Streaming: the best films about writers

Elisabeth Moss’s fevered turn as American gothic novelist Shirley Jackson is the latest chapter in cinema’s tireless quest to dramatise the literary life

The writer generally gets a raw deal in the movies: alternately romanticised and patronised in films that will do just about anything to depict literary genius except actually show them writing. As a process, it’s not inherently cinematic; the best films on the subject try to slip some sense of the writer’s mind into their verbal and visual language.

Newly out on VOD platforms, Josephine Decker’s Shirley plays fast and loose with the facts around its subject, the midcentury American gothic spellbinder Shirley Jackson. Rather than offering any kind of reliable biographical portrait, it instead fashions Jackson’s unglamorous romantic life as the kind of suburban horror fiction she might herself have written. As interpreted in jittery, fevered style by Elisabeth Moss, Jackson becomes a kind of housebound witch with a typewriter for a cauldron, both antagonising her young academic lodgers and feeding off them creatively. I have reservations about its monstrous portraiture, but it works as an atmospheric evocation of her work’s ghoulish, stomach-tightening power.

Cinema is still shorter than it should be on great Jackson adaptations – 1963’s original The Haunting (on Chili) came closer than Netflix’s recent mini-series version – but Decker’s film is a strange, ambitious interim measure. It put me in mind of the 1979 film Agatha (on Google Play), a similarly imagined, smoke-shrouded mystery that makes a suitable enigma of Agatha Christie, played with strange, sorrowful eccentricity by Vanessa Redgrave. It’s more interesting than watching some dreary dramatisation of Christie’s literary rise, though it’s an elusive tribute.

Kerry Fox in An Angel at My Table, Jane Campion’s lyrical study of Janet Frame.
Kerry Fox in An Angel at My Table, Jane Campion’s lyrical study of Janet Frame. Photograph: Moviestore/Re/Shutterstock

When it comes to at least somewhat more traditional literary biography, Jane Campion can claim the gold standard twice over. An Angel at My Table (1990; on Amazon Prime), her expansive, involving study of New Zealand author Janet Frame and the latter’s struggle with misguided mental health treatment, is classical in form but quietly matches Frame’s lyrical imagination. Bright Star (2009; on iTunes), Campion’s subtly swooning portrayal of the romance between John Keats and Fanny Brawne, isn’t just pretty but poetic in its imagery. Sticking in a period vein, I have a soft spot for Impromptu (1991; iTunes again), a drily witty account of the affair between French writer George Sand and the composer Frederic Chopin, which honours the former’s gender-questioning ideas to abbreviated but tart effect. By and large, the literary biopic genre has yet to catch up to a shifting, more diverse canon, though a poignant, straightforward 1979 TV adaptation of Maya Angelou’s memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (on YouTube, via the fine Reelblack channel) was an early counter-example.

Nicolas Cage as Charlie Kaufman and his ‘less gifted writing twin’ in Adaptation.
Nicolas Cage as Charlie Kaufman and his ‘less gifted writing twin’ in Adaptation. Photograph: Allstar/Columbia Pictures

In the ingenious scriptwriting farce Adaptation (2002; Netflix), which is split between memoir and deranged fiction, Charlie Kaufman served up a skewed self-portrait and an entirely imaginary vision of his less gifted writing twin, with an uproarious take-off of author Susan Orlean for good measure. Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek unsurprisingly captured the tortured tension between a writer’s personal and creative selves in her first and only feature screenwriting credit, Malina: in that rarely discussed 1991 film (available on Amazon’s Mubi channel), Isabelle Huppert contributes an unusually authentic, unmannered study in writerly mania.

But perhaps there’s never been a greater, more piquant film on the cruel ebb and flow of literary inspiration than Joachim Trier’s 2006 debut Reprise (Amazon again), following as it does the diverging courses of two friends with a common goal to become novelists. It’s the kind of wince-inducing study that makes a writer wonder how they could ever face a keyboard again – before spurring them back to the blank screen anyway.

Also new on streaming and DVD

Anne Hathaway and Stanley Tucci in The Witches.
Anne Hathaway and Stanley Tucci in The Witches. Photograph: AP

The Witches
(Warner Bros, PG)
Nicolas Roeg’s fiendishly macabre 1990 film of Roald Dahl’s children’s classic was scarcely improvable, but this sluggish, plasticky Americanisation from director Robert Zemeckis, new to DVD, falls almost perversely short of the mark, from the peculiar miscasting of an otherwise game Anne Hathaway to the brutally ugly visual effects.

French actress turned director Maïwenn trades in high-pitched, confrontational melodrama, with results that can be either exhilarating or irritating – or both, in the case of this family powder-keg exercise about a fractious, extended French-Algerian clan. It offers many funny, thorny scenes of personal warfare, but turns drippy when centred on the quasi-autobiographical self-help journey of Maïwenn’s own character.

The Outpost
(Lionsgate, 15)
An outnumbered band of American brothers hold down the fort against Taliban fighters in Afghanistan in this 2009-set combat drama from film-maker Rod Lurie (The Contender), adapting a US nonfiction bestseller by CNN correspondent Jake Tapper. We’ve been here before, but it’s a sturdy war film with a few more brain cells than average, led with commitment by Scott Eastwood and Orlando Bloom.

The New Mutants
(Disney, 15)
Shot in 2017, this youth-focused X-Men spin-off was delayed for so long that it became something of an industry joke. That the final film feels so indifferent – not a disaster for the ages, just a bit drab and tossed together – is the none-too-funny punchline, though its horror-lite approach is at least a new (and indeed mutant) angle in a clapped-out franchise.

Howl’s Moving Castle
(StudioCanal, U)
Hayao Miyazaki’s dizzy, tender-hearted Diana Wynne Jones adaptation gets an all-stops-out Blu-ray box set for its 15th anniversary, stuffed with extras and accessories right down to a set of customised drinks coasters. The film, however, remains the principal treat.

Howl’s Moving Castle, 2004.
Howl’s Moving Castle, 2004. Photograph: Everett/Rex Features


Guy Lodge

The GuardianTramp

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