10 Film Portrayals of Famous Authors


Last week, Tina Fey was awarded the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, and over the weekend PBS aired the made-for-TV ceremony. While they might have cut out some of the Sarah Palin digs, they left in a hilarious cameo by Alec Baldwin as Mark Twain. (In case you’re wondering, Baldwin looked and sounded more like Colonel Sanders than Twain.) It got us thinking about previous portrayals of famous writers, particularly in film. After the jump, we examine 10 of our favorite examples and try to determine which actors pulled it off best.

Allen Ginsberg

Left: Allen Ginsberg; Right: James Franco in Howl (2010)

Not only does Franco look a lot like Ginsberg, he has also copped to being a huge fan of his work: “The Beats were very important to me when I started reading literature more seriously in high school. They were some of the first writers that I read and fell in love with.” According to Howl co-director Rob Epstein, they knew Franco was a perfect fit for the role after hearing him read a few lines from Ginsberg’s epic poem: “He blew us away. It was hard for us to imagine anyone being able to embody a young Allen, but James just threw himself into the role and knew what was going on emotionally and intellectually for Ginsberg in every line of the script. He so gets into Allen’s skin. It never feels like impersonation. It feels like a deep, nuanced understanding,” he has said.

Edgar Allan Poe

Left: Edgar Allan Poe; Right: John Cusack in The Raven (2011)

Earlier this week the first photo of John Cusack on the set of James McTeigue’s The Raven surfaced online, and sneakers aside, it’s not a bad visual match. When he learned that he was playing the historic writer, Cusack tweeted: “ill play edgar allen [sic] poe in fall-a-film called the raven, send any poe- gold – my way as i begin this journey into the abyss.” Hopefully by the time this one hits theaters, he will have learned how to spell Poe’s name correctly…

Harper Lee

Left: Harper Lee; Right: Catherine Keener in Capote (2005)

While their physical resemblance is debatable, one of our favorite actresses playing one of our favorite writers is kind of a no-brainer. As Keener told The Independent, a lot of the work behind her Oscar-nominated performance was just good research: “There wasn’t a lot of material available. Just still pictures of Lee in dungarees, smoking and laughing. And some essays she had written about how she felt about things, compassion and love and justice. The rest I just sketched in. She’s very private and I didn’t want to bug her.”

Iris Murdoch

Left: Iris Murdoch; Right: Judi Dench in Iris (2001)

Judi Dench and Kate Winslet were both Oscar-nominated for their portrayals of Iris Murdoch in Iris. While it’s the younger, pre-Alzheimer’s version of the British novelist who we’d rather hang out with, we have to admit that it is Dench’s performance that breaks your heart. Not only is she a much better physical match, but according to many people who actually knew Murdoch, nails the author’s “unique quality of serious playfulness” and general eccentricity.

Jerry Stahl

Left: Jerry Stahl; Right: Ben Stiller in Permanent Midnight (1998)

In 1998, TV writer Stahl adapted his gritty addition memoir Permanent Midnight into a film starring Ben Stiller, who could be his twin brother. At the time, Stahl admitted to Entertainment Weekly , “The movie is an existential nightmare on some levels. But the upside is, Ben got it. If somebody played me and just did the khaki version, it could’ve been grim.” In fact, the two got along so well creatively that they planned to work on a handful of future projects together — including a film adaptation of Stahl’s 1999 novel Perv: A Love Story.

Oscar Wilde

Left: Oscar Wilde; Right: Stephen Fry in Wilde (1997)

Oscar Wilde and Stephen Fry don’t just look alike, they actually have a lot in common. Both of them are gay. They are both obsessed with fame. They both are well-known for their outspoken challenging of mainstream culture. In fact, Fry is so enamored of the dandy writer that he has actually referred to himself as Oscar. In his review, Roger Ebert wrote that the film, “has the good fortune to star Stephen Fry, a British author, actor and comedian who looks a lot like Wilde and has many of the same attributes: He is very tall, he is somewhat plump, he is gay, he is funny and he makes his conversation into an art. That he is also a fine actor is important, because the film requires him to show many conflicting aspects of Wilde’s life… [He] brings a depth and gentleness to the role.”

Susan Orlean

Left: Susan Orlean; Right: Meryl Streep in Adaptation (2002)

When Orlean found out that Streep would be portraying her in Adaptation, which is based on her book, The Orchid Thief, she was just as excited as most of us would be: “It somehow seemed like karma that she was going to play me. To have such a great actress wanting to play a character based on you is thrilling.” That said, they look absolutely nothing alike. Fun fact: The women both worked on The Deer Hunter back in 1978 (Streep as a star; Orlean as an extra) but they didn’t meet until a New York screening of Adaptation because Streep didn’t want it to influence her performance.

Sylvia Plath

Left: Sylvia Plath; Right: Gwyneth Paltrow in Sylvia (2003)

Paltrow portrayed Plath in Christine Jeff’s 2003 film Sylvia, and we think that she nailed it. Not that Frieda Hughes, Plath’s daughter and literary executor, was happy with the project. She not only refused to cooperate with producers or allow them access to her mother’s poetry, but also publicly denounced the film in a published poem. Paltrow’s response: “I had mixed feelings about it. As a person who’s in the public eye and who’s very protective of my own privacy, and as a daughter, I completely understood where she was coming from. But on the other hand, as an artist, I thought: here’s this incredible woman, who you’d be surprised by how many people have no idea who she was, and have never read the poems. So I thought, if there’s a way to get her out into the world more then it’s doing a great service to her.”

Truman Capote

Left: Truman Capote; Right: Toby Jones in Infamous (2006)

What were the odds that two biopics about Truman Capote would come out in two consecutive years? While we can’t deny the strength of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance in Capote — in fact, he won the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role — Jones (who you might have recognized as the voice of Dobby the House Elf in the Harry Potter flicks) really looked the part. As he told Entertainment Weekly , his biggest challenge was nailing Capote’s signature voice: “The voice coach and I tried to work out how a man came to sound like this. Watching him speak, freeze-framing , the first thing we thought was, He might be tongue-tied. You know, this thing [pulls tongue] is too short. ‘Cause you never see his tongue. But then in the later interviews — I watched everything — he kind of lets it roll out [hangs his tongue out like a worn-out dog] as he’s getting more out of control as a person. I was trying to actually use the voice rather than be trapped by it.”

Virginia Woolf

Left: Virginia Woolf; Right: Nicole Kidman in The Hours (2002)

Remember how scandalized everyone was by the fact that Kidman was going to ugly herself up to play the part of Woolf in Stephen Daldry’s film adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours? And all of the coverage of her enormous nose prosthesis? While they might have gone a little overboard, you have to admit that the transformation is impressive and it remains one of her best performances to date, scoring her the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role. That said, Kidman told Oprah that her kids remained unimpressed: “They didn’t like my new look! When I took my kids to see a movie the other night, Connor saw a poster for The Hours and said, ‘I don’t like that nose.’ He was like, ‘Uh-uh!'”