Several weeks ago I wanted to relax after a long day of writing so I decided to watch a movie. And what could be better than watching a movie about a writer? Haha, we writers can’t get away from writing for long, can we?
Films about writers often give me an extra boost of inspiration and motivation. Seeing someone on the big screen struggling to craft their story reminds me that writing is a process. There will be ups and downs, but we have to keep striving forward.
I chose to watch Misery, the intense thriller based on the novel by Stephen King about a writer who gets kidnapped and tortured by his number one fan. No, it wasn’t very relaxing at all, but it was a gripping story. It got me thinking about the lessons about writing that we can learn from movies like these.
So today I’m sharing with you ten movies about writing that I’ve enjoyed and the different lessons I’ve learned from them. This list is far from exhaustive. It is not meant to represent the top ten best writing films of all time (believe me, there are many more fantastic movies about writing, and I could probably have made this list more than twice as long with all of them).
These are just ten entertaining films (in no particular order) that serve up some insightful lessons about writing and the writing process. I hope they will give you an extra boost of inspiration and motivation too!
10 Films About Writers When You Need Some Motivation
1. Misery (1990)
Plot: Best-selling novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) plans to end his career as a romance writer and focus on more serious novels. However, when a psychopathic fan (Kathy Bates) rescues him from a car crash and traps him in her home, he soon finds that switching careers will be much more difficult than he had originally thought.
What I learned: Well, I learned that some fans of your work might be crazy and try to kill you. All joking aside, I think this movie really does show how powerfully our writing can affect those who read it, how it can fill a void in their lives, for better or worse. That is a big responsibility for the writer. It also shows the importance of heeding your creative impulses. If you want to write in a different genre, don’t worry about what your fans or critics will say.
2. Midnight in Paris (2011)
Plot: Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), a successful but unhappy screenwriter, is struggling to write his first novel. While vacationing in Paris with his fiancée, he inexplicably finds himself traveling back in time to the 1920s and meeting his literary heroes.
What I learned: Okay, this film might just be on this list because F. Scott Fitzgerald (one of my favorite writers) makes an appearance. In all seriousness, though, the movie shows the importance of studying the greats (Pender’s fiancée is not supportive of his work, and Pender draws his motivation from the famous writers that he meets). There’s lots of great writing advice thrown about too, like this casual observation from Hemingway, “No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure.”
3. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
In college, I wrote a term paper on the films of writer-director Billy Wilder. I love the fact that he became a director so that he could have full control over the screenplays that he wrote. He always considered himself a writer first and foremost, and that allowed him to create several thought-provoking films about the struggles of writers.
Plot: Joe Gillis (William Holden) is a hack writer, trying to make it big in Hollywood until he meets Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a long forgotten silent movie star who hires him to help her write a screenplay for her film comeback.
What I learned: First of all, this is easily one of the best films of all time. It’s worth watching just for that reason alone. It also has a lot to say about not becoming a sellout. Gillis knows that Desmond’s screenplay is going to be a flop, but he stays with her just for the money. The film shows the devastating consequences when someone wastes their talent and becomes distracted from pursuing their dreams.
4. I Remember Mama (1948)
Plot: Katrin Hanson (Barbara Bel Geddes), an aspiring young writer, tells the story of her childhood in turn of the century San Francisco. Her parents are Norwegian immigrants who struggle to make ends meet but manage to provide a loving home for their children. Irene Dunne shines in the role of the wise and kind-hearted matriarch, Marta Hanson, who encourages Katrin to pursue her writing dreams.
What I learned: Katrin nearly gives up on writing after she keeps on receiving rejection slips. But, eventually, she learns that instead of trying to tell grandiose stories, she needs to first practice writing about “what she knows”: the stories that surround her in her daily life. It reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s observation, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”
5. Finding Forrester (2000)
Plot: Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown), a gifted inner-city teen, befriends a reclusive author, William Forrester (Sean Connery), who helps him develop his writing talent. Alternatively summed up as James Bond teaches writing.
What I learned: The movie shows the importance of finding a mentor who can help you grow as a writer. It also stresses the importance of sharing your work with the world. At one point, Wallace berates Forrester for hiding from the world and having a locked file cabinet full of writing that nobody else can read. He accuses Forrester of being too scared to “walk out that door and do something for somebody else.”
Below is one of my favorite scenes from the film.
6. Ace in the Hole (1951)
Plot: The cynical, disgraced big city reporter Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) winds up at a small Albuquerque, New Mexico newspaper. In an attempt to win back his former job, he sensationalizes a story about a man trapped in a cave and ends up turning the rescue attempt into a full-blown circus. (Another Billy Wilder film).
What I learned: This is a pretty bleak story, but one with an important message about the power of words and the responsibility of the writer to be honest about the stories he tells. It seems especially relevant now more than ever as we see the Internet flooded with emotionally manipulative articles with click bait headlines.
7. Almost Famous (2000)
Plot: 15-year-old William Miller (Patrick Fugit), an aspiring rock journalist in the 1970s, lands a dream assignment: writing a story for Rolling Stone magazine about an up-and-coming rock band while traveling with them on their concert tour. But he soon learns that the life of fame and fortune has a dark side. (Interesting fact: The story is partly based on director Cameron Crowe’s own experiences as a teenage reporter for Rolling Stone.)
What I learned: I love the sheer determination of William Miller to write his story and get it published in Rolling Stone at all costs. He doesn’t let his young age make him doubt his abilities as a writer or make him think that perhaps he should postpone his writing ambitions until he has more experience. It’s important for us writers to keep that youthful enthusiasm and never limit our dreams.
8. Julie & Julia (2009)
Plot: In 2002, Julie Powell (Amy Adams) starts a blog to track her attempt over the course of a year to make every recipe in Julia Child’s cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The film also jumps back to the 1950s to show how Julia Child (Meryl Streep) embarked on her culinary career.
What I learned: As a fellow blogger, I found Julie’s story quite inspirational. At first, she is discouraged when no one reads her blog except her mother, but she continues posting consistently and gradually builds a following. The movie shows the power of blogs to keep you accountable to follow through on your goals. They can provide a platform for you to document your progress and to share what you learn along the way.
9. The Lost Weekend (1945)
Plot: Don Birnam (Ray Milland), a washed-up writer battling alcoholism, ends up going on a bender for four days. (I promise this is the last Billy Wilder film on this list).
What I learned: Birnam struggles with perfectionism, self-doubt, and a really bad case of writer’s block. And no! Unlike the popular quote incorrectly attributed to Hemingway, “Write drunk, edit sober”, alcohol doesn’t help Birnam overcome his writer’s block. Instead, it only makes it worse. Many famous writers have struggled with an addiction to the bottle, and The Lost Weekend shows how they were not helped by alcohol but crippled by it. It also shows that one of the ways to overcome writer’s block is just to start writing. Here are several other tips from famous writers on how to overcome writer’s block.
10. Stranger Than Fiction (2006)
Plot: Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), an IRS auditor, suddenly hears an omniscient voice (Emma Thompson) narrating his life and discovers that he may be a character in a novel.
What I learned: I’m including this movie just because it’s fun to watch if you write fiction. There’s not a lot of writing advice, but it does show how the characters in your books often take on a life of their own. Don’t be too attached to the first draft of your novel or your original plot. The final draft might end up looking completely different and be all the better for it.
Have you seen any of the films on this list? Is there any film you would add? Let me know in the comments. And if you enjoyed this post, please share it with a friend.