Movies About Writing That Are So True They Hurt
The truth hurts and writing something truthful can be sheer agony. Just take a look at these movies about writing that are so true they hurt as they lay bare the writing life in all its trials and tribulations.
Wonder Boys (2000)
Genre(s): Comedy, Drama
Director: Curtis Hanson
Starring: Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jr., Katie Holmes, Rip Torn
There’s writer’s block, and then there’s writer’s burnout. This film tackles the latter. After writing the elusive “great American novel,” one writer-cum-aging-English-professor faces the stark realization that his greatest triumphs are behind him.
Be careful what you wish for, this darkly comic coming-of-(senior)-age story warns; you just may get it, and, after you do, well, then what?
Jack London (1943)
Genre(s): Drama, War and Military, Romance
Director: Alfred Santell
Starring: Michael O’Shea, Susan Hayward, Frank Craven, Osa Massen, Harry Davenport
How did the eponymous writer of such starkly vivid classics of man vs. nature (or man and nature vs. the world) like “Call of the Wild” and “White Fang”? Why, through his own lived experience of course.
This biopic of the legendary late 19th/early 20th-century novelist is part-homage to the author of those timeless stories of survival in the face of some of the most harrowing natural settings and phenomena shows how there’s no better inspiration or research for a writer than first-hand experience.
Follow London as he wears numerous hardcore hats: oyster pirate, Klondike prospector, hobo, sailor and war reporter. This historic relic of a film also portrays the romantic struggles London experienced to find someone who could handle and accept the intractable writer’s freneticism and obsessiveness, in London’s case to use his success as a platform to warn his compatriots of impending war.
This movie is a testament to “write what you know” without debasing yourself to “stay in your lane.”
Stream Jack London on Prime Video, Paramount Plus.
Director: Jane Campion
Starring: Kerry Fox, Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, Iris Chrun, Jessie Mune
This biting autobiographical tale of the life of Janet Frame, a writer struggling with mental health issues, may feel too close to home for many writers.
It eschews hyperbolic dramatic conventions for a vividly realistic portrayal of the struggle to write in the face of the cruel vicissitudes of life and, conversely, how writing can help a person to survive them.
Stream An Angel at My Table on HBO Max, Criterion Channel
Barton Fink (1991)
Genre(s): Black Comedy, Drama, Mystery, Psychological Thriller
Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, Tony Shalhoub, Steve Buscemi
The Coen brothers are best known for making movies of slow, brooding violence. This movie leans more toward the brooding side of that equation, perhaps because it focuses on the tormented inner world of a writer unable to write under pressure.
Set in 1941, it follows a New York playwright’s entry into the Hollywood B-movie screenwriting world. Really, what could go wrong?
As Fink discovers, a lot can and will go wrong when you’re trying to focus on anything around you other than your typewriter and the inside of your own brain. What you find may be stranger, and more perilous even, than fiction. Stream Barton Fink on Tubi.
Director: Terry Gilliam
Starring: Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro, Tobey Maguire, Ellen Barkin, Christina Ricci, Gary Busey
Not for the young or faint of heart, this cult classic is an adaptation of the semi-autobiographical cult-classic novel by controversial nonconformist journalist Hunter S. Thompson.
The film takes you inside his head–or really, his alter-ego’s head as he and his attorney take obscene amounts of drugs on a trip through the Nevada desert to report on a motorcycle race.
As many writers can relate, the motorcycle race is the least of the story. But, what do you expect when you can’t even find your belly button, let alone operate a pen?
Stream Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on Apple TV, Peacock.
Genre(s): Comedy, Drama
Director: Spike Jonze
Writer: Charlie Kaufman and “Donald” Kaufman
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper.
It’s hard enough to write your own original story. Writing someone else’s story, as this too-true tale shows, borders on the impossible.
Ever-so-loosely based on reality, Nick Cage plays real screenwriter Charlie Kaufman as he struggles “invaliantly” (not a real word) to pen the screenplay for the film adaptation of real writer Susan Orlean’s real novel The Orchid Thief.
So, why all the hubbub here about what’s “real?” Because, most of the movie’s other elements are utterly absurd.
For instance, while dealing with insurmountable writer’s block, Kaufman is also dealing with his ne’er-do-well (and fictional) twin brother, Donald, as well as crippling self-esteem issues and the his impression that his life and Orlean’s novel are somehow intertwined.
Like many films about writers, this one accurately portrays the severe and sometimes paralyzing internal struggles typical of writers. But it also uniquely presents how utterly impossible it can be for a writer to separate himself from his material.
Stream Adaptation on HBO Max, Prime Video.
Ruby Sparks (2012)
Genre(s): Romance, Fantasy
Directors: Valerie Faris, Jonathan Dayton
Starring: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Annette Benning, Antonio Banderas, Robert Gould, Chris Messina
They say writers fall in love with their characters. This cult fave takes that axiom to a whole new level by literally bringing a writer’s fantasy character to life.
All seems to play out like the perfect romance novel –- which makes sense, since it’s playing out exactly as he’s writing it in real time –- until the character starts getting wise to her actual relationship to the subject of her desire. (And, no, that wasn’t a diction error. Wait, diction error–dictionary. Hmm.)
Don’t worry, the concept only sounds morose. It’s actually a giant funhouse mirror of the notorious self-absorption of the writer.
Stream Ruby Sparks on Apple TV, Prime Video, Vudu.
Writer’s block, low-self esteem, mental health issues, doomed relationships–as these movies demonstrate, it’s a wonder more people don’t want to be writers.