Here’s a question for you: if all films require writers, why are most writers in films so badly treated? Seriously, writers have been shot (Sunset Boulevard), maimed (I Spit On Your Grave) and driven mad (Tenebrae, Secret Window) in the pursuit of good old fashioned entertainment. Likewise, if affecting dramas (The Lives of Others) and wry independent comedies (Sideways) are more to your taste, then there’s no better protagonist than the solitary, navel-gazing (or should that be novel-gazing?) scribbler.
Even Simon Pegg – who, it must be noted, co-created possibly the most true-to-life writer in film and TV history, in Spaced’s ever-procrastinating Daisy Steiner – is now in on the game, appearing as a horror-thriller screenwriter plagued by his own paranoia in A Fantastic Fear of Everything. It seems that, on the big screen at least, writers’ lives are full of doubt, angst and profound unhappiness.
Is there any respite for the writer in movies? We’d be lying if we said that, as journalists, we didn’t harbour secret ambitions to one day create our own novels or screenplays, but after compiling the below list of the most hapless, feckless and hopeless fictional writers in film, we’re not so sure.
Barton Fink – Barton Fink
Pity the poor playwright, as he schleps to Hollywood with dreams of addressing the plight of the common man on a cinematic canvas, only to be saddled with a script about wrestling. Wrestling! The money may be good, but soon enough, Barton Fink’s (John Turturro) big hopes for the big screen start to slip in favour of writer’s block, anxiety, and madness brought on by the hellish surroundings of the Hotel Earle.
In Barton Fink, the Coen brothers didn’t only create an archetypal jittery writer, but also a superbly bonkers, hard-to-define film. Is it a satire on Hollywood, or the over-precious writer? Is it a soul-sacrificing buddy movie, where Fink’s pact with psycho-neighbour Charlie Meadows (John Goodman) helps him to finally find his inspiration, or a Lynch-a-like mix of heady surrealism and LA grime? Whatever your reading is, Fink is in a funk and we’re not complaining.
Bernard Berkman – The Squid And The Whale
By the end of The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach’s searing family drama about feuding writers and their maladjusted kids, the only thing that once-promising novelist Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) has going for him is his remarkable, silver-flecked beard. Not only has his ex-wife (Laura Linney) bested him by becoming both published and renowned, but his elder son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), who previously parroted all of his arrogant opinions, has grown wise to his father’s bitter failings.
But he doesn’t learn. After suffering a heart attack on the Brooklyn tarmac, he doesn’t reach out in self-realisation to his long-suffering family. Instead, as he’s packed off into an ambulance, he feebly evokes Godard, quoting the final exchange from À Bout de Souffle in a last gasp bid for self-obsessed, dickish pretension.
Jack Torrance – The Shining
Writers’ retreats are supposed to help the writing process. They provide a way of blocking out all of the distractions of urban life, with the hope that a change of air should stir up the creative juices. However, getaways in film are rarely perfect, and there are few as utterly mind-bending as Jack Torrance’s (Jack Nicholson) caretaking stint at the Overlook Hotel.
As his demons – both personal and supernatural – start to hound him, poor Jack’s hopes of penning a page-turner vanish, leaving him in the grip of a psychotic episode that puts his whole family in danger. On the plus side, though, he did write one hell of an avant-garde prose piece, ‘All Work And No Play Makes Jack A Dull Boy’, which through repetition and typographical variation offers up a Marxist exploration of the cyclical nature of obsession when the subject (the ‘worker’) is denied satisfactory respite from labour (‘play’).
Anon – The Ghost Writer
It should have been an easy job, really. All Ewan McGregor’s unnamed writer protagonist had to do was a quick once-over on the memoirs of ex-Prime Minister, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), and he could pocket a quarter of a million bucks for his troubles. But, as it turns out, things are much murkier than they seemed at first glance. As Lang’s once-suave reputation is slowly chipped away by the British press, his Ghost discovers that his predecessor on the project died in ‘mysterious circumstances’, and that the former PM’s special relationship with the States might have been more than simple diplomacy.
Just what do this Blair-ish politician’s memoirs hide? The Ghost is in for a heck of a job, dodging intrigue, CIA spooks and, in the end, a car in the street (or does he?), but the real phantoms that haunt this 2010 Polanski-directed thriller are its tepid direction, camp casting and over-long, convoluted screenplay. On reflection, perhaps they didn’t need a ghostwriter, after all. Maybe a script doctor would have been better suited?
Gil Pender – Midnight In Paris
A Hollywood hack by trade, Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) has aspirations to write the next great American novel, but he is beset by a tricky case of writer’s block. On a summer break in Paris with his disapproving fiance and her equally disapproving parents, he suffers from a particularly neurotic case of the Anxiety of Influence, overwhelmed by the city that once was home to the likes of F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.
But one evening, by some strange Parisian magic, he is transported into the past, and finds himself in the company of the Lost Generation. Is he mad, inspired or supremely lucky? By the end, he’s certainly less anxious, and is not only liberated from his awkward engagement, but he’s off on a new fling with a French dreamer. But what of that novel? As the credits roll, it’s still seemingly unfinished. Sure, he’s happy, but what would Hemingway say?
Lance Clayton – World’s Greatest Dad
Spoiler alert: World’s Greatest Dad is one of the most criminally overlooked films of recent years, and full enjoyment of Bobcat Goldthwait’s deliciously dark comedy can only come through going in with as little knowledge, and as few expectations, as possible. That said, we can’t make a list of hapless writers without tipping the hat to Lance Clayton (Robin Williams, at his best).
In a cheeky inversion of Williams’ ‘O Captain My Captain’ role model of Dead Poet’s Society, Clayton’s poetry classes are attended by bored, uninterested slackers. He’s easily the most unpopular guy in school, and his absolute monster of a son (Daryl Sabara) hates his guts. As do book publishers, it seems, as his aspirations of becoming a novelist remain unrealised.
[That’s all you need to know. Go and watch it. Spoilers ahead.]
However, when Clayton is unexpectedly given a new platform – namely, an auto-erotic asphyxiation accident that leaves his son dead – and all eyes suddenly turn to him in sympathy, he exploits it to the fullest, publishing his own work as his son’s private diaries. Well, wouldn’t you?
Caden Cotard – Synecdoche, New York
Many films have been written about writer’s block, with most drawing a comparison between mental gridlock and psychological meltdown. But few are as affecting, emotionally draining, and divisive as Synecdoche, New York. After turning the creative process into a cheeky, postmodern romp with Adaptation, Charlie Kaufman let his self-examination run wild in his directorial debut, which sees Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a gifted theatre director, awarded the Macarthur Fellowship, essentially carte blanche for following his artistic ambition.
However, Cotard’s ambition proves to be unfocused and impossible to pin down. It soon spirals out of control, as the production grows larger, and actors are brought in to play doppelgangers of not only their fellow cast members, but Cotard himself. Unlike Adaptation, there isn’t a final act flourish, and those hoping for resolution or a point of self-discovery found themselves rather frustrated by Synecdoche’s endless, recursive, play-within-a-play-within-a-film nihilism. There’s no denying, though, that in Cotard’s hopeless, self-reflexive plight, Kaufman found something new to say about creative endeavour, and said it with tremendous, exhausting symbolism: it’s not easy.
David Kahane – The Player
The Player, Robert Altman’s 1992 satire on the movie business, sees vapid studio exec Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) put under pressure by a rival producer, who is reportedly planning to greenlight quality artful pictures. He’s also receiving death threat postcards, from a jilted screenwriter who’s been rejected in the past, putting not only his professional, but personal life in danger.
But the film’s turning point, and one of cinema’s most pointed outbursts against the studio system, comes when Mill tracks down grizzled scribe David Kahane, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, thinking that he might be the source of the malicious mail. It turns out that he’s not, and Mill’s attempts to bribe Kahane completely backfire, as he lets loose a bitter, cynical tirade, screaming ‘I can write, what can you do?’ Unfortunately for him, Mill’s had a very bad day, and he ends up face-down in a Pasadena puddle, but at least he had his chance to vent spleen first.
Marcello Rubini – La Dolce Vita
Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini gave world cinema two films in a row that dredged through the creative soul. 8½, rightly, is a mad-ambition masterpiece, but La Dolce Vita is, while more straightforward in concept, potentially more devastating in implication. Through a sequence of loosely-plotted narrative threads, Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) slowly loses not only his sense of intellectual curiosity, but also his sense of self-respect, as he becomes submerged in a world of sex, debauchery, and starlets.
After three hours of slow-burning sin, Rubini is left drunk and disillusioned, frazzled by the social world he craved to inhabit, and no closer to finishing his novel. But, indeed, perhaps La Dolce Vita’s most disconcerting suggestion isn’t that modern society befouls the purity of creative ambition, but that such a corrupting force comes from Rubini’s chosen profession: journalism.
Paul Sheldon – Misery
Another Stephen King novel, another story about writers and their chilling misadventures (see also: 1408, Secret Window, The Dark Half, and Stand By Me). Just replace The Shining’s writer’s block with author Paul Sheldon’s (James Caan) desire to be rid of his cash-cow Misery Chastain, and the spooks of the Overlook Hotel with terrifying super-fan Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), who refuses to accept that her favourite character has been killed off. Her response, with a tip of the hat to Roland Barthes, is to overrule the Sheldon’s intentions entirely, forcing him to resurrect Misery in a new book, under the threat of a very literal ‘Death of the Author’.
With every year that passes, Misery looks to be more prophetic, as the boundaries between authors and fans become smaller, and the voice of the audience gains volume with the advent of the Internet and its various social media mouthpieces. Writers can now directly engage with thousands of fans daily. Just don’t piss them off.
Have we missed any woesome wordsmiths? If so, let us know in the comments! And, please, don’t kidnap us and force us to rewrite the article..
A Fantastic Fear Of Everything is released on June 8th.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here