When it comes to the page and the screen, writers are a fascinating paradox. It’s no mystery why they turn up as characters so often: They’re what their (often self-centered, self-loathing) creators know best. But depicting a typical day in the life of an author or screenwriter promises all the excitement of watching someone type out a description of paint drying. And yet they keep finding their way onto the main stage.
Maybe it’s because while they don’t provide the richest material in terms of professional action, they do typically serve up bookfuls of the kind of neurosis and dark matter that make for good drama and suspense in fiction and film. Despite their navel-gazing, writers often approach universal dilemmas with an observational eye and extra sensitivity that give them greater insight (sometimes despite themselves). Plus, they usually wield an intellectual verbosity that allows for great zingers and pretentious buffoonery in equal measure.
For his debut film, “Stuck in Love,” in limited theatrical release July 5, thirty-four-year-old writer-director Josh Boone triples the torment by placing three writers under the same roof. Greg Kinnear plays a successful novelist struggling with an ex-wife (Jennifer Connelly) he can’t seem to let go, a daughter (Lily Collins) on the verge of publishing a book based on her sexual history and a son (Nat Wolff) suffering through first love with a girl in his fiction writing class. Originally titled simply “Writers” when it premiered at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, “Stuck in Love” is the long-gestating result of Boone’s youthful obsession with Stephen King (who appears in the movie) and the pain of his parents’ divorce. The movie maintains a light touch despite the conflicts at its center.
Boone’s literary leanings and thematic sensibility are signposted in the closing dialogue of the trailer, a sublime sad-hopeful quotation from Raymond Carver’s classic short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. (The young writer-director will remain in the world of books when he next directs an adaptation of John Green’s bestselling young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars.)
Following are a few of our favorite recent well-told stories about writers in crisis. We invite you to add your own picks in the comments.
Curtis Hanson followed up his Oscar-winning adaptation of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential with a film version of Michael Chabon’s 1995 novel about a chaotic long weekend in the life of a middle aged college professor. Harry Potter master adapter Steve Kloves wrote the screenplay (and fielded an Oscar nom) for the film, which illustrates how one’s inability to complete that next masterwork is merely a symptom of a life that needs a rewrite.
Woody Allen has dipped into the writer inkwell for characters as often as anyone (“Midnight in Paris,” “Celebrity,” “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” “Bullets Over Broadway”), but in “Harry” he literalizes the collision of real life and writerly license by allowing a duplicitous author’s characters to share screen time with the people in his life who unwittingly inspired them. Since it’s Woody, no one is very happy about this -- and the writer eventually finds himself, of course, in Hell.
Possibly the most fanciful adaptation of a book ever penned, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s take on Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief transformed it into a meta-treatise on the anguish of adapting someone’s book into a movie. The film stars Nicolas Cage as twin screenwriters at either end of the angst spectrum and Meryl Streep as Orlean, whose moral compass goes screwy when she gets romantically involved with her book’s subject. No stranger to the onscreen writing life, Cage won an Oscar in 1995 for playing a suicidal alcoholic screenwriter in Mike Figgis’ “Leaving Las Vegas,” which was based on the novel by John O’Brien, who took his own life before the movie was released.
Actress Zoe Kazan, the daughter of screenwriters Nick Kazan (“Reversal of Fortune”) and Robin Swicord (“The Jane Austen Book Club”), wrote the screenplay for this romantic comedy about a blocked author who conjures his dream girl on the page only to find her suddenly living in his house. The film, which is full of both light and dark moments, literalizes the godlike powers of a writer who learns that no amount of rewriting will ever produce perfection.
“The Squid and the Whale”
Writer-director Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical tale is steeped in the literary as it brilliantly and ruthlessly shows just how much damage a pair of married, competitive, arrogant writers can do. Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney play the “grown ups,” who wage sexual and authorial war while casually ignoring the harrowing ripple effects on their two sons. Baumbach’s script justly earned an Oscar nomination.