Total Recall: Our Favorite Writers on Film

The best portrayals of when cinema and literature clash.

by | September 29, 2009 | Comments

Movies were probably at one point considered to be a major threat to literature but, looking back, the two mediums have a pretty healthy working relationship going on. Directors and actors love to portray a good author, wellsprings of emotion and passion that they are, slaving over little words that build to world-changing proportions. The latest example is Jane Campion’s
Bright Star, the story of 19th century poet John Keats and his fiery romance with Fanny Brawne, and now that it’s out in theaters, why not join us as we thumb through history, discovering cinema’s 10 most brilliant
portrayals of writers on screen.


Franz Kafka in Kafka

Despite his stature as one of the most influential writers of the
20th Century, Franz Kafka’s dense, ambiguous prose doesn’t translate
well to the big screen (though Orson Welles’ moody, darkly comic take on
The Trial is a rare exception). Fresh from the success of sex,
lies and videotape
, Steven Soderbergh tried to get around the
problem posed by Kafka’s works by crafting a thriller that merged the
man’s writings with the outlines of his life. The result, Kafka,
starring Jeremy Irons in the title role, mixed elements of film
and German Expressionist cinema with a plot that included
thriller and sci-fi elements. At the time of its release, critics
bristled, calling the result shapeless and pretentious. In retrospect, Kafka
was a noble attempt to adapt the complexity of Kafka’s work to the
movies, and it hinted at Soderbergh’s genre experiments to come.


J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland

Most know Scottish author J.M. Barrie best as the creator of Peter
Pan, whose adventures were first chronicled in a play, then in the novel
Peter and Wendy, and ultimately in the animated Disney
adaptation of the novel. What many people didn’t know, at least until Finding
came out in 2004, was that the character was inspired by
Barrie’s close relationship to the five sons of Arthur and Sylvia
Llewelyn Davies. Barrie befriended the boys and formed an affectionate
bond with their mother, even becoming one of the boys’ legal guardians
after both parents passed away. Finding Neverland depicts this
relationship and its influence on Barrie’s work, from the moment he
first meets the boys in Kensington Gardens to the debut of Peter
Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up
, providing a heartwarming
depiction of the power of imagination.


Truman Capote in Capote

Years before the huge success of his “non-fiction novel” In Cold
, Truman Capote had already staked out a distinctive place in
Hollywood. He wrote the screenplays for the cult favorites Beat the
and The Innocents, and the movie version of his
novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s was a huge hit. However,
Capote’s distinctive speaking voice and mannerisms were so unique that
it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that anyone dared to mount a full-fledged
Capote biopic. Capote starred Phillip Seymour Hoffman in as the
writer on his quest to create a new kind of writing with his coverage of
a brutal Kansas murder, and Hoffman won praise for his camp-free,
three-dimensional portrayal of a great man of letters on the verge of a
masterpiece. (2006’s Infamous, starring Toby Jones as Capote,
explored similar territory.)


Henry Miller in Henry
& June

For those who like their smut to have a literary bent, Henry Miller
and Anaïs Nin should be required reading. And for those who like racy
movies that don’t involve pizza deliverymen and insipid dialogue, Henry
& June
is for you. The first film to get stamped with the notorious
NC-17 rating, Henry & June chronicles the scintillating (and
artistically fruitful) love triangle between Miller (Fred Ward), his
wife June (Uma Thurman), and their good buddy Nin (Maria de Medeiros) in
the heady days of 1930s Paris. Miller is hard at work on his legendary Tropic
of Cancer
, and derives inspiration (and help getting published)
from Nin, who in turn is attracted to both Millers. Though it may not be
as shocking now as it was upon release, Henry & June remains
both an intriguing examination of the artistic process and a compelling
erotic experience.


Charlie Kaufman and Susan Orlean in Adaptation

In Hollywood, it’s difficult to find anyone more “meta” than Charlie
Kaufman, and none of his work exemplifies this better than Adaptation,
which is essentially a film about its own creation, the story of a
writer attempting to write a story based on the writings of another
writer. Whew! Nicolas Cage plays both Charlie Kaufman and his fictional
twin brother Donald (who was nevertheless credited as co-writer of the
film), and Meryl Streep offers an Oscar-nominated performance as Susan
Orlean, the New Yorker staff writer whose book Kaufman was commissioned
to adapt for film. As a fascinating piece of self-referential cinema, Adaptation
appears to chronicle Charlie’s battles with writer’s block and low self
esteem while simultaneously telling the story unfolding in Orlean’s
book, The Orchid Thief, until the two narratives collide. There
are layers upon layers to peel back here, and for those willing to do
so, the film is an insightful look into the creative process
(specifically Kaufman’s) and the relationships between writers and their
subjects (specifically Orlean’s).


Virginia Woolf in The

We’re sure nothing strokes an author’s ego (or, the dead author’s
spirit’s ego) than a movie all about how their words continues to have a
lasting impression, generations beyond theirs. Such would be the case
for Virginia Woolf and The Hours, a sprawling melodrama about three
generations of women and the way the novel, Mrs. Dalloway, affects their
lives. Nicole Kidman famously dons a prosthetic schnoz to cry Woolf (for
which she won the Oscar), and she dives into the role with aplomb. Her
portrayal of Woolf how you always imagine the movies ought to portray the
writer: as the tortured romantic shouldered with the knowledge that if
this book doesn’t get written, not only is your advance in jeopardy, but
the future itself.


Robert E. Howard in The
Whole Wide World

In the world of pulp fiction, Robert E. Howard is a legendary figure;
the creator of Conan the Barbarian and Solomon Kane, he’s cited as one
of the innovators of the epic fantasy genre. He was also a wreck —
perpetually unhappy, he died at 30 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The
Whole Wide World
tells Howard’s story; as portrayed by Vincent
D’Onofrio, Howard was a tormented character who found it difficult to
interact with others and lived at home out of devotion to his ill
mother. He strikes up a (largely platonic) relationship with a
schoolteacher named Novalyne Price (Renee Zellweger), who was drawn to
Howard’s passion for writing but unable to save him from his demons. The
Whole Wide World
is a reminder that great art is sometimes derived
from great pain, and that writers who traffic in fantastical tales often
find them preferable to the real world.


Oscar Wilde in Wilde

The importance of being Wilde? For Stephen Fry, very: the actor
called his role as Oscar Wilde the one “he was born to play.” Inhabiting
the Irish playwright is a tough role that invites a lot of scrutiny:
Wilde is tall and flamboyant, and the movie sees him celebrating the
publication of The Importance of Being Earnest and then slowly become
more and more at odds with society due to his lifestyle. Fry is a
versatile actor and his performance is by all accounts a success, while
the movie itself is stately and accurate, creating an intimate journey
across one wild Wilde life.


Dorothy Parker in Mrs.
Parker and the Vicious Circle

The ribald, witty banter around the Algonquin Round Table was the
rough equivalent of a particularly good dinner party — if said soiree
lasted for 10 years and yielded bon mots that were worth
publishing in places like Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. Plenty of
noteworthy folks sat in on the action — including director George S.
Kauffman, humorist Robert Benchley, and actors Harpo Marx and Talulah
Bankhead. However, perhaps the heart and soul of the group was the great
Dorothy Parker, whose droll musings — and nearly bottomless sadness —
were captured by Jennifer Jason Leigh in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious
. Parker was a multifaceted talent — a critic, poet,
screenwriter, and short-story writer — and she thrived in the hothouse
atmosphere that was New York in the 1920s, before alcohol and bad
marriages did her in. In addition to showcasing the life and times of a
great writer, Mrs. Parker is a reminder that collaboration and
camaraderie are often integral to the creative process.


William Shakespeare in Shakespeare
in Love

In truth, very little is known about William Shakespeare’s private
life, so this comedy about “The Bard of Avon” and his literary muse is
probably as valid as any story you’ve heard about his romantic history.
The film focuses on a young Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) stricken with
writer’s block who is about to debut his new play, Romeo and
, and begins holding auditions for the role of Romeo. A young
man wins the part, but Shakespeare soon discovers the actor is actually
Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), an aspiring actress from a
well-to-do family, and the two begin a romance that closely resembles
that of his play. Directed by John Madden (no, not that John Madden), Shakespeare
in Love
was a well regarded hit, winning an impressive 7 Oscars in
1998, and offered a unique take on the poet’s love life outside his
early marriage to Anne Hathaway (no, not that Anne Hathaway).

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives.