Note: I apologize for the lateness of this post. It might be time-stamped with Friday’s date, but obviously it didn’t go live until midday on Saturday. Given a missing dog and visiting friends, it simply couldn’t be helped. I’ll try hard not to let it happen again, though I can’t make any promises. I hope that you can find it in your heart to forgive me – and that you’re having a groovy weekend, wherever you are!
Novelists and screenwriters have long been fascinated with telling stories about writers, which seems a rather obvious fascination, given the conventional wisdom that writers should write what they know. I guess it might also seem obvious that, as a guidebook author and aspiring novelist, I adore such stories – in print or on screen. Even the gloomiest tales work their magic on me, inspiring me to be a better writer, encouraging me to experience life more fully, and giving me hope that my dream of being a published novelist will one day come true.
Although I’ve read my share of writer-centric stories, most of my inspiration has come from the movies – whether original screenplays or adaptations of beloved novels. It’s a known fact that, whenever I’m feeling down about the publishing industry, my own writing ability, and my slim chance of success, all I have to do is watch one of my favorite “writer” flicks and I feel energized again. Now, such films run the gamut, from dark tales of screenwriting dreams gone awry (Sunset Blvd. in 1950) to exciting adventures about shut-in novelists learning to live (Nim’s Island in 2008). Some have been biographical in nature, like Out of Africa (1985), Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997), Under the Tuscan Sun (2003), Finding Neverland (2004), and Miss Potter (2006) – some of which were based on previous material. Some have featured wannabe writers, like Alex & Emma (2003); some have focused on successful novelists in tight jams, like Her Alibi (1989); and some have just been downright weird – Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991) comes to mind. But, of course, Stephen King is probably responsible for most “writer” movies – including the award-winning Misery (1990), The Dark Half (1993), the absolutely dreadful Secret Window (2004), and the surprisingly creepy 1408 (2007).
For me, though, there are ten films that I routinely use to stimulate my creativity and quiet the voice of doom:
The Shining (1980) – I’m one of those people that actually like both the Stephen King novel and the Stanley Kubrick film, even though I’ll be the first to admit that Kubrick took some serious liberties with the source material. The visuals – like the elevators spewing forth a torrent of decades-old blood – are just too incredible to forget, and the sense of isolation is palpable. Of course, you might be asking yourself how this tragic tale of an alcoholic writer, husband, and father who goes mad in a remote, psychically-touched Colorado hotel could possibly be inspiring to me. Heck, what wannabe novelist wouldn’t want the opportunity to write all day and all night, with nothing to distract her but a few hungry ghosts? I say, sign me up!
Romancing the Stone (1984) – You might scoff, but I freakin’ love this movie, and I watch it any and every chance I get. As Nim’s Island did several years later, this film reminds me that sometimes a writer has to emerge from her comfort zone, explore the world, and perhaps find herself in a wee spot of trouble in order to fully realize her stories – and herself. And, come on, who isn’t at least a little entertained when Joan Wilder’s status as a romance novelist saves her and Jack T. Colton from the wrath of a drug lord in the hinterlands of Colombia?
Gothic (1986) – Hands down the best Ken Russell movie ever, this bizarre film explores the stormy drug-filled summer night during which Mary Godwin, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron amused themselves by creating ghost stories, one of which would eventually become Mary’s Frankenstein. I watched this disturbing movie when I was very young – which perhaps explains a lot – and ever since then, I’ve longed for a night equally as inspiring, memorable, and just a little mind-bending.
Stand by Me (1986) – My connection with this classic coming-of-age tale is twofold: The book from which this story came, Different Seasons, inspired me, at a very young age, to pursue a writing career, and the movie continues to inspire me. For those of who haven’t seen this gem – Really? Could there be anyone out there who hasn’t seen it? – the entire story is told in flashback, from the point of view of Gordie Lachance, a writer who has just learned about the death of an old friend, propelling him to recall a boyhood adventure, during which he and three pals go in search of a dead body... and grow up a little along the way.
She’s Having a Baby (1988) – This might seem like a strange choice, but as I get older, I find this John Hughes flick more and more “educational.” After all, it’s essentially about an advertising copywriter (and wannabe novelist) who tries to balance his dreams with the real-life issues of being a new husband and expectant father. Although I don’t plan on having children any time soon, I am married – have been for nine years – and I struggle every day with the desire to write constantly and the reality of marital compromise. (But, if you’re reading this, Danny, you know I love you – and don’t begrudge the struggle at all!)
As Good As It Gets (1997) – I love stories in which curmudgeons see the light, so it’s no surprise that this movie would appeal to me. After all, it demonstrates how one grouchy, bigoted, misanthropic, obsessive-compulsive author learns to get over himself, with the help of a straightforward waitress, a homosexual artist, and a little scruffy dog. Sometimes, I feel a powerful need for such outside help – to get over my own nonsense. Thank goodness for my hubby and kitty, who keep my grouchiness and obsessive-compulsive nature in check, especially when I’m in the midst of writing something – fiction or otherwise.
Finding Forrester (2000) – One of my all-time favorites, this small gem of a film tells the story of a young black basketball player and aspiring writer, who wins a scholarship to a prestigious prep school in Manhattan and subsequently befriends a reclusive white novelist. Through this unlikely friendship, both characters change, grow, and assist each other: The man helps the boy improve his writing skills and cope with bigotry, while the boy helps the man emerge from his self-imposed solitude. While watching this tale unfold, I always wish that I could’ve had a mentor like William Forrester – and though it’s too late for that, I take comfort in knowing that there’s still time for me to help young writers like Jamal Wallace in the future.
Wonder Boys (2000) – By far, my favorite “writer” movie ever – and quite possibly one of my favorite films of all time – this quirky comic drama chronicles one weekend in the life of a college professor with writer’s block and a host of other dilemmas. It’s hard not to be inspired by a man like Grady Tripp, a one-time, critically acclaimed novelist struggling to finish his never-ending follow-up while juggling the needs of his disgruntled wife, pregnant mistress, washed-up editor, infatuated tenant, and suicidal student, who’s responsible for accidentally killing the dog of his mistress, the married chancellor of the Pittsburgh-area university where he teaches. If you’ve never seen this film, drop what you’re doing and watch it... right... now. No matter what kind of funk overtakes me, this movie never fails to chase away the doldrums and put me on the writer’s path again. It doesn’t hurt that it cracks me up on a regular basis – or that it’s based, in part, on novelist Michael Chabon’s own misadventures following the success of his first novel. And don’t tell him this, but as much as I love the book, I adore the movie even more – maybe it’s just the perfect casting that’s to blame.
Sideways (2004) – This choice might confuse you. I mean, isn’t this a film about a wine lover’s misadventure with his philandering, soon-to-be-wed best friend? Well, yes, but the wine lover in question also just happens to be a struggling novelist, with a passionate agent and no hope of snagging a publisher. That might sound disheartening, but what I like about this movie – besides the obvious hilarity of the absurd situations – is that Miles manages to impress a beautiful, vivacious woman with his story, proving that even if a novel remains unpublished, it still has the power to touch someone.
Becoming Jane (2007) – Although historians question the accuracy of this film, which chronicles the elusive Jane Austen’s first and only love affair – the one that presumably inspired her much-studied and much-lauded collection of romantic novels – I really love this movie. First, because it demonstrates how a writer’s upbringing, family, and environment can influence her stories, and second, because it shows the sacrifices that a writer must often make to pursue her art. May I have the strength to do the same...
If none of those work for you, here are a few more suggestions:
The Lost Weekend (1945)
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Somewhere in Time (1980)
Best Seller (1987)
The Accidental Tourist (1988)
Funny Farm (1988)
Barton Fink (1991)
Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
Little Women (1994)
Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994)
Shakespeare in Love (1998)
Sliding Doors (1998)
Breakfast of Champions (1999)
Girl, Interrupted (1999)
Orange County (2002)
Love Actually (2003)
Swimming Pool (2003)
Stranger Than Fiction (2006)
Of course, there are even more than that, but I’m tired of typing – and frankly, itching to watch a movie!
18 minutes ago