When Writers Are the Story: Films About Famous Authors

Biopics, movies that tell the story of a famous real-life person, are usually about larger-than-life figures: presidents, prime ministers, war heroes, athletes—people whose lives are full of drama. When it comes to making films about artists and creative types, musicians tend to be the easiest subjects; directors can always fill screen time with the music itself, recreating famous performances or recording sessions.

Writers may be the hardest. Imagine the action in the script: “The writer sits alone at her typewriter. She stares into space. She types some words, stares some more, then types more words. She breaks for lunch.” Fortunately for filmmakers, great writers are often tortured souls with tumultuous personal lives, and that’s what author biopics tend to focus on, for better or worse. The newest example of the genre is Mary Shelley, which opens May 25 and stars Elle Fanning as the Frankenstein author.

Here’s a short rundown of some notable biographical films about writers.

This 2005 film follows the eccentric writer Truman Capote, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, as he researches and writes his best-known work, the pioneering true crime book In Cold Blood. After reading an article about the murder of a family of four in rural Kansas, Capote decides to write about it and heads to the heartland with his childhood pal and fellow writer Harper Lee, played here by Catherine Keener. Things turn messy when Capote gets emotionally attached to one of the killers, Perry Smith. He intervenes in the legal proceedings to delay Smith’s execution, partly motivated by the need to keep interviewing Smith to glean more info for his book. Hoffman won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance, and the movie also got nominations for Best Picture and Best Director (Bennett Miller). Roger Ebert wrote that Capote “focuses on the way a writer works on a story and the story works on him.”

The Hours
Director Stephen Daldry’s 2002 film (based on a book by Michael Cunningham) is anything but a conventional author biopic, as it interweaves the stories of three women in three different decades, the common element being Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway. First, we see Woolf herself—played by Nicole Kidman in an Oscar-winning turn—as she writes the book in 1923 while struggling with depression and feeling trapped by her husband. The other stories concern an unhappy housewife (Julianne Moore) in 1950s suburbia and a present-day New Yorker (Meryl Streep) with an AIDS-stricken friend. Woolf’s 1941 suicide bookends the movie, which garnered nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.

The End of the Tour
David Foster Wallace was one of the most influential and celebrated writers of his generation. Best known for the sprawling postmodern novel Infinite Jest (1996), Wallace battled depression and took his own life at age 46 in 2008. In The End of the Tour, Wallace, played by Jason Segel, is seen through the eyes of David Lipsky, a Rolling Stone reporter who spent time with Wallace during the publicity tour for Infinite Jest. The 2015 film was widely lauded by critics, including Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers, who called it “an illuminating mediation on art and life.”

Kill Your Darlings
This 2013 movie chronicles the Beat Generation writers in their formative years, when their radical ideas began to take shape in midcentury New York City classrooms and barrooms. Daniel Radcliffe stars as the young Allen Ginsberg, who arrives as a freshman at Columbia University and befriends fellow student Lucien Carr, whose circle also includes future literary greats William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. Mind-expanding debauchery ensues, but the literary fun is complicated by the fraught, codependent relationship between Carr and an older professor, David Kammerer, who ends up dying after a physical confrontation with Carr. The facts of the case remain murky decades later. Reviews for Kill Your Darlings were generally positive, with The Guardian opining that the film “creates a true sense of energy and passion, for once eschewing the clacking of typewriter keys to show artists actually talking, devising, and ultimately daring each other to create and innovate.”

Miss Potter
If angst, depression and grit aren’t your thing, forget the above movies and consider Miss Potter, the pleasant 2006 film starring Renée Zellweger as Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter. As the story begins, Potter is 30, a self-described spinster still living with parents who only grudgingly recognize her creative talents. Potter’s books are eventually released to great success, and she even finds romance with her publisher, Norman Warne, played by Ewan McGregor. The movie includes animated sequences where Potter’s characters come to life, and it has the visual charm and pastoral look you’d expect from the director who previously made Babe, Chris Noonan. Zellweger received a Golden Globe nomination for the role.

Are we missing any of your favorites? Tell us in the comments below.

Mark is Art Director at Half Price Books Corporate.

One thought on “When Writers Are the Story: Films About Famous Authors

  1. Really good list, Mark. However, you missed one of my all-time favorites: “Miss Parker and the Vicious Circle” (circa 1994). It’s the story of Dorothy Parker, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh in the titular role. ****

    Nevertheless, I just added “Kill Your Darlings” to my dvd.com queue. It’s new to me. Thanks! 🙂

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