I love movies. I always have. There is something about the medium of film that has always stirred me. Second to reading a book, watching a movie is one of my favorite activities. And, like any lover of movies, there are a couple of odd genres that I never get tired of:
- Movies about dysfunctional Italians.
- Movies about writers.
The former category is a topic another day (and probably another blog if I’m being honest). So, today, I will focus on the latter. I will tell you about three of the best movies about writers that I have seen.
Throw Momma from the Train
The opening scenes when creative writing professor and novelist Larry Donner, played by Billy Crystal, is struggling with writers block are classic and will resonate with anyone who has every struggled to find the right words and get them onto the page. Stuck on the phrase “The night was…” for months (according to his neighbor anyway), Donner is consumed by jealousy of his ex-wife who had stolen what would have been his best-selling novel and published it under his name. This is, of course, the real reason why Donner can’t write.
The movie progresses, and we see Donner with his class, explaining the concepts of how motives and alibis work in crime novels. He also has a public outburst, shouting that he hates his ex-wife and wishes that she was dead.
Donner also gets caught up with Owen Lift, one of his odd students who is played by Danny DeVito. In an attempt to help Lift improve his writing, Donner tells him to watch Hitchcock movies. Lift sees Strangers on a Train, the plot of which includes two strangers swapping murders, allowing them to easily establish alibis since their lives are otherwise unconnected. After hearing Donner’s outburst, Lift hops on an airplane, flies to Hawaii, and murders Donner’s ex-wife. When he returns, Lift says Donner is obligated to kill his mother.
Donner has a number of bizarre, twisted encounters with Lift and his mother that culminate with Donner — not Lift’s mother — being thrown from a moving train. While recovering in the hospital, Donner, in a flash of brilliance, starts jotting down the beginning of his next novel. The writer’s block finally lifted.
The takeaway for me is that Donner had to get out of his head and start living. Even though he would never want to replicate the time he spent with Owen Lift and Owen’s mother, their adventures together did give him something to write about.
Like Throw Momma from the Train, Wonder Boys is also about a creative writing professor and novelist. The hero, though, Grady Tripp, played by Michael Douglas, has a different problem with his novel-in-progress. Tripp can’t seem to finish his novel either, not because he can’t write but because he doesn’t cut anything. His novel is, in short, a wild, sprawling mess.
Tripp’s inability to make choices in his novel serves as a larger metaphor for his life. Tripp’s third wife Emily just left him, and he is having an affair with Sara, the chancellor of the university where he teaches. In a halfhearted attempt to reconcile with his wife, he tries to visit her but is rebuffed. Complicating matters, Sara has revealed that she is pregnant with Grady’s child.
For most of the movie, Tripp self medicates with marijuana and stumbles around in a stupor. After a particularly rough night, he calls the chancellor’s husband — the head of the English Department — and reveals that he is in love with Sara. After he made his choice, he has a physical fight with a man who claims that Grady is driving his car. The car was given to Grady as payment for a loan, but in all likelihood, the car was, in fact, stolen. As Grady is fighting with the rightful owner of the car, his manuscript, which was perched precariously on the backseat of the car, gets taken over by a gust of wind. There are papers everywhere, and there is no way that Tripp can gather all of it up.
As someone who has struggled to write a novel for years, I felt physically ill when I saw the manuscript from the movie was gone. At the same time, I recognize that Tripp’s novel was not one worth saving. The movie ends with Tripp putting the finishing touches on his next novel that he wrote some time later.
Reflecting on this movie now, the quotation “murder your darlings” comes to mind. As writers, it’s fine to have a wild first draft, but at some point, we must stop writing, and we must be ruthless with what we choose to cut.
Dead Poets Society
Released in 1989, I remember liking this movie a lot when I was in grammar school. I’m sure I could relate, though was not necessarily cognizant of, the film’s big themes. I attended at Catholic grammar school and could relate to the stultifying, strict environment to Welton, the fictional, all-boys college prep school where the movie takes place. Because the academy’s main objective is to get their students admitted to Ivy League schools, the academic demands are incredibly rigorous.
The students find joy poetry, and they resurrect a group called the Dead Poets Society, which was started by their beloved English professor John Keating, played by Robin Williams. From the beginning, Keating did not fit in the conservative Welton instructors and the harsh rein of Gale Nolan, the headmaster of the school. Once the boys learn of the Dead Poets Society’s existence, they attempt to re-create its practices by sneaking out at night and reading, reciting, or sharing their own poems. They begin to let loose, have fun, and think for themselves, which is what Keating wants them to do.
In a difficult twist, a beloved student Neil Perry, who adored Keating commits suicide when his father discovers he has disobeyed him and was cast in the leading role of a play. Perry’s father will not allow him to have an acting career, plans to yank him from Welton, and enroll him into a military academy for ten years. After the military, Perry’s father says that Neil will attend Harvard Medical School. Unwilling to allow his father to dictate the course of his life, Neil chooses death.
Keating gets blamed for Neil’s death and must leave the school. In a final act of defiance, the boys stand on their desks as Keating leaves his classroom after collecting his personal effects. Headmaster Nolan is shouting for them to sit down, but most of the boys continue to stand, a blatant act of defiance.
As someone who studied creative writing and poetry for three years in an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) program, I enjoyed seeing the amazing effects that poetry can have on young men who are in an otherwise extremely rigid environment. Poetry helped them find their voice, and it helped them start thinking for themselves at Keating’s urging, which all artists must do.
Your Favorite Movies About Writers
Which, in your opinion, are the best movies about writers? Tell me about your favorites in the comments!