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Writers In Film

Why we love films about writers

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

I’m relieved to discover I’m not the only writer who enjoys films about writers. Michael Byrne in The Author (Autumn, 2018) suggests it is affirmative to watch the artistic struggle on the big screen. I agree, but it’s frustrating that so many writer-characters in films are men. Some may say, with Austen’s Anne Elliot, that the pen has been in their hands for longer, and that the history of education and publishing can’t be ignored when considering disparity in numbers between films featuring female and male authors.

However the writer-character identifies in terms of gender, filming a real writer at work would make for slow viewing, even though, from the writer’s point of view, a day of flow can be experienced as exhilarating. Better, in film, to show her in a meeting with a world-weary editor about an unachievable deadline (Wonder Boys), better to show her blocked and desperate (The Shining, Adaptation), or send her on a research trip (The Ghost Writer). Even better, break up her relationship (Midnight in Paris), give her a drink problem (The Lost Weekend), or turn her into a voyeur (In the House). If the use of the pronoun ‘her’ jars here, it’s probably because all these examples are from films featuring male writers as main characters.

Online lists are necessarily subjective and unscientific but give a snapshot. In the Internet Movie Data-base (IMDb) list of the ‘Top Eighty Movies about Writers’, in my estimation nine feature real writers as protagonists or documentary subjects. Of these, seven are about real male writers, two about real women writers; sixty-three feature fictional male writers, and six fictional female writers. In summary, 10% are about women writers, whether fictional or real, and 90% about male writers. In the openings of IMDb blurbs, male-writer characters, whether fictional or real, are described stereotypically as ‘uptight’, ‘aspiring’, ‘burned out’, ‘blocked’, ‘famous’ and ‘great’ and all are credited with the profession of ‘writer’. One female writer is described as a ‘popular novelist’, one as a ‘writer’ without any identifying cliché. In the IMDb list, Janet Frame, in An Angel at My Table, is referenced by mental suffering with no mention of her as a writer until the blurb ends.

The marketing-speak about male-writer characters suggests an easily envisaged fit between men and the act of writing. Flavorwire’s list of the ‘50 Best Films about Writers, Ranked’ comprises thirteen films featuring real life male writers, eight featuring real life female writers, twenty-seven films about fictional male writers and eight films about fictional female writers. (If my figures don’t quite add up, it’s because a few films mix fictional and real writers.) IndieWire’s ‘7 Must-See Movies about Writers’ include no films with female leads except for Adaptation. Streep’s role as real writer Orleans is central but is not the main part, which goes to tortured screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his alter-ego twin.

The figure of the writer is useful as an observant/ difficult/ rash/ overimaginative/ crazy/ superlatively logical person with time on their hands, enabling them to take a key dramatic role. Is it so difficult to imagine women writers as players in a film? How many writers are represented as parents? Or as carers? Or juggling other jobs, burnt out not by booze but by stress while fitting writing into early mornings and late nights? How many films convincingly translate the quiet processes of the work into a gripping drama? Some films, such as Stranger than Fiction, Ruby Sparks or Swimming Pool, do try.

There are some familiar tropes, regardless of gender. The writing instrument is often a typewriter even in the twenty-first century. Visually, the inky letter imprinted on paper is more attractive than electronic words pulsing on another smaller screen. Conveniently too, the director can indicate time passing through the ring of the carriage return and the rapid accretion of a pile of neatly typed pages that assemble themselves directly in sequential order, while leaves blow away outside to show that the writing of a novel takes more seasons than a few seconds of filming. The transition from analogue methods to computers can be a symbol of the wayward contemporary writer coming to their senses (Ruby Sparks, Wonder Boys). The writer needs a bad habit: chain-smoking half-cigarettes and preserving those halves for later (Karen Eiffel in Stranger than Fiction); trichotillomania and alcoholism (Mavis Gary in Young Adult); a dope problem (Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys). The writer needs a writing costume: a man’s outsized shirt (Eiffel) or a woman’s huge pink dirty dressing gown (Tripp). We’re an unkempt lot on screen.

The narrative voice-over indicates a film poised to explore the nature of novel-writing as a metaphor for living. The famous opening of Manhattan begins with the voice of a writer redrafting his first chapter. Wonder Boys too begins with a voice-over. At the end, we realise the novel Tripp completes on his new laptop is the film we’ve seen, not his unedited typed manuscript of a thousand pages that blew away cinematically in the wind. (Colin Firth in Love Actually has the same anachronistic problem of escaping pages that denote his emotional mess.)

In Ruby Sparks, Zoe Kazan’s contemporary reworking of the Pygmalion myth, novelist Calvin imagines his perfect girlfriend. Stalled after early success with his first novel, Calvin lives in a luxurious apartment with a swimming pool. Financial worries don’t bother him because fictional writers are rich and need to live somewhere with cinematic possibility. As if invoked by a creative-writing exercise, Ruby manifests herself through a shoe, then an item of clothing, then her voice, before finally appearing as his perfect girlfriend. Calvin types on an old-fashioned typewriter, a visual nudge towards the fantasy element. Kazan plays Ruby and is the film’s screenwriter, while her real-life partner Paul Dano plays Calvin. The comedy is about the power of the imagination and female-male relationships. The idea of a fictional character wanting their freedom is a popular concept. Only when Calvin cedes control and accepts that girlfriends should have free will, can he write the successful book on a laptop. Really enjoyable and almost feminist, but what if Ruby were the writer and Calvin the character? What if Pygmalion were reversed?

Stranger than Fiction features a woman novelist, Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) whose voice the main character, Harold Crick, hears narrating his life. The film’s audience is thus invited into the writing of a novel. Harold is the quiet everyman hero in need of a more satisfying life. When he takes his problem of the narrative voice to a literary critic, Professor Hilbert is momentarily surprised that the voice is female, though it transpires that Hilbert is a fan of Eiffel’s. For me, the film partially succeeded in playfully dramatising the dilemmas involved in writing characters. Eiffel’s expensive empty apartment was less convincing. No books in a writer’s room? Somewhat conveniently, her assistant (an unlikely emissary from Eiffel’s publisher) Miss Escher (Queen Latifah) serves as a foil to suggest debates about writers’ methods. While Escher maps out the plot on Post-its, or suggests writing exercises as block-breakers, Eiffel studies traffic accident spots or tries out the jumping position of a suicide. Eiffel wears men’s clothes when writing, but dons feminine garb when she humbly takes the completed manuscript to Professor Hilbert for his judgment. She says of her novel’s ending, ‘Like anything worth writing it came inexplicably and without method’, as if answering the debates about planning and organic writing raised by Escher’s writing prompts. Eiffel’s angst-ridden block is due to her distress at killing her characters and, ultimately, she sacrifices artistry to humanity. The film is threaded with life-saving motifs that lead to the final life-saving act. So far, so Hollywood. But Eiffel’s writerly struggles and character Harold’s desire to live create an endearing connection between imaginative work and the engaged life, even though it’s troubling that a woman writer is chosen to show the emotional compromise to which a true artist wouldn’t submit

If there are few films about women writers, there are even fewer in the European and American cinema about writers of BAME origin, whether biographical or fictional, and whether the writers are male, female or gender fluid. Poetic Justice is a rare film with a black woman poet as protagonist. Films about writers now need greater ingenuity and cultural variety to explore the stories of society, which mesh inextricably with the important age-old story of making art against the odds.

But while that’s developing, I’ll put on an outsized moth-eaten jumper, pull out my hair and sit at my Olympia in a hunched and tortured pose.

Stephanie Norgate is a poet and playwright. Her latest poetry collection is The Blue Den (2012) and she edited Chalk Poets for the Winchester Poetry Festival (2016). Her plays have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4. She’s secretly a fiction writer too.

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