Hey there, bookworms, it’s National Book Lovers Day! How’s about celebrating by, um, watching a movie? (Our logic is less than ironclad, we’ll admit.) Sure, the moving picture doesn’t always do right by the written word, but a few fine films have celebrated literature and writers in ways memorable, thought-provoking, and entertaining; we’ve assembled ten of our favorites after the jump, with plenty of room in the comments for you to throw in your own.
Director Curtis Hanson’s 2000 adaptation of Michael Chabon’s wonderful novel (the adaptation is by Steve Kloves, who went on to adapt all but one of the Harry Potter books) tells the story of Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), a once-great novelist, now a blocked pot-smoking English professor who has to get his shit together over the course of a weekend-long campus literary festival. It’s a marvelous, perfect little human comedy, odd and funny and unassuming, like the movies Paul Mazursky and Hal Ashby used to make in the ‘70s, with a keen understanding of both those who write and those who love them (“She was a junkie for the printed word. Lucky for me, I manufactured her drug of choice”).
This 1997 comedy is one of Woody Allen’s darker pictures — it’s got an undeniable nasty streak, and some potentially troublesome attitudes about sex and male-female interactions. But it is also his most explicit examination of the creative process; the writer/director plays misogynist writer Harry Block, whose short stories are brought to life on-screen, and in contrast to the events in Harry’s own life that clearly (too clearly, for those involved) inspire them. The film’s closing scene (above), a wonderful fantasy sequence in which the writer comes face-to-face with his characters and tells them, “You’ve given me some of the happiest moments of my life. You’ve even saved my life at times,” speaks to the power of fiction in a way that both writers and avid readers can recognize, if not always articulate.
Documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Times of Harvey Milk, The Celluloid Closet) cooked up this documentary-docudrama-literary hybrid, a clever hopscotching of poetry performance, first-person narrative, and courtroom drama centered on the young Allen Ginsberg and his most famous work. It’s a film that dispenses with the tropes of the biopic and forges its own eccentric path. Not all of its contrivances work; not all of its beats are successful. But it is a passionate picture, alive with the power of Ginsberg’s words and the social changes that they summarized, anticipated, and helped usher into place.
The famed Algonquin Round Table — home of such immortal wordsmiths as Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Harold Ross, George S. Kaufman, Edna Ferber, and Robert Sherwood — was brought to vivid life in Alan Rudolph’s 1994 film, given extra power by the crackling performance of Jennifer Jason Leigh in the title role — one of the great “tortured writer” turns in recent memory. “Leigh gives as bold a performance as ever,” wrote Mick LaSalle in the San Francisco Chronicle, “outlining the extreme personality of writer Dorothy Parker with equally extreme choices in manner and speech — and then inhabiting that outline with quirky delicacy and subtleties of feeling.”
Neil LaBute’s 2002 adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s Booker Prize-winning literary detective novel/love story concerns a pair of improbably good-looking scholars (Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart) studying a pair of Victorian-era poets (Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle) who may have had a heretofore-unknown affair. Between the two parallel storylines, LaBute beautifully captures the eroticism of the written word — in both its writing (in the past) and its interpretation (in the present).
Screenwriter Charlie Kauffman’s clever 2002 meditation on writing, film, fiction, and fact concerns his own aborted attempt to adapt Susan Orlean’s nonfiction book The Orchid Thief into a studio screenplay; in the process, he grapples with questions of commercial viability, artistic integrity, and his own considerable neurosis. Few movies get into a writer’s head as convincingly and entertainingly as this one (particularly in his frantic voice-overs); as J. Hoberman noted in the Village Voice, “the movie’s title seems less a play on adapting Orlean’s book than a riff on the evolution of behavior helpful to an organism in a specific hostile environment. Which is to say that this parodic story of Hollywood creation is full of universal, or at least 20th-century, paramount needs — which is to say, yours, mine, and the movies’.”
This 2000 effort has been largely forgotten, seen by many as director Gus Van Sant’s lesser variation on the surrogate father-son themes of his 1997 hit Good Will Hunting. While certainly one of the filmmaker’s minor works, it is a warm, pleasurable picture with a wonderful leading performance by Sean Connery as William Forrester, a brilliant novelist turned Salinger-style recluse, brought out of a 40-plus year exile by a talented young writer (Rob Brown). Though Van Sant drops the ball at a key moment (by not, in the film’s climax, allowing the audience to actually hear this supposedly talented young man’s work), he gets the little details right; one of them, pointed out by Roger Ebert: “An early shot pans across the books next to Jamal’s bed, and we see that his reading tastes are wide, good and various. All of the books are battered, except one, the paperback of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which looks brand new and has no creases on its spine. That’s the book everyone buys but nobody reads.”
Perhaps the finest of all writer biopics, Bennett Miller’s 2005 Truman Capote picture is a quiet, moving, ultimately brutal and unforgiving account of a talented man who finds his greatest success, and just about sells his soul in the process. What begins as a New Yorker piece on the effect of senseless violence on a rural community becomes one of the great non-fiction books of recent literature, the first “non-fiction novel,” and the last work of substance that Capote would publish in the final twenty years of his life. The film postulates that in researching it, and interviewing the drifters tried and killed for murdering the Clutter family, that Capote gained their confidence, promised them help, perhaps fell in love with one of them, and then turned his back when it was time to finish the book. Appeals and stays of execution are all good and well when there’s interviews to conduct, but his great book needs an ending, and what better ending is there than two men at the gallows? Of course it’s not as black-and-white as that, and Capote’s moral dilemma, the struggle between his sense of right and his sense of commerce, the question of the value of life versus the value of art, is what sets Capote apart from conventional “source stories” and biopics.
Writer/director Noah Baumbach (Greenberg) is the offspring of writers, and their divorce during his teenage years inspired this tough yet funny work, which mines the rich psychological battlefield of divorce for its real pain and real humor. The characterizations of the writer parents are utterly unforgiving: father Bernard (Jeff Daniels) was once a successful novelist; he now teaches writing and hasn’t been published in years, though he remains a snobby, nearly insufferable blowhard. Mother Joan (Laura Linney) has inspired his hostility with her sudden success on the pages of The New Yorker, though she’s no model parent either. The Squid and the Whale is a slender film (at less than 90 minutes, it is less a novel than a richly detailed short story), but speaks volumes about the psychoses of talented literary types, and how they can turn their gifts into weapons.
Speaking of psychosis (and weapons), we conclude with David Cronenberg’s 1991 adaptation of William S. Burroughs’s novel — an iconic, acclaimed, and long considered unfilmmable work. Director Cronenberg ultimately achieved the task by filtering it through his own warped sensibility to create a singularly twisted experience; “As admirably faithless to genres as it is to Burroughs’ text,” wrote the AV Club’s Nathan Rabin, “Cronenberg’s hallucinatory Naked Lunch ricochets among deadpan black comedy, science fiction, surreal cloak-and-dagger intrigue, and psychological drama. But ultimately, it’s a fetishistic, haunting meditation on the mysteries of the creative process and a testament to the writer’s ability to transform tragedy into art.”