Stranger Than Fiction: Movies for Writers

One of the best things about Christmas is the feast of good movies sure to be on TV. Keep an eye out for these gems: my favorite movies about writers, writing and (more often than not!) writer’s block…

Stranger Than Fiction

Not many people seem to have heard of this movie on this side of the pond – I don’t think it was released in cinemas here – and those who have wrinkle their noses at the idea of a semi-serious film starring funnyman Will Ferrell, better known for getting his hairy, wobbling midriff out at every comedic opportunity. But trust me: this is a fantastic film, and it’s all about the writing of a novel.

Will Ferrell is Harold Crick, a lonely IRS agent whose life is lived within dreary routine. That is until one morning, while brushing his teeth, a woman’s voice begins to narrate everything he does, sometimes with frightening insight into his innermost thoughts and feelings. Thinking he’s going mad, Harold seeks the help of caffeine-crazed Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), a professor of literature theory, who determines that Harold is a character in a novel-in-progress, and the voice in his head is that of Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), an eccentric and reclusive writer famous for killing off her main characters. His imminent death is really bad timing for Harold who has just started to embrace life, stepping outside of his comfort zone to chase the affections of a kooky baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and realize a childhood dream of learning to play the guitar. His only saving grace is that elsewhere in town, Karen has a severe case of writer’s block and can’t figure out how to kill him. He must get to her before she does, and convince her that his life is worth more than the creation of a literary masterpiece.

Every time I watch this movie it warms my heart, and breaks it just a little. Will Ferrell plays Harold in such an understated way that the smallest glimpse of new life in him is a revelation, and even though I wouldn’t call it a comedy, it does have plenty of laughs. Stocked with a stellar cast and centered around what most of us spend all day trying to do – writing a book – what’s there not to like?

(If you’re in the UK, you can watch Stranger Than Fiction on Christmas Day. See comments for details. Thanks Keris!)


Not only one of my favorite movies about writing, but one of my favorite movies full stop. Socially-challenged, depressed and agoraphobic LA screenwriter Charlie Kaufman struggles to adapt New Yorker writer Susan Orlean’s book The Orchard Thief for screen, unable to find a strong narrative in Orlean’s story about John Laroche, an orchid poacher from Florida. He also struggles to tell the girl of his dreams, Amelia, that he loves her, while his infinitely cooler twin brother, Donald, dates Caroline, a beautiful make-up artist working on the set Being John Malkovich, a movie for which Charlie wrote the script. As Charlie sinks deeper and deeper into writer’s block, he travels to New York to meet with Orlean (but gets too nervous, and sends Donald in his place) and reluctantly attends a three-day “Story” seminar led by screenwriting guru Robert McKee. (Donald has had great success with McKee – despite never writing a script before, since taking McKee’s seminar he’s managed to sell a cliché-drenched action thriller, The 3, for six figures.) This is all interspliced (is that a word?) with scenes from The Orchid Thief as adapted by (the real life) Charlie Kaufman, an Oscar-winning screenwriter, and is based on his (real-life) attempt to adapt the (real life) book written by (the real life) Susan Orlean after his (real life) success with his Being John Malkovich screenplay, and (the real life) Robert McKee does do “Story” seminars, although Kaufman didn’t attend one. Also, he doesn’t really have a twin brother, even though Donald has a writing co-credit on the screenplay and the movie is dedicated to him.

Confused much?

The self-referential aspect of this movie may make your head hurt but it’ll be so worth it. With an amazing cast – Nicholas Cage, Nicholas Cage again, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Brian Cox – Adaptation works on about fifteen different levels and will remind you that your writer’s block ain’t all that bad. Renowned film critic Roger Ebert said it’s a movie “that leaves you breathless with curiosity, as it teases itself with the directions it might take. To watch the film is to be actively involved in the challenge of its creation.”

The TV Set

I discovered this movie by way of Netflix during my first few weeks in Orlando, where thanks to my no job/no car/no English-speaking roommates situation, DVDs by mail were my best bet for an enjoyable evening. I’d never heard of it before, but I’m so glad I found it. It’s hilarious, and offers what I suspect is a fairly accurate insight into the way writers are (mis)treated by the Hollywood machine. The movie’s tag line says it all: “The place where dreams are cancelled.”

Special Agent Mulder – I mean, um, David Duchovny – is delighted when a TV pilot he wrote is green-lighted. This delight is short-lived, however, when he meets the reality of getting a pilot made. Even though they loved his idea, the studio now wants to change every single thing about it. Two characters make this movie: Sigourney Weaver as the bull-headed studio head and Judy Greer as Duchovny’s inappropriately optimistic agent. Ioan Gruffudd adds some serious eye-candy as a TV exec newly transferred from the BBC, stunned by the antics of his US colleagues.

For the movie version of this exact same story, see Christopher Guest’s funny but flawed For Your Consideration.

And the best of the rest…

The better known writerly movies all seem to stay on the dark side: The Shining (writers block leads to crazy), Misery (beware of Number One Fans) and Secret Window (don’t go to an isolated cabin in the woods to finish your novel – trust me on this one.) You could also squeeze 1408 in there, because technically John Cusack is staying in that hotel of horrors to do research for a book.

If you’d rather get inspired than get the crap frightened out of you, there’s a few touchy-feely writing movies too, where old, wise writers inspire new, not so wise ones. Alarmingly, all these movies seem to exclusively feature men and boys. In Finding Forrester, a black teenager from the wrong side of the tracks befriends a reclusive writer played by Sean Connery, and writing ensues. In Wonder Boys, Michael Douglas is a creative writing professor in a movie where pretty much everyone is sleeping with everyone else. (A very different kind of touchy-feely…) Finding Neverland is another brilliant movie, which I didn’t think I’d like but actually really enjoyed. Johnny Depp plays playwright J.M. Barrie who during the writing of his play, Peter Pan, befriends Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her young sons, who inspire the story. Have the Kleenex at the ready – this one’s a right heart-wrencher!

If you catch any of these over the Christmas period or you’ve seen them already, let me know what you think!

13 thoughts on “Stranger Than Fiction: Movies for Writers

  1. Michelle Gregory says:

    i LOVE this movie, everything about it. Emma Thompson is superb as the eccentric author, Will Farrell is fantastic as Harold, and Maggie G. is a super love interest.

    another great writer movie is Shadows in the Sun with Harvey Keitel. some great quotes and moments between an older, discouraged writer and a young, just starting out writer.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I love that I’m finding other people who love Stranger Than Fiction!!! I was in the US when it was released so I presumed it hadn’t been released here since no one’s ever heard of it, but apparently it was it just didn’t do so well. SUCH a shame. Still, we can spread the word now! 🙂

      Will add Shadows in the Sun to my movies for writers to watch in 2011 list – thank you!

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I just re-watched it on DVD last week again.. And even though I of course knew what was going to happen, was in floods as per usual. It’s one of the movies I watched when I was in Orlando at the beginning, living in Apartment Hell and spending my days at Downtown Disney – and it’s how I found there’s an adult space camp! 🙂

  2. Marcus says:

    “Stranger Than Fiction” is great. It certainly was released in European cinemas. It’ll never be a mainstream choice, but more people should hear about it. And “Adaptation” has so many layers, where do you start. The coolest thing is that the screenwriters guild, officially credited the fictitious twin brother as co-author, in the real credits. Look on IMDB. Those guilds don’t usually have a sense of humour, they don’t even allow the Coen Brothers to both appear as director. So it’s quite something.

    I can recommend a newish writer-related film starring Daniel Bruhl. “Lila, Lila”, English title: “My Words, My Lies – My Love”. It’s based on a novel by best-selling Swiss author Martin Suter. A romantic comedy with great pokes at the whole publishing industry. I haven’t read it yet, but Suter’s debut “Small World” was an international success and one of those hot books. So he knows what he’s writing about.

    Bruhl plays a young waiter who wants to ask a girl out, but she’s a very intellectual literary type with snooty friends, and doesn’t notice him. One day he finds a manuscript in an old table he’d bought at the flea-market. He scans it, puts his own name on it and gives it to her. It works. She likes it and they start dating. But she sends it to a publisher. It becomes a huge bestseller, the hot book of the year, and he gets plunged into the publishing world. A while later, the real author arrives on the scene too…who is clever enough to blackmail him into being the “young pretty face” who sells the books, using him as the sales platform. And all along, our hero didn’t want to be a writer, he just wanted the girl…problem is she’s “only into writers”, as she says.


  3. Jamie Clarke Chavez says:

    Found my way here from your current Christmas shopping post and just have to add that I also love “Stranger Than Fiction.” But then I’m on the American side of your pond and was more exposed to it. Also thought you might add “Becoming Jane” (Anne Hathaway, James McAvoy) to your list of movies about authors. Whether it’s accurate or not, those who love Jane Austen will be intrigued (I loved it). I also enjoyed “Miss Potter” (Rene Zellweger). “The Door in the Floor” (Jeff Bridges) is made from a piece of John Irving’s “A Widow for One Year” and is worth renting if for not other reason than the interview with Irving in the extras; he talks about writing. One last interesting experiment is the movie version of Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity.” For one thing, it shows the power of lists as a narrative device; but it also has an interesting lesson on setting. Read, then watch. 🙂

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