Oscar Wilde once said that “the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realise that energy”. Film is a fantastic vehicle of expression, a visual medium in many ways more accessible to the public than a painting or poem (not everyone can read a sentence about a house, but see one on screen and you know straight away what you’re looking at). Just as it is with any form of art, the best films can be categorized by the emotions and feelings that they convey. The films I have selected for this list are not only films about writers and writing, but reflect the artists who created the films, their attitudes, emotions and worldviews.
#3 Misery (1990) – Based on the Novel by Stephen King
Misery is a film directed by Rob Reiner (When Harry Met Sally, The Princess Bride) and is an example of how to make a Stephen King film right. What Reiner does best in his portrayal of King’s quasi-fan-response-letter is keep the sub textual brilliance King wrote in the novel for the final cut of the film.
The film’s story follows Paul Sheldon (James Caan), a writer famous for a string of romance novels featuring a female character called Misery (pretty blatant subtext). Sheldon is sick of squandering his talent on novels he doesn’t resonate with and kills off the lead to put an end to the stories. On his way to turn in his final Misery novel Sheldon is involved in a car accident and left for dead; that is until Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) saves him from the wreckage. Sheldon wakes to find himself in the woman’s home, paralysed from the waist down due to the accident. Annie tells Paul she is his biggest fan and is happy to nurse him back to health. When she reads that Sheldon has killed off one of her favourite characters, she’s not happy at all and will do anything in her power to make sure Sheldon writes a better ending.
In 1984, Stephen King wrote a fantasy novel called The Eyes of the Dragon. The novel was ravaged by his fans who claimed it childish and not what King should be writing. Misery is a metaphor for King’s feelings of being chained to horror fiction, unable to escape from the genre he had established himself in. Deeper still it is a reflection of King’s drug addiction at the time. The film is a tense psychological thriller at face value, but an allegorical plea by Stephen King at its core.
Throughout the film Annie yells at Sheldon that he cannot continue writing badly. He must not take away her characters. When a writer is at his or her best, the characters and events in their story bear so much meaning and cerebral heft it’s often hard to finish a story. Although the antagonist of this film is ludicrous in her actions, there’s still a human element within her we can relate to. We are all lovers of story. Why would we want our favourite novel to end?
#2 Barton Fink (1991) – Written by Joel and Ethan Coen
The Coen brothers are two of the biggest names working in film today. Their striking films which tip toe the line between humorous and horrific have earned them praise from the French Palme D’or to the Academy Awards. In 1990 the brothers had released two films and were working on their higher budget gangster flick Miller’s Crossing. For those that haven’t seen the film, Miller’s Crossing is a complex narrative told with multiple characters set in prohibition era America. The brothers struggled with the completion of the script as the narrative elements slowed down the writing process. To distance themselves from the project for a short time, the brothers wrote Barton Fink over three weeks as a cathartic catalyst to inspire their work once again.
The film begins with critically acclaimed playwright Barton Fink (John Turturro) starting work for big budget Hollywood movies. The studios tell Mr. Fink they are expecting big things from him and sign him to write “B-Picture” about wrestling. Fink struggles to begin, checking himself into an apartment with a crumbling façade so he can relate to the proletarian class through his writing. Over the course of the film, the hotel begins to fall apart and break down. A working class insurance salesman (John Goodman) befriends Mr. Fink through wrestling. A woman is found dead in the hotel. Fink approaches his deadline with nothing to show but mosquito bites. To put it simply, things get weird.
Barton Fink is a difficult film to analyse. Difficult in the way that it ambiguously presents the unfolding plot and the way the directors of the film explained their artistic choices. The Coen Brothers responded to the questions of story and structure stating that the film basically is a “social comedy which moves into the realm of the fantastic”. The great thing about this film is that the images presented throughout the story could reflect any number of things. I choose to see the film as a reflection of the Coen brothers’ inner turmoil writing Miller’s Crossing. Just as the protagonist of the film is inducted into Hollywood, so, too, were the brothers (working with obscure production companies up until Miller’s Crossing where they began work for 20th Century Fox.) Just as Fink struggles to begin his writing for the company, so too, were the brothers. It’s a case of art imitates life.
#1 Adaptation (2002) – Written by Charlie Kaufman
Ah, the pièce de résistance, Charlie Kaufman’s brainchild Adaptation. This film was nominated for a cavalcade of awards at the 2001 Oscars; best adapted screenplay, best actor, supporting actor; you name it. Kaufman is a genius of story structure and plot. Teamed up with Spike Jonze (director of Her, Where the Wild Things Are) the pair bring Kaufman’s mind boggling piece of work into filmic fruition.
In the year 2000, Kaufman was given the job of adapting Susan Orlean’s novel The Orchid Thief to the screen. What followed is basically the plot of the film Adaptation. An introverted screenwriter named “Charlie Kaufman” (played by Nicholas Cage) is given the book The Orchid Thief to adapt. He suffers writer’s block and has trouble transferring the relatively simple story to the film format. Meanwhile, the author of The Orchid Thief; “Susan Orlean” (played by Meryl Streep), meets a mysterious man called Laroche (Chris Cooper) who is deeply passionate for the Orchid flower. Charlie writes himself into his adaptation and is in the end thrown into a dangerous situation with Orlean and Laroche.
Now let us digress from the synopsis, the brilliance of Adaptation is the way Kaufman transferred his own story and emotions into the script. Not only did he include himself as a character, he writes himself writing himself into the adaptation he was given, with Orlean’s story running parallel; complicated right? That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Throughout the film, writing conventions such as the voice over and the “dues ex machina” are referenced and used, Charlie Kaufman’s brother (a fictional personification of Charlie’s antithesis) offers his wisdom, screenwriting guru Robert Mckee is portrayed; it goes on. The film culminates into a hugely complex piece of work; yet never feels that way. The best part about Adaptation is that it is at heart an uplifting film about a man taking control of his life.
At the time of writing, Kaufman was worried he was ruining his career by straying too far from the source material. It’s ironic because in a way, Kaufman’s script and writing style is similar to all writers’ out there. We all put ourselves into our writing (some more blatantly than others). We structure our stories with our own worldviews and mindsets, we understand and know the material we are working with, we put our mind and soul into each sentence, each word and each letter. We are our stories, and our stories reflect us.