Writer’s block should be a black hole for the arts, but for movies it’s when the ideas stop flowing that the story really begins. Here, Den of Geek! investigates films featuring those most fragile souls, the writer, whose on screen portrayals allow us all to wade the creative quagmire. Writing is not a visually exciting activity, but take a closer look and there may be something mysterious stirring in there, breaking old boundaries and opening up social, psychological and philosophical discourse. Authors, however, are hardly pleasantly identifiable creatures, so how engaging are these movie versions of the age old creative stump? And does the bigger the struggle, the better the art make? By applying a scientific rating system, these reviews correlate the level of character struggle with film success in order to see how the movies adapt this unadaptable creative jinx.
Adaptation (2002)Directed by Spike JonzeScreenwriter: Charlie Kaufman
Fat, bald, old, sweaty, repugnant Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage) is struggling to adapt an orchid-based novel in his pseudo- autobiographical, ouroboros narrative. There is nothing clever about describing Adaptation, because Kaufman so carefully writes exactly what he’s doing into the screenplay. Some critics might say he’s self-indulgent, narcissistic, pathetic, and that he can’t write, but they would only be quoting him directly. Kaufman explores the pain of adaptation, the writer’s guilt of thieving from beauty and life, and suggests that creation is an act of destruction of everything you hold close, including yourself. It’s all done with enough wit and self-deprecation to distract from the literary onanism and Kaufman has another trick up his sleeve: a maguffin in the form of a conflicting twin brother, Donald (also Nicholas Cage). Donald is full of vitality, optimism, success and Hollywood industry jargon. He also proves Adaptation’s most mutable character, bringing the endless rumination to a poignant conclusion of self worth. But the car chases and killer crocodiles aren’t fooling anybody, as Kaufman takes the sublime into the ridiculous and pins a climax on the tale in erroneously grand style. He knows we know, however; you can just about see him wink through the type font.
Writer’s success: one screenplay (produced, award-winning)Writer’s futility: 6/10Film: 7/10
Ask the Dust (2006)Directed by Robert TowneScreenwriter: Robert TowneAdapted from a novel by John Fante
With the star power of Colin Farrell and Salma Hayak, it’s surprising that Ask the Dust disappeared into the Californian desert as rapidly as it did. Based on the superb book of the same name, it is written by Bukowski’s favourite author, John Fante. Arturo Bandini, (Fante’s alter ego played by Farrell), is an autobiographical mix of naive hope and worldly bitterness in one strangely endearing character. The novel is a simple anxious tale spun from writer’s block, and unrequited love for good measure, and is characterised by Fante’s lyrical and bone dry humour: “An idea floated harmlessly through the room…it only wanted to help me, dear little bird. But I would strike at it, hammer it out across the keyboard, and it would die on my hands.” This is a writer’s tale for writers, so the adaptation should have been safe in Hollywood screen writing veteran, Robert Towne’s, typewriter. Many passages of text are imported directly into voice-over, but Towne’s direction fails to capture the aimlessness of the novel. The director isn’t daring enough, and in the resolution, Fante’s cynicism is replaced with Hollywood romance, which sadly only blunts the acute struggle of the fantastic and self-pitying Arturo Bandini.
Writer’s success: two short stories (published), one novel (published)Writer’s futility: 3/10Film: 5/10
The Lost Weekend (1945)Directed by Billy WilderScreenwriter: Charles Brackett, Billy WilderAdapted from a novel by Charles R Jackson
The Lost Weekend, based on the novel by Charles R Jackson, was both progressive and symptomatic of its time. The narrative, which revolves around Don Birnam (Ray Milland) and his five day binge, was the first mainstream movie to approach the subject of alcoholism with any sophistication. The writer’s block suffered by Birnam, however, was an adaptation from the original character device centred on a homosexual encounter. Hollywood can only take one taboo at a time, it seems. In terms of creativity, alcohol is Birnam’s nectar and his poison; he explains, “It pickles my kidneys, yeah, but what does it do to the mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar…” Unfortunately, Birnam is completely unable to start his alcohol inspired novel, ‘The Bottle,’ managing only to complete the title page (in Hollywood, writers start from the beginning). It culminates with Birnam’s imagination revolting against him and torturing his soul with caustic futility. What is horrifying isn’t the strange, small creatures that Birnam hallucinates, or the sound of the loopy theremin on an unsettling soundtrack, it’s the sight of a grown man, screaming at the top of his lungs in soul-destroying terror.
Writer’s success: one short story (published), one suicide noteWriter’s futility: 10/10Film: 10/10
Barton Fink (1991)Directed and written by the Coen Brothers
Inspired by the Coen brothers own writers’ block whilst completing the screen play for Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink is an example of uninhibited writing anxiety. The narrative is a rogue’s gallery of typical Coen brother grotesques: manipulative, overbearing power merchants, warped, drunken has-beens and smart-mouthed police detectives. Playwright and ‘man of the people’, Barton Fink (John Turturro) doesn’t escape parody either; he is a self-righteous, arrogant moron, whose masterpiece screen play, when eventually finished, is a plagiarised mess of his hit play, (tapping into an age-old writer’s fear that there’s only one good idea in their heads).
The Coen brothers create this cautionary tale of selling out with fire and brimstone subtlety. The 1940s time period allows some satirical swiping at Hollywood’s anti-originality stranglehold on the arts, in particular its treatment of writers who have flocked there with burning ambitions. “Jesus, throw a rock in here and you’ll hit one,” informs Fink’s director on the presence of scribes in the room, “and do me a favour, Fink, throw it hard.”
Barton Fink is an envisioned hell of the tormented mind, personified by next door neighbour/ friendly psychopath, Mad Mundtz (John Goodman). This is the Coen’s torture writ large across the screen and proof that a blocked imagination can unleash demons.
Writer’s success: one play (produced, 4* in Herald), one script (forever unproduced)Writer’s futility: 8/10Film: 8/10
The Shining (1980)Directed by Stanley KubrickScreenwriter: Diane Johnson, Stanley KubrickAdapted from a novel by Stephen King
Beware the abode of the blocked writer, for within madness lies. And it doesn’t get any more crazy than Jack Nicholson, complete with happy hysteria, trying to bash someone’s brains in. Jack is Jack Torrance, a novelist, who packs his family up to the snowy Colorado mountains to become caretaker in residence at the closed Overlook Hotel. Stanley Kubrick wastes no time in establishing the foreboding tone: searing violin strings and violent percussion punctuates the most ordinary establishing scenes with impending doom. Kubrick coldly isolates each individual sound in the silent hotel, from Jack’s bouncing tennis ball, to young Danny (Danny Lloyd)‘s trundling tricycle wheels. Everything is a sinister distraction to keep the writer in terrible limbo.
The adaptation of Stephen King’s horror makes many alterations (controversially, according to the author) and one of the new inclusions, besides corridors of blood and Johnny Carson impersonations, is Jack’s writing block. Jack also has problems with alcohol, but it’s his frustration which first fractures his mind and leads him back to the bar. As the steadicam floats around the hollow hotel, Jack’s descent into psychosis seems all the more slippery and perverse. It’s only when wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) discovers Jack’s manuscript, a repetitive story about a boy named Jack, that we see into the darkness. As the pages fall through a terrified Wendy’s fingers, the same sentence appearing again and again, it’s as visually disturbing as the contents of room 237. Not only is her husband a murderous fiend, he’s a horrible writer.
Writer’s success: one sentence (approx 10,000 times)Writer’s futility: 10/10Film: 10/10