9 Struggling Writers in Film, From Jack Torrance to Barton Fink

Bradley Cooper in 'Limitless'/Photo © 2011 Rogue Pictures
Bradley Cooper in 'Limitless'/Photo © 2011 Rogue Pictures

It’s become a visual cliché: The writer slouched in his chair, conflicted, chain-smoking, achingly alone, and oblivious to anything outside his cave of thoughts. He’s desperately waiting for that one savior of a sentence to rescue him from the shackles of banality. Opposite him sits a blank page. Watching him. Haunting him. It’s ideally nestled in a typewriter, despite the nearby objects suggesting that it’s most definitely the twenty-first century. The clock ticks. Nothing.

Obviously, if you scratch the surface of any stereotype you’ll find a more nuanced layer of reality. Writers can just as easily be shining examples of happiness and sobriety. But nuanced realities don’t sound as fun as drug-addled depressives, and they don’t make for good stories. Stereotyping – as George Clooney’s character from “Up in the Air” is keen to point out – is simply much faster. Here we’ve compiled a list of struggling writers portrayed (im)perfectly in films. Since these are writers for whom Mr. Murphy specifically wrote his misfortunate Law, we also include some lessons gleaned from their grave mistakes. Beware, spoilers abound!

Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson) in “The Shining” (1980)
Lesson Learned: Taking a breather from society is a tried and true method of creative growth. To a troubled novelist looking for a break, having a go at hermitage doesn’t sound half-bad. But for every Thoreau that takes to Walden, there’s a Howard Hughes that takes to sheer lunacy. Here are some pointers: If you’re susceptible to metaphysical mishaps, maybe (and I’m just spit-balling here) a haunted house isn’t your destination of choice? If you’ve got a history of alcoholism and violence, for instance, maybe dragging the wife and kid along to a remote lodge won’t be all “Full House” and “Brady Bunch”? It’s even more tactless when – if we’re being honest here – you’re the type of chap to blame others for the “all work, no play!” Tarzanian hoopla you spew. That being said, if you’re the plaything in the mind of Stephen King, you’re probably flat out of luck no matter what you do.

Melvin Udall (played by Jack Nicholson) in “As Good As It Gets” (1997)
Lesson Learned: If there’s anything that Melvin Udall has taught us, it’s that with success comes struggle. Great, abusive, hot-under-the-collar struggle. In fact, one is merely fuel for the other. Just don’t struggle the Udall way. Homophobia, racism, narcissism, chauvinism, and – yes – even dog-ism are signs of inner turmoil, not outer truths. Your work might not suffer, but your soul will.

Gerry (played by John Lynch) in “Sliding Doors” (1998)
Lesson Learned: When you say you’re working on your novel, actually be working on your novel. Don’t go shagging your ex-girlfriend five minutes after your sweetheart makes a grocery run.

Barton Fink (played by John Turturro) in “Barton Fink” (1991)
Lesson Learned: When you’re offered a Hollywood screenwriting gig, do as Barton didn’t: Reject the offer and keep close to “the common man.” Though you’re skipping a chance to rake in $1k a week, you’re better off penniless than part of a rap sheet comprising plagiarism, arson, murder and mosquito torture.

Charlie/Donald Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage) in “Adaptation” (2002)
Lesson Learned: When you’re given a book filled with “sprawling New Yorker bullshit,” you can do one of two things. Either hunker down and adapt it well, or fall for said New Yorker and act all surprised to find a mystical narcotic laboratory owned by a toothless, trigger-happy caretaker. Your choice. Oh, and two more things: 1) Listen to your siblings, they’re wiser than you might think; and 2) “don’t you dare bring in a deus ex machina.”

Mort Rainey (played by Johnny Depp) in “Secret Window” (2004)
Lesson Learned: Don’t think you’re an exception to the DSM-5. And don’t mess with John Turturro.

Miles Raymond (played by Paul Giamatti) in “Sideways” (2004)
Lesson Learned: If you’re looking for a muse in wine country, inviting your caddish and obliviously bumbling left-hand man might not be your ticket to greatness. You’re more likely to end up with a hefty car repair bill and the dim reply “Oh ... you mean today?” when you reveal the title of your unpublished work to be “The Day After Yesterday.”

Eddie Morra (played by Bradley Cooper) in “Limitless” (2011)
Lesson Learned: When writer’s block builds in your brain like an endless game of Tetris, you might be tempted to test out the nootropic “smart” drugs being hawked around the corner. You’d be right, too, if all it did was clean you up and clear your mind. But when you find yourself slurping the blood of a Russian gangster off your kitchen floor, you might wonder whatever happened to that harmless third draft you were stuck on.

Calvin Weir-Fields (played by Paul Dano) in “Ruby Sparks” (2012)
Lesson Learned: Divine intervention blesses you with the ability to write anything you want into reality. Your first move? Create a lovely girl, teach her French, and have her wait on you, hand and foot. What could go wrong? What indeed! Playing God can be a lonely game, monsieur, and when you force love to show where love doesn’t grow, you strip it of all its magic. The silver lining? You’ll reform, reflect, and land a mega book deal about the error of your ways.

What other struggling-writers-writ-large did we leave out? Add your picks in the comments below.

  • Sven

    My favorite film author, although your list is intriguing, had to be Prof. Grady Tripp in The Wonder Boys, based on a novel by Michael Chabon. Check it out if you haven't. Outstanding movie! Thanks for a flu read here. I'm going to check some of these out, esp. Depp in the S. King movie. .

  • Daedalus Howell

    Worthy of the list: Peter Weller as aspiring writer qua exterminator "Bill Lee" in director David Cronenberg's adaptation of William Burroughs' "Naked Lunch." A weird, fraternal twin of the novel.

  • Brandt Hardin

    The high art of film has captured the brilliant moments of literary minds and their processes in countless adaptations of the lives of our favorite authors. You can read my own Top 20 Greatest Movies of All Time about Writers at

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