wilkinson (playing Author, who becomes Jude Law in flashback) made for an overly fussy nesting of stories within stories. This video-essay by Matt Zoller Seitz, which links that nesting into the film’s exploration of story, memory and loss, made me change my mind.
Now, before we go, that glimpse of Jason Schwartzman in The Grand Budapest Hotel reminded us that he is playing a writer too soon, in Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip, which is released in June. The synopsis we’ve read focuses on how ‘anger rages inside Phlip as he waits for the publication of his second novel’. OK, sure, so he’s angry. But is he angry-enough-to-throw-a-critic-off-a-roof angry? Will Jonanathan Pryce be better at being (sort-of) Philip Roth than Tom Hollander was at being (sort-of) Irvine Welsh? Well, we shall have a review in June.