20 Greatest Movies About Writers


I first came to Los Angeles many years ago with the hopes of doing a lot of writing, but instead I did a lot of walking.  Given the profoundly accustomed car culture of the landscape, I was an anomaly as I walked everywhere and glimpsed at apartments I would never live in, restaurants I wanted to eat at but never got around to, and bars where I wanted to drink at with friends I didn’t have yet.   Los Angeles was my compromise, one of many in a lifetime.  Los Angeles is the city where people who are too afraid to go to New York end up, in the same way that Chicago is the city where people who are too afraid to go to Los Angeles end up.   But in my heart, New York was supposed to be mine.  I had always wanted to be a writer living in the Big Apple – it was a desire straight out of a Woody Allen movie.   The mosaic colors and mental acoustics were so vivid with this dream that it painted me as occupying a nice apartment in upper Manhattan with my junior editor at VOGUE Euro-Asian girlfriend who had enough style to make up for my lack thereof, while I labored away at my great American novel, at my desk under my framed Velvet Underground poster, in the evenings after a full day’s work on the staff of THE NEW YORKER magazine.  Well, ahem.  In the cosmic battle of dream versus reality, reality won, and instead, I ended up in Hollywood, suffering writer’s block on an untitled science fiction screenplay I couldn’t for the life of me figure out the ending.  So instead of hunkering down to finish my script I walked everyday to my local video store and rented movies about other people writing.   Something about watching movies about writers inspired me.  I remember a former creative writing professor once told our class that when you sit down to write you should surround yourself with books by your favorite authors.  It’s akin to the philosophy that being around smart and creative people will only challenge you to elevate your own game.   “Hang out with your heroes,” the professor would trumpet.  And hung with my heroes I did – some of them characters from these movies, some of them filmmakers of these movies.  Not only did movies about writers put the fire to my ass but it also kick-started a prodigious creative period that led to my first writing assignment at a studio.  Oh Hollywood, compromise and all, I’ve finally arrived.


The art-critic Robert Hughes once wrote, “There is no tyranny like the tyranny of the unseen masterpiece.”   For us writers, that it is what inspires us to put pen to pad at our desks at home, in our cubicles at work in between spreadsheets, and in our beds before surrendering to slumber.   When our muse heads for the door, we follow her outside to park benches, to cafes and restaurants, or as Chuck Palahniuk once did, wrote the pages to his novel FIGHT CLUB underneath the cars he was fixing or as Michael Martin who wrote the pages to his script BROOKLYN'S FINEST while working the New York subway system.   David Mamet deplores writers who write in public.  “When did writing become a performance art?”  He bitingly asked in one of his essays.  As per usual, Mamet is right.  Writing is not a performance art.  Insular and singular in its act of cerebral stewing, writing lacks the dynamism of dance or the force of slam poetry.   The act of writing is dull to everyone but the writer.  Sometimes it’s even dull to the writer.  Nothing is more boring than filming someone writing.  But yet there have been many great films about writers and about what inspires them and what tortures them.  Here is my list of the 20 GREATEST MOVIES ABOUT WRITERS. 

Please note, I intentionally did not include movies that focus on journalists as characters like ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN , STATE OF PLAY , HIS GIRL FRIDAY , or SALVADOR .  Those movies are of their own genre and deserve a different discussion. 



20.  “MRS. PARKER AND THE VICIOUS CIRCLE” (1994) – written by Alan Rudolph and Randy Sue Coburn.  Directed by Alan Rudloph.

Director Alan Rudolph’s colorful and vivid portrait of writer Dorothy Parker, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh with a spot-on boozy rasp.  Parker is considered one of America’s greatest wits and was a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table .   Much of the dialogue in the film was improvised and has a free-flowing feel.  Peter Benchley (who wrote JAWS) is the grandson of Robert Benchley (humorist and friend to Dorothy Parker) appears in the film.


19. “MISERY” (1990) – written by William Goldman.  Based on the novel by Stephen King.  Directed by Rob Reiner.

Exploring the nightmare scenario of a best-selling writer’s life, MISERY takes us into the twisted mind of Annie Wilkes (an Oscar-winning performance by Kathy Bates) who is the #1 fan of captive author Paul Sheldon (played by James Caan).   According to screenwriter Goldman, many actors passed on the role of Sheldon because they felt the role of Annie Wilkes would overshadow them.  Warren Beatty declined the role and commented that the (now famous) hobbling scene made Paul Sheldon, “a loser for the rest of the movie.” 


18.  “DEATHTRAP” (1982) – written by Jay Presson Allen.   Based on the play by Ira Levin.  Directed by Sidney Lumet.

Sidney Bruhl (played by Michael Cane) is a famous writer of mystery plays but hasn’t produced anything good for awhile.  When he reads a play by an old student (played by Christopher Reeve), Sidney instantly recognizes it as a surefire hit.   He cooks up a theme to invite his student over, murder him, then steal the play as his own.  But when the student finally arrives, things are far from what they seem.   One of the most cleverly constructed thrillers ever.


17.  “THE PLAYER” (1992) – written by Michael Tolkin, based on his novel.  Directed by Robert Altman.

Michael Tolkin’s THE PLAYER is one of the greatest Hollywood novels that ranks among Fitzgerald’s THE LAST TYCOON and Budd Schulberg’s WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN?   Robert Altman captures perfectly the desperate and belittling status of the screenwriter who are often scrapping for every opportunity to pitch their ideas to the gatekeepers.   THE PLAYER proves that Hollywood is a zero/sum game.


16.  “MY BRILLIANT CAREER” (1979) – written by Eleanor Witcombe.  Based on the novel by Miles Franklin.  Directed by Gillian Armstrong.

Judy Davis gives one of her best performances as Sybylla, a woman torn between society’s expectations and her own ambitions as a writer.  Simple yet universal themes told with charm, wit, and vulnerability.  Director Gillian Armstrong was only 27 when she made this film and makes a cameo as a cabaret backup singer


15.  “AN ANGEL AT MY TABLE” (1990) –  written by Laura Jones.  Based on the autobiographies of Janet Frame.  Directed by Jane Campion.

Jane Campion’s haunting portrait of an artist highlights Kerry Fox’s stunning performance as New Zealand author Janet Frame .  The movie is told in three parts and takes the viewer through Frame’s impoverished childhood, awkward adolescence, and horrifying adult years where she was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia (later changed to shyness and depression) and was sent to a mental institution for eight years of electric shock therapy. 


14.  “PRICK UP YOUR EARS” (1987) – written by Alan Bennett.  Based on the book by John Lahr.  Directed by Stephen Frears.

PRICK UP YOUR EARS is the story the spectacular life and death of British playwright Joe Orton.  Gary Oldman plays Joe Orton with a dangerous swagger and infuriating charm.  The film is framed by sequences of John Lahr (played by Wallace Shawn) researching the book the film is based on.  


13.  “CAPOTE” (2005) – written by Dan Futterman.  Based on the book by Gerald Clarke.  Directed by Bennett Miller.

William F. Buckley  once appeared on the TONIGHT SHOW WITH JOHNNY CARSON and the topic of capital punishment came up.  Buckley told Carson, “Well, we’ve only had a certain number of executions in the last few years, and two of them were for the personal convenience of Truman Capote.”  The brilliance of this film is how it made Capote’s completely selfish motivation to finish IN COLD BLOOD with Perry Smith's death not only palpable to the audience, but totally understandable.


12.  “SATANSBRATEN” (1976) – written and directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. 

Fassbinder was the anarchist of German cinema and SATANSBRATEN (translated as SATAN’S BREW) is a natural extension of his uncompromising vision.  Probably his most gonzo film and most under-rated, SATANSBRATEN tells the dark humorous story of a German poet who suffers from crippling writer’s block and spends all his money on whores.  When his publisher decides not to give him an advance, the Poet ends up shooting one of his mistresses and cashing in on her life insurance.  Of course he must then contend with the police who begin to investigate him.   A grim and absurd tale of when art fails the writer.


11.  “THE SQUID AND THE WHALE” (2005) --- written and directed by Noah Baumbach

Literary types have been a constant thread through Noah Baumbach films, from the emotionally and creatively paralyzed Josh Hamilton character in KICKING AND SCREAMING to the sardonic arrogance of Chris Eigeman’s character in MR. JEALOUSY.   But it’s with THE SQUID AND THE WHALE that Baumbach places literary family life under an intense microscope.   Unfolding with the coy disquietness of Jonathan Franzen’s THE CORRECTIONS, Baumbach’s film reveals itself with tiny gestures and acute details.


10.  “THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY” (1961) – written and directed by Ingmar Bergman

THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY is the first of Ingmar Bergman’s famous “God’s Silence” trilogy.  The film describes 24 hours in the life of a family spending their holiday on an island in the Baltic.  Harriet Andersson’s character is a latent schizophrenic whose father sees in her mental deterioration the idea for a novel with which to achieve belated literary fame.   Brutal in its emotional inquisition, Bergman subjects his characters to a ruthless scrutiny rarely seen in cinema.  Winner of the Academy Awards Best Foreign Film.


9.  “DECONSTRUCTING HARRY” (1997) – written and directed by Woody Allen

Woody Allen writes about New York writers in the way that Stephen King writes about Maine writers, with love and brutal honesty.  In almost every Woody Allen film there is a writer character, but it’s with DECONSTRUCTING HARRY where Woody is at his most naked.   And it’s not a pretty sight.  Arguably Woody’s best film of the 90’s, HARRY is a study of a hopelessly immature and narcissistic novelist (played by Woody himself) who leaves a wake of misery and heartbreak to his friends and family as he loses the inspiration to write.   One of the funniest “spiritually bankrupt” movies around.


8.  “THE HOURS” (2002) – written by David Hare.  Based on the novel by Michael Cunningham.  Directed by Stephen Daldry.

THE HOURS spans multiple timelines and geographies to describe a trio of women’s lives simultaneously.  But it is the story of author Virginia Woolf that takes center stage with the help of Nicole Kidman, who gives arguably one of the greatest female performances ever.   Her interpretation of Virginia Woolf is as complicated and nuanced as the author’s writings, at times eerily serene with moments of overwhelming madness.  


7.  “THE FRONT” (1976) – written by Walter Bernstein.  Directed by Martin Ritt.

Set in the 1950’s, Woody Allen plays a hapless man of little talent who agrees to by the front for a group of blacklisted writers.   But it’s the magnificent Zero Mostel, playing a black-listed comic, who brings heart and profundity to the film.  A savage indictment of the McCarthy-era.


6.  “ADAPTATION” (2002) – written by Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman.  Based on the book by Susan Orlean.  Directed by Spike Jonze.

The metatextual nature of ADAPTATION speaks to all of us writers on so many levels.  It is about the despair of a writer trying to be passionate about a project that doesn’t mean much to him.  It’s also about the difficulties of having too much creative freedom.   Much has been written about how Kaufman’s script adaptation took form – and much of it is Hollywood lore – but the final product, a perfect marriage with Spike Jonze’s vision, makes ADAPTATION one of cinema’s best exploration of an artist’s vulnerabilities and ultimate triumph.    


5.  “NAKED LUNCH” (1991) – written by David Cronenberg.  Based on the novel by William S. Burroughs.  Directed by David Cronenberg.

NAKED LUNCH is an unguided tour through the hallucinations of author William S. Burroughs.  Sometimes writers write intoxicated or high – some do it because it loosens them up and uninhibits their thoughts, while other, like Burroughs, do it because it makes them feel like they’re going to war and sneaking behind the enemy lines of sanity.  The novel is the complete literary incarnation of Burroughs dreams and addictions and is made of loosely connected fantasy sequences.  NAKED LUNCH has long been considered unfilmmable – that was until David Cronenberg first got the notion to adapt it back in 1981 and was going to film it in Tangiers, but the Iraq invasion of Kuwait scuttled those plans and they ended up shooting entirely in Toronto.  Cronenberg wrote the screenplay during his time acting in Clive Barker’s NIGHTBREED.


4.  “HENRY FOOL” (1997) – written and directed by Hal Hartley

Idiosyncratic filmmaker Hal Hartley has built a loyal cult following by showing life on the fringe and HENRY FOOL is his masterpiece, a poetic and haunting examination of friendship and literary dreams found and lost.   James Urbaniak plays a socially challenged trash man who meets Henry Fool, played by the immensely under-rated Jay Ryan, a drinking drifter who claims to have written a novel that would change the world, if he allowed it to get published.  With subtle allusions to Saul Bellow’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, HUMBOLDT'S GIFT, Hartley’s HENRY FOOL defines the literary soul like few films does. 


3.  “WONDER BOYS” (2000) – written by Steve Kloves.  Based on the novel by Michael Chabon.  Directed by Curtis Hanson.

Michael Douglas plays Grady Tripp, a distracted and downtrodden professor who is suffering from an epic case of writer’s block.   Life’s little surprises and academic politics aren’t helping the creative process either.  Every writer has been there:  when life seems to be wildly spinning away from you, the only thing you can control is your writing.  WONDER BOYS thus asks the question, what happens when you lose control of the writing too?   Michael Chabon’s novel skips along with a rueful comic sensibility and director Curtis Hanson and screenwriter Steve Kloves captures its literate warmth.    


2.  “BARTON FINK” (1991) – written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

BARTON FINK is the most audacious film about the writing process.  John Turturro plays Barton Fink, a successful playwright who wanders into the bleak nightmare that is known as Hollywood.   Fink wants to write for the common man, but the common man wants to watch hackneyed wrestling films.  So to write for the common man, Fink sells his soul to a Hollywood studio.   But at what price is selling your soul?  Joel and Ethan Coen started the BARTON FINK script when they suffered from a block during the writing process of their gangster classic, MILLER’S CROSSING.   They loosely based Barton Fink on the playwright Clifford Odets, and claimed the movie was inspired by Roman Polanski’s thriller, THE TENANT.    


1. “SUNSET BOULEVARD” (1950) – written by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and D.M. Marshman Jr.   Directed by Billy Wilder.

William Holden plays Joe Gillis, a struggling screenwriter swimming in debt who is on the verge of returning to his hometown to work in an office.  Gillis ends up in the dangerous web of Norma Desmond, played iconically by Gloria Swanson.  Desmond is a former silent film star who woos Gillis into her home and convinces him to write a comeback script for her.  She soon sinks into a downward spiral of jealousy and insanity when Gillis falls for the younger screenwriter, Betty Schaefer.  SUNSET BOULEVARD deserves every bit of its classic status.  The film is filled with memorable lines and unforgettable noir images, all anchored by some of the most amazing performances ever captured on film.  Billy Wilder’s masterpiece is a bitter and tragic tale that proves Hollywood is where dreams go to die, literally.  


Mike Le  is a writer/producer living in Los Angeles.  He is also the creator of the Hollywood webcomic DON'T FORGET TO VALIDATE YOUR PARKING

You can follow Mike Le on Twitter: @DFTVYP


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