The first advice any aspiring writer hears is: write what you know. And writers being writers, it?s hardly surprising so many screenplays focus on writing.
Now, if writing involved life and death decisions, excitement, movement, glamour and sex, these scripts would probably write themselves. Unfortunately, unless you?re Ernest Hemingway, an investigative reporter, (or both), normally none of these things apply ? in my experience the only thrills and spills on offer involve a trek to the local coffee shop. Which is probably why so many of these films turn on the titanic struggles of getting words on the page. When it comes to the subject of blocked writers, the movies have probably outshone literature: we?ve seen John Turturro as Barton Fink (a cruel parody of 1940s playwright Clifford Odets), Jack Nicholson typing in unhealthy seclusion in The Shining (?All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy?), and Nicolas Cage attempting the unfilmable as screenwriter Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation.
Still, they keep coming: last week Logan Lerman was a teenager immersing himself in the classics prior to producing his own autobiographical novel, The Perks of Being A Wallflower. This week, we have Paul Dano as a highly acclaimed writer who has been unable to follow up his first big success until he creates his dream girl in Ruby Sparks. And in the London Film Festival you can watch Colin Farrell as a thinly disguised portrait of writer-director Martin McDonagh, struggling to create a film about peace and love titled ?Seven Psychopaths?.
When they?re not writing about how hard it is to be a writer, screenwriters are also quite fond of writing about their literary heroes. This week also brings us Sam Riley as Jack Kerouac, a role previously played by John Heard in Heart Beat. Kerouac?s beat brother Charles Bukowski was impersonated by an appropriately disheveled Mickey Rourke in Barfly and Rourke?s Rumblefish costar Matt Dillon in Factotum, while David Cross was Allen Ginsberg in I?m Not There. As for William Burroughs, Peter Weller did the honours in Cronenberg?s brilliant Naked Lunch, easily one of the best, most imaginative movies about writing there is. Incidentally, you can see the real deal, Burroughs himself, in Gus Van Sant?s Drugstore Cowboy. Gonzo journalist extraordinaire Hunter S Thompson, the beats? true heir, has attracted the admiration of Johnny Depp in The Rum Diary and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Bill Murray in Where the Buffalo Roam. All of which might make you suspect that drug experimentation is the real attraction here.
Other literary icons immortalized on film include Truman Capote, who turned crime reporter for In Cold Blood (he was played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote and Toby Jones in Infamous ? Capote also played himself, more or less, in the comic spoof Murder by Death). Christopher Plummer was Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station, Colin Farrell (not my idea of a writer) played John Fante in Ask the Dust, and, a real curio, Jeremy Irons played a fictional version of Franz Kafka in Steven Soderberg?s oddball thriller, Kafka.
And the poets: Rimbaud (Leonardo DiCaprio, Total Eclipse), Keats (Ben Whishaw in Bright Star) and William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love and Rafe Spall in Anonymous). In Ken Russell?s entertainingly risible Gothic, Gabriel Bryne was Byron, with Julian Sands as Percy Shelley and Natasha Richardson as his wife Mary. Just a few years later the same roles were taken by Michael Hutchence, Jason Patric and Bridget Fonda in Roger Corman?s somewhat less entertaining but even more risible Frankenstein Unbound.
Mr Hemingway?s macho posturing was wittily punctured by Woody Allen in Midnight in Paris, and before that Alan Rudolph in The Moderns (played by Corey Stoll and Kevin J O?Connor, respectively). Clive Owen cut a more heroic figure in the recent cable movie, Hemingway & Gellhorn ? and back in the day his surrogate characters were played by the likes of Gary Cooper and Gregory Peck in A Farewell to Arms and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Ernest?s grand daughters Mariel and Margaux can be seen in Manhattan and Star 80, respectively (and his great granddaughter, Drea, is in this year?s indie darling Starlet, also in the London Film Festival).
As for women authors, perhaps the best film on the subject is Jane Campion?s film about Janet Frame, An Angel at My Table. Meryl Streep was Isaak Dinesen, aka Karen Blixen, in Out of Africa, and Nicole Kidman played Virginia Woolf in The Hours. Gwyneth Patrow was waving, not drowning (opposite Daniel Craig?s Ted Hughes) in Sylvia. Iris Murdoch was played by both Kate Winslet and Judi Dench in Iris. Jane Fonda was Lillian Hellman in Julia, and ? do cook books count? - Meryl Streep was Julia Child (opposite Amy Adams as Julie Powell) in Julie and Julia. Sixty years ago Olivia de Havilland, Ida Lupino and Nancy Coleman played Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte in the kitschy Devotion. And more recently, Renee Zellweger played their near-neighbour, Miss Potter.
So much for real life scribes, but what about the kind of writers screenwriters imagine themselves to be? Here are some of the most vivid imaginary writers on film.
John Turturro sells up to Hollywood and loses his soul in the Coens? acidic take on the Golden Age.
William Holden?s cynical scribe Joe Gillis leaches off silent star Norma Desmond in this equally venomous insider tale from Billy Wilder.
Woody Allen has written several writers over the years ? we all remember the opening lines of the great American novel from Manhattan ? but this is probably his most jaundiced self-portrait, a less than likeable character by the name of Harry Block.
James Caan is the best selling horror novelist (Paul Sheldon) who has the misfortune to fall into the hands of his number one fan in this Stephen King chiller.
Charlie Kaufman imagines Charlie Kaufman as identical twins (both played by Nic Cage) in this brilliant solution to an improbable question.
Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire are both marvelous as writers young and old in this classy take on Michael Chabon?s novel. But Robert Downey Jr steals it as a literary agent.
Jack Nicholson doesn?t get very far with his magnum opus in the Overlook Hotel.
Stranger Than Fiction
Somebody (Emma Thompson) starts writing tax man Harold Crick?s life in this quirky Will Ferrell comedy.