Whether it is for a novel or a newspaper, writing holds a distinct fascination, both for those who do it, and those who feel that they never could. There have been a vast number of films over the years that make writers and the writing process their focus – from true-life biopics to fictitious thrillers, hack journalists to tortured artists, and at home bloggers to uber-rich screenwriters. Some films simply include the job of writing as an element of a character, but many more make the writing process integral to the plot. It makes sense – after all, what does a screenwriter know better than what it’s like to write!
In honor of every person who puts pen to paper (or fingertips to keys), we’ve collected fifteen of the best films that feature writers and their work. Whether they are journalists, novelists, bloggers, screenwriters or poets, these movies brought great writers in front of the camera for a while, shining a light on the highs and lows of the industry.
15. Julie and Julia
Bringing the blogosphere to the big screen, Julie and Julia compares the lives of two women, both writing books in very different ways. Julie Powell (Amy Adams) is an unfulfilled office worker who used to dream of being a novelist, who finds joy in life through cooking. Realizing that she wants more, she decides to challenge herself to cook through Julia Child’s “Mastering The Art of French Cooking,” and to blog about it.
The film tracks Julie as she writes, and cooks. At the same time, it travels back in time to follow Julia herself (played by Meryl Streep) as she learns to cook and tackles the cookbook that Julie is following. A story to inspire any blogger (or home cook), it’s a sweet film that reminds us that not all writing is limited to novels, screenplays and high journalism.
14. The Ghost Writer
This political thriller centers on a ghost writer (played by Ewan McGregor, and referred to only as ‘The Ghost’), who is offered an extremely lucrative contract to finish the memoirs of Britain’s retired Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). With the memoirs half-finished by the previous ghost writer, it should be an easy job, but the writer soon discovers that the book contains some seriously sensitive material.
With Lang at the center of a political crisis and accused of criminal activity, the writer’s life may be in danger, and it seems that the previous ghostwriter may have been killed for what he learned. The Ghost Writer checks all the boxes of a great thriller, with Ewan McGregor’s performance as the centerpiece.
13. The Shining
Adapted from the Stephen King novel of the same name, this classic horror set in a haunted hotel stars Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, an ex-teacher who takes a job as the caretaker of an empty hotel for the winter. He hopes to pursue his true passion of writing, but an evil presence lurks in the hotel.
With his wife and son (who has “the shining,” a psychic gift) staying in the hotel with him, Jack starts to go mad, eventually feeling compelled to murder his family. His desire to become a writer is only a minor element in all the supernatural terror, although it is instrumental for one of the most famous scenes, where Jack’s wife looks at his “manuscript,” where only one line is written over and over on hundreds of pages: “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Consider this worst case scenario in the back of your mind if you ever decide to date a writer.
12. Midnight in Paris
A rom com with a magical twist, Midnight in Paris stars Owen Wilson as Gil, a successful screenwriter who dreams of being a novelist and a true artist. In Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams), his relationship seems to be in trouble, but he discovers something incredible: on a late-night stroll, he is picked up by a 1920s-model car, and taken to a party…where he meets Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
He discovers that he can now travel to the past, and in amongst the love triangles and life lessons, he talks romance and philosophy with the greats of literature and arts in the ‘20s, including Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. His writing is overshadowed by the relationships that form and break, but remains a major part of the film – along with the element of wish fulfillment. What writer wouldn’t want to go back in time to meet their own personal idols?
11. Moulin Rouge
A romanticized look at the life of a writer during the Belle Epoque in Paris, this musical extravaganza in the inimitable style of Baz Luhrman is a love story, but also a story about the world of the bohemian. When Christian (Ewan McGregor) comes to Paris to write, he finds himself drawn into the world of the Moulin Rouge, as a writer of a play the famous cancan hall intends to put on. Financed by an evil Duke (Richard Roxburgh) and starring their most beautiful dancer, Satine (Nicole Kidman), the play becomes an on-stage version of Christian and Satine’s off-stage love affair.
A stunning drama covering the stand that screenwriter Dalton Trumbo took in the 1940s, Trumbo is a remarkable achievement that earned star Bryan Cranston his first Oscar nomination. When Cranston’s Trumbo, and other writers, are accused of being Communists and blacklisted, he refuses to give in. Under various pseudonyms, he continues to write, producing some of the most beloved films of the era, including Roman Holiday and Spartacus.
A tense and beautiful biography of the rise and fall of a man who refused to sacrifice his beliefs for the sake of money, Trumbo is an incredible look at a very important political moment in Hollywood. Cranston has an excellent supporting cast behind him that helped bring this tale to life, including Alan Tudyk, Helen Mirren, John Goodman and Louis CK.
Any writer’s worst nightmare brought to life on the screen, this toe-curlingly terrifying thriller begins when renowned romantic novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is involved in a car crash on a lonely road. Rescued by Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), a nurse, he is taken to her remote cabin where he learns that she is his number one fan… and not entirely in control of her mind.
After reading his latest book, she reveals that no one knows where he is, and she intends to keep him there until he writes a new book, exactly the way she wants it. A haunting story of madness and obsession, Misery is a tense thriller that will give you nightmares, plain and simple.
8. The Help
A film about the impact that writing can have on the world, The Help is set in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s, as a young woman sets out to write something of great importance. Returning home from college to find that her friends are all getting married and having babies, Skeeter (Emma Stone) wants to be a writer instead.
At first, she takes a job writing a cleaning column for the Jackson Journal, but after speaking with Elaine Stein (a publisher in New York City), she is inspired to write about how the “help” are treated in Mississippi. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, and with powerful performances from Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, The Help is a beautiful film about a woman who will give up everything to write about what she believes to be right.
7. Shakespeare in Love
Possibly the most famous writer of all time, Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is the central figure of this fictionalized account of the Bard’s life. As a younger man, broke and struggling as a playwright (especially compared to his main rival, Christopher Marlowe), Shakespeare in Love keeps the bald facts of the titular character’s life, but adds a fictional muse to the proceedings – the lovely Viola De Lesseps (Gwenyth Paltrow), a lady who desperately wishes to be an actress.
After disguising herself as a boy in order to audition for one of his plays, the two fall in love, in a tragic romance that inspires the great playwright to create one of his best-loved works: Romeo and Juliet. A story of love and inspiration, the film is a beautiful historical drama about the joys of the muse.
A film about several writers all at once, Adaptation follows Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage), as he struggles to create a screenplay adaptation of “The Orchid Thief.” Neurotic, exhausted, and struggling to make the book work, he turns to his twin brother Donald.
Donald has decided to follow in his brother’s footsteps and become a screenwriter as well, but he is the polar opposite of Charlie. The two feel that there could be something more to the book, if only they could get up the nerve to talk to the author, Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), and find out exactly what it was. Connecting three different writers (and the man who is the subject of both book and film), the film is a funny and poignant look at how different personalities translate to the page.
5. Sunset Boulevard
Set in 1950s Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard is the story of a hack screenwriter desperate for cash and a has-been actress desperate for a comeback.
After a chance encounter, Joe Gillis (William Holden) agrees to act as ghost writer and editor for Norma Desmond’s (Gloria Swanson) script, which she believes will return her to her glory days. The story unfolds as Joe becomes accustomed to her money, even as he knows that her script will never be sold. He ends up in a love triangle, trapped in a life that he never intended to live, as Norma’s hold on reality weakens every day. A true classic, this look at Hollywood is often bleak, but balanced with black humor and richly detailed characters that make it come alive.
A hard-hitting look at the modern world of investigative journalism, Spotlight is the name for the investigative reporting unit of the Boston Globe. Comprised of an editor and three journalists, the team decides which stories they want to cover, and work in isolation, largely without deadlines (as long as they get to the bottom of the story).
Spotlight covers one investigation, into the systemic issue of child abuse in the Catholic church, and the role of the Archdiocese in the cover-up, which would go on to become one of the biggest scandals in modern history. Based on a true story, Spotlight is a riveting look at a controversial and emotionally loaded subject. With a phenomenal cast who balance each other out wonderfully, Spotlight is an absolutely riveting drama that very much earned the numerous awards (including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay) it was awarded.
Starring the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman as the one and only Truman Capote, Capote looks at the years that the celebrated author and playwright spent researching and writing “In Cold Blood” Often called the first non-fiction novel, “In Cold Blood” was inspired by a newspaper article about an unsolved murder in a small town in Kansas, and Capote headed there along with his friend Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) to investigate.
The movie is guided by a stellar performance by Hoffman, as Capote struggles to connect with the people that he interviews, and as he becomes fascinated by the life story of one of the murderers. The film takes an in-depth look at the life of a writer, and Hoffman won an Oscar for his work on it.
2. Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas (and The Rum Diary)
Hunter S Thompson’s lurid, sprawling tale of a journalist’s adventures “covering” a motorcycle race in the Nevada desert has become a cult classic. Starring Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke, the movie is a psychedelic look at drug use rather than a true dedication to journalism. Although Duke does make an attempt to cover both the race and (hilariously) a narcotics convention, these are side notes compared to the manic trips that he and his friend Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) go on, hallucinating orgiastic lizards, trashing hotel rooms, and generally behaving more like a rock star than a journalist.
While it’s not necessarily an accurate portrayal of journalism, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a gloriously uninhibited two hours of madness. Along with another Depp-starring Thompson adaptation (The Rum Diary), it’s a film that represents the idea of the artist addict in all his glory.
1. Almost Famous
Based on director Cameron Crowe’s experiences touring with rock bands, Almost Famous takes us back to the ’60s, as high school student William Miller (Patrick Fugit) dreams of being a rock and roll journalist. Writing for local underground publications, he manages to connect with a band through one of their groupies, and convinces the editor of Rolling Stone to let him go on tour with the band to write an article about it.
What follows is a coming-of-age story that is as much about his relationship with groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) as it is about the band or the assignment. A roller coaster of emotion, drug-fueled parties and conflicts on the road, it’s a beautifully touching film as well as a glimpse into the kind of rock and roll writer lifestyle that so many dream of.
What’s your favorite film centered in the world of writing? Let us know in the comments.