10 great films about novelists

From Mishima to Misery: as Gothic arrives on Blu-ray, we put pen to paper to round up some of cinema’s best depictions of novelists – both real and fictional.

14 September 2023

By Alex Ramon

Natasha Richardson as Mary Shelley and Julian Sands as Percy Bysshe Shelley in Ken Russell’s Gothic (1986)

“Iris Murdoch was first and foremost a thinker and a writer, but we all recognise that films cannot show thought or writing,” complained the critic and biographer Anne Chisholm, expressing her displeasure with Iris (2001), Richard Eyre’s adaptation of John Bayley’s memoirs.

In so boldly presuming to sum up what we “all recognise” about film’s inability to convey the intensely private, mental processes of a writer’s work, Chisholm articulates a popular prejudice. It may be true that, as Mark Lawson has noted, many “dramas about authors are encouraged by the high sales of biographies and tend to concentrate on their lives rather than their writing”, and that the common visual shorthands for the writing process (“balled-up foolscap, scrunched-up brows”) have become “derided movie cliches”. But the idea that cinema entirely lacks the means to convey the realities of writers’ experiences or the complexities of literary creation is soon challenged by a deeper delve into film history.

That challenge is especially evident when it comes to films about novelists, in which directors have often responded to the task of rendering cinematically the processes of creative thought – whether taking a more idiosyncratic approach to biopic conventions, exploring work/life overlaps and disjunctures, or contrasting approaches to the craft.

As Ken Russell’s Gothic (1986), his Stephen Volk-scripted film that dramatises origin stories for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and John Polidori’s The Vampyre, comes to Blu-ray, here are 10 more novelist portraits that find cinematic drama in the writing life.

Old Acquaintance (1943)

Director: Vincent Sherman

Old Acquaintance (1943)

Writers’ rivalry is a predictably popular topic when it comes to films about novelists, but it took the grand tradition of the 1940s Hollywood ‘women’s picture’ to apply this trope to the interaction of female protagonists. In fact, the heroines of Vincent Sherman’s Old Acquaintance (based on John Van Druten’s play and remade by George Cukor in 1981 as Rich and Famous) aren’t so much literary rivals as they are representatives of polarised approaches to art-making. Bette Davis plays the ‘serious’ author, critically acclaimed but self-doubting, while, as her long-time friend, Miriam Hopkins churns out best-selling romantic fiction. The film tracks their relationship over 20 years.

Though featuring the hilarious, famous scene in which Davis shakes the out-of-control Hopkins, the film’s second half gets bogged down in less compelling romantic travails. But the wry, conciliatory coda (lovingly homaged by Pedro Almodóvar in his own 1995 novelist portrait The Flower of My Secret) places the emphasis on the value of female friendship in a way that still feels refreshing.

Through a Glass Darkly (1961)

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Through a Glass Darkly (1961)

“Her illness is hopeless. To my horror, I note my own curiosity. The impulse to register its course, to note her gradual dissolution. To make use of her…” The notion of the novelist as a parasitic exploiter of the lives of others for ‘material’ recurs in several of the films featured here. It’s a theme that receives characteristically intense exploration in Ingmar Bergman’s distilled, haunting chamber drama, the first part of his ‘faith trilogy’, which focuses on a four-character family reunion on the island of Fårö.

The film’s exploration of parent-child bonds and schisms includes the relation between a distant novelist patriarch, David (Gunnar Björnstrand), and his daughter Karin (a searing Harriet Andersson), who discovers her father’s conflicted desire to “make use of” her mental illness as a subject in the novel he’s writing. Viewed by biographically minded critics as a reflection on Bergman’s own tendency to mine others’ experiences in his work, the film brings the patriarch to a moral reckoning of sorts, an awareness of “the lives I’ve sacrificed to my so-called art”.

Providence (1977)

Director: Alain Resnais

Providence (1977)

Alain Resnais’ first film in English – from a very English script by David Mercer that revels equally in clipped, arch exchanges and rude sexual and scatological references – focuses on the fears and fantasies of an ailing writer (played with glorious gusto by John Gielgud), who, during a sleepless, drunken night, creates a final fiction from the tangled web of feelings about his sons (Dirk Bogarde and David Warner) and his past. His imaginings suggest betrayal and violence, but the following day tells a different story…

As Gielgud’s protagonist dreams, imagines, composes and recomposes scenes of family tension, decay and dystopia, Resnais’ film wittily mobilises theatrical and filmic elements – ostentatious set designs by Jacques Saulnier, a swooning Miklós Rózsa score, a Citizen Kane-evoking opening – to make Providence a singular exploration of the unconscious mind and its relation to creative endeavour. Sometimes viewed as a Lynch precursor, it’s among the most cinematic of journeys into a writer’s imagination.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

Director: Paul Schrader

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

One of Paul Schrader’s finest films may superficially seem one of his most unexpected, but it jibes with the writer-director’s penchant for portraits of difficult, complicated men. In Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters he turns his attention to Japanese author Yukio Mishima (played by Ken Ogata), dramatising the protagonist’s progression from sickly youth to becoming one of Japan’s most acclaimed postwar writers.

Enhanced by striking production design and cinematography (by Eiko Ishioka and John Bailey, respectively), plus a properly startling Philip Glass score, Mishima probes militarism and masculinity, combining more straightforward biopic elements with a highly stylised evocation of its protagonist’s psyche. The film is also noteworthy for its innovative incorporation of the writer’s work, weaving dramatised scenes from three of Mishima’s novels into its rich and fascinating tapestry.

Misery (1990)

Director: Rob Reiner

Misery (1990)

Anxieties about the writing process haunt Stephen King’s fiction. They’re given their most direct expression in Misery: a claustrophobic author’s nightmare of obsessive fandom, adapted for the screen by director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman. A writer of popular romances, Paul Sheldon (James Caan), kills off his heroine Misery Chastain in order to complete a personal novel. Following an accident his life is saved by Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), a former nurse who calls herself his “number one fan” but who’s decidedly unhappy to learn of Misery’s demise.

Including a wince-inducing hobbling scene and an equally painful sequence of manuscript destruction, the battle of wills that ensues between the unhinged Annie and the literally bed-bound Paul inverts gothic archetypes of the abducted female and the male captor. Still, a whiff of misogyny underpins the enterprise – in the depiction of Annie as a monstrous care-giver but also in the implication that writing ‘women’s fiction’ is something Paul must abandon to belatedly mature into a ‘serious’ novelist. As a heightened exploration of the dynamic between creator and consumer Misery still grips, though, resonating afresh in the current era of toxic fan culture.

An Angel at My Table (1990)

Director: Jane Campion

An Angel at My Table (1990)

Originally conceived as a TV miniseries, Jane Campion’s adaptation of Janet Frame’s autobiographical writings soon found a cinematic life, becoming the first film from New Zealand to be screened at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Grand Special Jury Prize. If a subset of films about female writers troublingly tend to connect mental illness and creativity (The Hours, 2002; Sylvia, 2003; the aforementioned Iris), An Angel at My Table does things rather differently.

Covering the first 40 years of Frame’s life, with Janet played by three carefully matched actors (Karen Fergusson, Alexia Keogh and Kerry Fox), the film charts Frame’s childhood, awkward adolescence, erroneous diagnosis of schizophrenia and liberation through the written word. Though accused by some of neglecting her work, the film is particularly good at showing the role of language and literature in Frame’s evolving perceptions. Campion and screenwriter Laura Jones would bring an even greater boldness, idiosyncracy and intelligence to their next adaptation – of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1996).

Wonder Boys (2000)

Director: Curtis Hanson

Wonder Boys (2000)

The relation between established male literary figures and younger male protégés is the focus of several American films centred on novelists, including Tod Williams’s misbegotten adaptation of John Irving’s The Door in the Floor (2004) and Alex Ross Perry’s smarter Listen Up Philip (2014). It’s also a strand of Wonder Boys, Curtis Hanson’s exceedingly likeable take on Michael Chabon’s novel.

Michael Douglas plays Grady Tripp, a writer and professor struggling to complete a follow-up to his acclaimed debut novel (“the ending keeps getting further away”). Tripp finds his already complicated life further shaken up by the wayward behaviour of Tobey Maguire’s James Leer, a talented student in the writing class, leading to a few days of misadventure involving a dead dog and purloined Marilyn Monroe memorabilia. The premise sounds screwball, but grounded by Steve Kloves’s smart, tart screenplay, a fully furnished ensemble, and one of Douglas’s freshest performances, Wonder Boys offers a sharp and poignant portrait of a writer who can no longer avoid “making choices” in his life or work.

Swimming Pool (2003)

Director: François Ozon

Swimming Pool (2003)

From Angel (2007) to In the House (2012), few contemporary filmmakers have shown as consistent an interest in dramatising the activities of writer characters as François Ozon. But the delectable meta-mystery Swimming Pool is at once Ozon’s most playful and profound exploration of the creative process, a film which the writer-director cheekily labelled “a self-portrait”.

Ozon reunites with Charlotte Rampling, casting her as Sarah Morton, a blocked, dissatisfied English crime novelist who accepts her publisher’s offer to stay at his house in France to try to finish a book. In the gorgeous surroundings, Sarah settles into a productive, solitary routine, but this is explosively disrupted by the arrival of the publisher’s libertine daughter (Ludivine Sagnier). As the pair clash, Swimming Pool sets itself up as yet another ‘warring women’ domestic thriller. But the film morphs into something much more unusual and interior, blurring the lines between text and reality, creator and muse. The rug-pulling climax polarised viewers, but it’s essential to the film’s uniquely liberating take on the novelist’s art.

Reprise (2006)

Director: Joachim Trier

Reprise (2006)

For the many who thrilled to Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World (2021), acquaintance with the writer-director’s debut – the first part of his ‘Oslo trilogy’ – is a must. Reprise follows a group of twentysomething friends, focusing particularly on Erik (Espen Klouman Høiner) and Phillip (Anders Danielsen Lie), who both have ambitions to be writers but whose lives take different trajectories.

In using a literary context to explore friendship dynamics, Reprise is not unlike Old Acquaintance, though the self-conscious, restless, neo-New Wave style that Trier employs could hardly be further removed from Hollywood classicism. Opening with Erik and Phillip poised to post the manuscripts of their novels to publishers, before ducking into a fantasy sequence that envisages their futures, Trier keeps the proceedings fleet and often funny, making Reprise both a well-observed document of a specific milieu and a more universal evocation of the vicissitudes of precocious young adulthood.

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (2019)

Director: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (2019)

The 2010s saw the production of several documentaries grappling with the work, lives and legacies of esteemed American female authors, from Nancy Kate’s Regarding Susan Sontag (2014) to Griffin Dunne’s Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold (2017). While none of these films took an innovative approach to documentary form – instead combining the expected mix of archive clips, interviews and readings – they each offered valuable portraits of leading literary and intellectual voices.

Among the best is Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am. Released around the time of Morrison’s death aged 88, the documentary benefits from a new extended interview in which Morrison reflects on her childhood, her career as novelist, editor and academic, and the history that informed her fiction. The contributions of some of the talking heads tend towards the hagiographic, but Morrison’s often subversive insights make this an illuminating piece of work.

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