Writers on Film

From real-life authors to fictional writers, we examine this popular choice for main characters in movies

[Note: This is the second in a series that looks at the arts as they are depicted on film–films that are readily available through streaming services, many of which are free to Hamden residents through the library’s Hoopla and (newly acquired) Kanopy subscriptions. (Titles will be linked to the appropriate listing when available.)

“Write what you know,” is the proverbial mantra touted in high school and college writing classes around the globe. This, at least in part, explains the glut of books and movies that center around a writer as the main character—certainly in a disproportionate ratio to the actual number of writers in our midst. But this surfeit does not, thankfully, preclude the creation of a successful storyline, nor a satisfying film. Therefore, following last week’s look at art in film, let’s examine another baker’s dozen, 13 movies that focus on writers and writing.

We’re going to begin this survey with a film at the true-life, reality-based end of the fact/fiction spectrum. All the President’s Men faithfully follows Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s 1974 book of the same name through the investigative reporting process that uncovered the Watergate scandal and saw it through to its bitter conclusion. Robert Redford recognized the drama inherent in this story and brought it to the screen as producer and star (along with Dustin Hoffman). The 1976 film that won four Oscars and taught the film-going public the meaning of fact-checking and corroborating sources, still scores an impressive 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and is the benchmark to which more recent films like The Post and Spotlight must be compared.

Moving a bit farther toward fiction we come to the films based on the facts of real authors’ lives. Saving Mr. Banks, which stars Emma Thompson as Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers, explores not only Travers’ combustible relationship with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) over the 1964 production of the film starring Julie Andrews, but Travers’ bond with her own father to whom she paid homage in the character of Mr. Banks.

Goodbye Christopher Robin traces author A.A. Milne’s first forays into the Hundred Acre Wood in the company of his son Christopher during the painful aftermath of World War I through to the popular success of Winnie the Pooh. Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robie and Kelly McDonald star in this considered look at the sources and the pitfalls of Milne’s creative efforts.

Finding Neverland, too, delves into the workings of the creative mind. Based in part on the biography J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys by Andrew Birkin, the film casts Johnny Depp as turn-of-the-century playwright James M. Barrie whose friendship with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four young sons eventually inspires him to write the stage play and later book, Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Never Grew Up. Transitions from Barrie’s real-life to the special effect-driven depictions of the workings of his imagination are a highlight.

Now we’ll look at two films that take more poetic license with real authors’ lives—all in the name of romance. In Becoming Jane, Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy bring to life the speculation offered in the biography Becoming Jane Austen: A Life by Jon Spence that much of the romance woven through Pride and Prejudice can be attributed to Austen’s unfulfilled relationship with Tom Lefoy that began with a substantiated Christmas-time meeting in 1795. It is interesting to note that several writers contributed to the final script that produced what they termed, “our own Austenesque landscape”.

Shakespeare in Love, however, makes no claims as to the veracity or lack thereof in its story which delights in a comic depiction of a pre-Romeo and Juliet, would-be Bard of Avon (Joseph Feinnes) as he gives the slip to his creditors, bamboozles his producer (Geoffrey Rush) and sweet-talks his (fictional) paramour (Gwenyth Paltrow). The cast–a who’s who of British stage and screen—includes Judi Dench in her Academy Award-winning portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I. (Note that in the opening scenes there’s mention of the fact that The Rose theatre is just rebounding after six weeks of closure due to the plague.)

Next in line: pure fiction. The character in the story is a writer, but a fictional one, or purported to be so. The title novella from Norman McLean’s 1983 book, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories (available on Hoopla as an e-audiobook) is a thinly disguised (the names are not even changed!) autobiographical coming of age tale that Robert Redford brought to the screen in 1992. A River Runs Through It stars a young Brad Pitt and introduces audiences to a very young Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The Redford-directed film was shot on location in Montana and Wyoming and won an Oscar for Best Cinematography. Redford also serves as McClean’s narrative voice throughout. (McClean, who won the National Book Circle Critics Award in 1993 for his non-fiction work Young Men and Fire, can be seen fly-fishing in the film’s closing scene.)

The novel Finding Forrester by James Ellison was published in 2000 and released as a film starring Sean Connery as J.D. Salingeresque author William Forrester the same year. Directed by Good Will Hunting’s Gus Van Sant, it tells the story of how a chance meeting between the reclusive writer and Jamal Wallace, a literary-minded high school basketball star, leads to the unlikely duo building a rewarding friendship. Though somewhat overlooked in the U.S. at the time of its release, the film went on to win several international awards. 2014’s

The Rewrite pairs Hugh Grant and Marisa Tomei in a romantic dramedy about an Oscar-winning screenwriter who finds himself unable to write in the wake of his success and decides to take a job as a creative writing instructor at an eastern college (New York’s Binghamton University, writer-director Mark Lawrence’s alma mater). The hopeful enthusiasm of Tomei’s character finally pulls him out of his slump, while supporting performances from Allison Janey, J.K. Simmons and Chris Elliot provide a lively backdrop.

And, finally, meta-fiction: films that actually examine the phenomenon of fiction, its relationship to the writer and with the reader. We’ll ease our way into this one with Mr. Holmes, the 2015 mystery based on a book entitled A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullen (also available as an e-audiobook from Hoopla). The book and film allow the ever-popular fictional detective to graduate from character to author as he attempts, despite a ninety-three-year-old mind that is slowly being overtaken by memory loss, to reconstruct and record in a journal the mystery that had been his final case nearly thirty years earlier. Ian McCellan turns in a remarkable performance as the aged detective, frustrated with his own failings and casting aspersions on his former aide-de-camp, Dr. John Watson, whose ‘fictionalized’ versions of their cases add to Holmes’ confusions. Laura Linney’s subtle portrayal of Mrs. Munro, Holmes’ full-time housekeeper and oft-times caretaker seems to become one with the peaceful countryside to which Holmes as retreated. But perhaps most astonishing is young Milo Parker playing Roger Munro who at once becomes Holmes’ supporter, goad, and motivation.

Emma Thompson once again takes the lead in Stranger than Fiction as author Karen Eiffel who, in the process of writing her latest novel, is shocked to find that her main character, IRS agent Harold Crick (played by a much subdued Will Farrell) has begun to lead his own life beyond the confines of her imagined plot. Without the author’s permission Crick begins to make his own decisions and fall for the charms of baker Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal) that he has been assigned to audit. Monitoring the situation from her peculiar vantage point, Eiffel suddenly realizes that, despite her habit of eventually bringing about the demise of her protagonist, she does not want Crick to die and she sets out to find a way to prevent what seems to be inevitable. What on the surface appears, at best, to be a convoluted premise, leads to both humorous situations and Escher-like views of the nature of fiction and its relation to the author’s imagination.

We’ve arrived at what may be the most obvious choice in this category, The Hours, the 2002 drama based on Michael Cunningham’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Cunningham says that he hadn’t been much of a reader when he climbed aboard the library bookmobile and chose a book called Mrs. Dalloway to help him pass a part of his fifteenth summer. But by the time he closed the book for the final time he had come to the realization that the author, one Virginia Woolf, had been able to represent all of a character’s life in the hours of a single day–an idea that fascinated him into adulthood. His novel, and the film directed by Stephen Daltry use Woolf’s working title, The Hours, for a set of three ever-shifting stories that layer upon each other–one of Woolf (played by Nicole Kidman)’s own life, one of a modernized Mrs. Dalloway (Meryl Streep)and one of a woman (Julianne Moore) representing Cunningham’s own mother, who is deeply affected by her reading of Mrs. Dalloway. So rich are the layers in this story that it is difficult to predict the conclusion that is barreling toward the reader/viewer. And, even if you’ve seen the film before, as Daltry admits, it is designed to be viewed multiple times for optimum effect.

2016’s stylish Tom Ford-directed Nocturnal Animals is the most recent offering on our list. Starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhall and Armie Hammer, it is the story of art gallery owner Susan Morrow who one day receives an unexpected package from her former husband, Tony. The package contains, to her surprise, Tony’s completed manuscript of a book he calls Nocturnal Animals. As much intrigued by the fact that Tony has actually finished a piece of writing as she is by the book itself, Susan quickly begins to read. Alarmingly, as she progresses through the pages, she comes to realize that the story, though its plot is obviously fictional, is an analogy for her lost relationship with Tony, a poignant fact that begins to alter her perspective on her present life. This film is based on a 1998 novel, Tony and Susan which was written by Ohio-based author Austin Wright. When he wrote the book, Wright had recently retired from a near 40-year career as professor of literary criticism and creative writing at the University of Cincinnati. The book, which should be read to truly appreciate the multiple levels upon which this tale turns, embodies Wright’s theories of fiction and fiction readership and is written in the best tradition of “show-don’t-tell”, another mainstay in the canon of sound advice to would-be writers.

Did we overlook a favorite writer-based film of yours?  Comment and let us know.

Films included in this list:

  • All the President’s Men
  • Saving Mr. Banks
  • Goodbye Christopher Robin
  • Finding Neverland
  • Becoming Jane
  • Shakespeare in Love
  • A River Runs Through It
  • Finding Forrester
  • The Rewrite
  • Mr. Holmes
  • Stranger than Fiction
  • The Hours
  • Nocturnal Animals


  1. Great suggestions. Watching Hugh Grant in Rewrite now off Hoopla and I’ll revisit The Hours. I remember seeing it in the theater and such a deal was made over Kidman’s makeup that I couldn’t stop looking at her nose.

    I would also suggest My Left Food, the award winning film starring Danial Day Lewis about the Irish writer Christie Brown, Miss Potter w/Rene Zelwegger or Capote with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

    • Hi Mike,

      I know what you mean about the nose! Thanks for the other suggestions. I did include Miss Potter in the Artists post. It
      was difficult to decide which group it belonged to, but thought the animation of her drawings highlighted the art.

  2. Shakespeare In Love is a delight to watch. Heartbreaking as it was, I liked Atonement. I read the book and thought the adaptation was good. I never read Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption but I can watch the movie over and over again

Comments are closed.