The Center Will Not Hold lands on Netflix today (October 27), an in-depth documentary into the life and work of one of America’s greatest writers, the essayist Joan Didion.
Filmmakers have a long-held fascination with famous writers. Just in the last year we’ve seen the release of movies about multiple authors, from A.A. Milne and J.D. Salinger to Thomas Wolfe.
But capturing genius or moments of inspiration in a compelling way is a tricky task. Let’s be honest, the optics are a bit, well, flat. Someone sitting in a quiet room in front of a typewriter or laptop hardly makes for interesting viewing, so filmmakers need to get creative, and some manage it better than others. So which are the best movies about writers? Which shine a light on the transformative and often rebellious act of writing, rather than simply manufacturing eureka! moments for dramatic effect?
Here’s our top ten.
10. Trumbo (2015)
Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston earned his first Oscar nomination with this performance as Dalton Trumbo, the screenwriter who penned films such as Roman Holiday and Spartacus anonymously after he was accused of being a Communist and blacklisted in the 1940s.
9. Patti Smith: Dream of Life (2008)
Patti Smith may be better known for her contribution to music, but she’s a writer too. In fact, her first book of poetry was published in 1972, three years before her first studio album, Horses, was released in 1975. Here she discusses music and her poetic influences, William Burroughs and Arthur Rimbaud, with honesty and composure, and even takes the viewer along to meet her parents.
8. Shakespeare in Love (1999)
The greatest writer of them all is portrayed as a struggling, though rather dashing writer in this Oscar-winning comedy of errors from director John Madden. Yes, it’s made up, and yes, there are some clanging references to Shakespeare’s plays and real-life peers, but it’s so much fun, we just had to include it.
7. Julie and Julia (2009)
Meryl Streep plays Julia Child, the legendary writer of hugely influential recipe book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, while Amy Adams takes on the role of Julie Powell, a modern-day office worker who dreams of being a novelist. The film tracks Julie as she cooks Julia’s recipes and writes about the results, while at the same time travels back in time to follow Julia as she learns to cook and writes the cookbook.
6. Regarding Susan Sontag (2014)
This documentary by filmmaker Nancy Kates is a good primer on the author and essayist Susan Sontag, starting with her precocious grade school performance, and going right up to her death. It portrays her as an articulate charmer, a literary giant, and a passionate political activist, who could be a cruel and formidable adversary both on and off the page.
5. The Invisible Woman (2013)
Ostensibly about Charles Dickens‘ 13-year affair with Ellen Ternan (Felicity Jones), this piercingly intimate film also gets to the heart of Dickens the writer, namely how a darker, more egotistical and possessive side undershadowed his genuine artistry and social idealism. Ralph Fiennes not only turns in a rich performance as the author of David Copperfield and Little Dorrit, but he directs it too.
4. Life Itself (2014)
Nowhere is the link between writing and life itself more clear than in this documentary about the late film critic Roger Ebert. Look, it’s even in the title. Ebert didn’t set out to criticize films, however; more often than not he celebrated them, and their ability to illuminate and uplift people’s lives. This film then, in a fitting tribute, is no exception.
3. Capote (2005)
Starring the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman as the one and only Truman Capote, this film is an account of the years the celebrated author spent researching and writing In Cold Blood, his unsettling “non-fiction novel” about an unsolved murder in small-town Kansas. Not only did Hoffman win an Oscar for his performance, but there’s a two-for-one deal on writers too, as Catherine Keener plays Capote’s friend and To Kill A Mockingbird scribe Harper Lee.
2. To Walk Invisible (2016)
Some viewers were disappointed this biopic of the Brontë sisters focussed on their altogether unsuccessful brother Branwell, but the trajectory of his personal failure forms a necessary backdrop for their extraordinary success. Written by Happy Valley scribe Sally Wainwright, it is a gritty depiction of nineteenth-century Yorkshire, where Emily, Charlotte and Anne Brontë wrote some of the most insightful novels of the day.
1. Adaptation (2002)
There’s definitely a theme emerging here, and that theme is “Meryl Streep.” Here she plays Susan Orlean, the author of a book being adapted by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who writes himself into this film about a self-loathing writer (is there any other kind?). He also gets Nicolas Cage to play him, and his fictitious twin brother “Donald,” who has an altogether different approach to screenwriting. The film is a funny and poignant look at how different personalities translate to the page, and how being loved is infinitely less important than loving something (anything).
Which one are you going to watch first?