Saturday, December 03, 2016

Movies about Writers

Michael Grandage, dir. Genius (2016)

There's a very funny scene in Evelyn Waugh's novel Vile Bodies (1930) where his usual cast of upper-class snots have decided to make a film. For some incomprehensible reason, they've chosen the life of Methodist firebrand John Wesley as their subject, but are then faced with the inevitable problem of how to make a writer writing seem even vaguely dramatic.

The scene they end up is supposed to show Wesley writing a sermon, and so he does - for five minutes or so - dipping his pen in the ink and scribbling away. Needless to say, the movie is not a great success.

No doubt this was the inspiration for the Monty Python segment showing Thomas Hardy writing his latest novel in front of a huge stadium of adoring fans: "He's written a sentence," gasps the announcer. "Now he's crossed it out!" Due consultation of the manuscript of Jude the Obscure does indeed show a certain amount of indecision over the ideal wording for his opening.

It is, in other words, extremely difficult to make a good movie about a writer. Most of their lives are spent sitting at a desk of some sort, scribbling words with pencils or pens, or banging them out on a typewriter or a computer. Some (such as Rider Haggard) were forced by their various aches and pains to work standing up at a lectern; others (such as Henry James) would walk up and down dictating to a secretary; still others (such as Barbara Cartland - or Patricia Highsmith, for that matter) never actually got out of bed, but instead wrote with a ridge of comforting bedclothes nestled around them.

Whatever they did, however they did it, it's just not very watchable. It's not like the life of a soldier or an athlete - or even a politician. Everything significant in a writer's life goes on behind the scenes.

Be that as it may, I thought I'd assemble a bunch of representative examples to show some of the solutions ingenious directors have come up with. These can be broken down roughly as follows -

Woman-behind-the-man films:

Ralph Fiennes, dir. The Invisible Woman (2013)

Charles Dickens did have the advantage of being almost absurdly energetic in his daily life (after his long stint writing each morning, that is). The Invisible Woman tells the tale of his young mistress Ellen Lawless Ternan who - according to the movie, at any rate - was more-or-less pimped out to him by her own mother, who was finding it a bit difficult to make ends meet as an itinerant actor, and had to face the fact that Ellen showed no great talent as a Thespian. It's quite a tragic tale, and certainly doesn't present the old dog Dickens in a particularly flattering light.

Michael Hoffman, dir. The Last Station (2009)

Lev Tolstoy was - if anything - even more of a bastard, if this movie is anything to go by. It's funny how being obsessed with social reform and general injustice has now become a kind of stigma, rather than an accolade. Tolstoy's politics may have been a bit naive (I don't know: were they? They sound pretty sensible to me), but the film gives the usual line that he was wasting time which could have been spent on writing more novels like War and Peace or Anna Karenina (rather than ones like Resurrection). I doubt his Countess Sonya was quite so winsome as Helen Mirren makes her, but certainly - if you consider the rights of aristocrats to keep on living in the style to which they're accustomed as the ultimate aim of humanity - she did get a bit of raw deal. I don't know. It's pretty easy to criticise a person like Tolstoy. It must have been rather harder to be him - given that he clearly possessed that awkward thing called a conscience, and therefore could not be content just to enjoy his own wealth and power. Lovely movie, but not really, in the final analysis, at all profound or up to its subject.

Jane Campion, dir. Bright Star (2009)

John Keats comes out a bit better in this surprisingly sensitive and even moving bio-pic by Jane Campion. Anyone who's read Fanny Brawne's letters to Keats's sister knows that she was never the heartless minx portrayed in early hagiographies of the poet. Campion even manages to get in some not-too-unconvincing "writing a poem" moments into her film - but the heart of it is, of course, the love story. You'd have to be pretty hard-hearted not to see the poignancy of that: Fanny staying up all night to embroider a pillow-slip for the head of Keats's dead brother to rest on in his coffin was particularly affecting, I thought.

John Madden, dir. Shakespeare in Love (1998)

William Shakespeare almost certainly bore no resemblance whatsoever to the impulsive protagonist of this film - but then Tom Stoppard never supposed he did, which is why his screenplay is so full of in-jokes about the absurdity of bardolatry (the "Present from Stratford" mug in one of the scenes is a very nice touch). Perhaps that tongue-in-cheek flavour is why this is such a wonderful film. Even Paltrow-phobes (and we are many, I fear) can tolerate her in this role - though any pretence she could pass for a boy for even a second is, of course, absurd. The great thing is that it's meant to be. None of the cross-dressing feats in the Bard's surviving plays are much more convincing, after all.

Dan Ireland, dir. The Whole Wide World (1996)

Robert E. Howard may seem a little out of place among such exalted company, but those of us brought up on his - still surprisingly readable and entertaining - "Conan" yarns would see him as every bit as influential a writer as his more high culture contemporaries. This is the interesting tale of a young schoolteacher who got to know him in his final years. I'd say it was at least as good as Genius, the more recent Thomas Wolfe bio-pic pictured at the top of this post.

Richard Attenborough, dir. Hemingway in Love and War (1996)

This doesn't quite work as a movie, I'm afraid. It's interesting to learn how closely Ernest Hemingway's classic A Farewell to Arms was based on his own experiences in the war, but unfortunately it leaves one with more of an appetite to reread the novel than to speculate on just how all this suffering "made" him into a writer. Sandra Bullock does her best, but it's hard to stop the story subsiding into banality, which A Farewell to Arms somehow miraculously avoids by the sheer beauty and precision of its writing.

Brian Gilbert, dir. Tom & Viv (1994)

T. S. Eliot was clearly quite a hard person to warm to, but the hatchet-job which is Tom and Viv still takes a bit of justification. Vivienne Eliot was barking mad - there's no serious doubt about that. Even a couple of minutes of her on-screen is pretty hard to take, but when you think of the years and years of her antics Eliot had to endure, The Waste Land suddenly turns into a realist text. It may have made him a great poet (doubtful: "Prufrock" preceded her influence), but it's hard to imagine the kind of mind prepared to stand back and sneer at his final anguished decision to have her committed. It does all add up to a pretty good story, I suppose, but one that's a bit hard to justify in the real world.

Philip Kaufman, dir. Henry & June (1990)

Henry Miller had a lot to say about his sex-life, late and early. And it seems that the reams Anais Nin wrote about her own included the above interesting take on the events that inspired Tropic of Cancer, as well as Miller's later Rosy Crucifixion trilogy. Uma Thurman, as the "June" of the title, makes a rather unconvincing femme fatale, and all in all it might have been better to leave them all to the merciful shelter of the printed page. There are many laughs in the film, admittedly, but I fear the majority of them are unintentional. Richard E. Grant does his usual wide-eyed "which-movie-am-I-actually-in-this-week?" act. It's hard to say what the rest of them think they're doing, or what planet they're on.

Women-writers-getting-out-from-under films:

Tony Issac, dir. Iris (1984)

For a made-for-TV movie, this one isn't so bad. Helen Morse is very good as NZ writer Iris Wilkinson (aka Robin Hyde), though the whole thing could probably do with a more up-to-date remake sometime.

Michael Firth, dir. Sylvia (1985)

This, too, about NZ writer Sylvia Ashton-Warner is a valiant pioneering effort. It's a shame that (once again) an English person had to be imported to play a New Zealander, but Eleanor David certainly did a bang-up job.

Jane Campion, dir. An Angel at My Table (1990)

Jane Campion's Janet Frame film still holds up surprisingly well, 25 years on. The performances by the three leads are uniformly excellent - and the visual style of the thing reminds just why she is what she is: one of the greatest filmmakers (perhaps the greatest?) ever to come out of New Zealand.

Christine Jeffs, dir. Sylvia (2003)

This one, alas, is a bit of a mess. Daniel Craig makes a surprisingly good job of playing Ted Hughes, but Gwyneth Paltrow's Sylvia Plath has mercifully faded from the memory of all but the most dedicated movie-goers. It wasn't helped by the fact that the film-makers don't appear to have been allowed to quote any of Plath's actual poetry, so her character flaws are allowed free rein with little to offset them. I do recall some pretty scenery here and there - a nice boating scene off the coast of Cornwall (filmed here, I believe: near Dunedin), but the attempts to dramatise Sylvia's "breaking free" of her oppressive husband are, I fear, pretty unconvincing.

Byron-'n'-Shelley-'n'-Mary-Shelley films:

Ken Russell, dir. Gothic (1986)

This is an interesting sub-genre of the above. Clearly something happened that summer on Lake Geneva to inspire Mary Shelley's immortal Frankenstein - and it seems to have involved a lot of nightmares, thunderstorms, and prancing around naked on battlements (in Ken Russell's version, at least). Gothic isn't (as the title suggests) exactly a subtle film, but it's certainly very entertaining.

Ivan Passer, dir. The Haunted Summer (1988)

Which is more than can be said for this pallid effort. The "Frankenstein" effects mainly consist of an elaborate practical joke played on Lord Byron by his rather absurd "private physician" Dr. Polidori (or Polly-Dolly, as Byron called him). Given Polidori is played by Alex Winter, more familiar to most of us as Keanu Reeves' sidekick in the Bill & Ted films (complete with painfully overdone upper class accent), the whole thing falls rather flat.

Roger Corman, dir. Frankenstein Unbound (1990)

Unlike Roger Corman's splendidly weird version of Brian Aldiss's SF rewriting of the whole saga. Bridget Fonda plays the most spunky and spirited Mary Shelley to date, and Raul Julia's "Frankenstein" make-up has to be seen to be believed (though the poster above does give you a bit of an idea).

After that, I think the moguls of Hollywood must have thought better of following it up with a film of Liz Lochead's Dreaming Frankenstein or any of the many, many other versions of the story which continue to appear (my own personal favourite is Tim Powers' The Stress of Her Regard. Now that would make a pretty entertaining film, I reckon ...)

Anyway, that's my best attempt at an analysis of some of the more recent highlights of the genre. Feel free to point out any I've missed (I'm sure they must be legion).

Tim Powers: The Stress of Her Regard (1989)