What Makes a Writer Interesting as a Movie Character?

From a New York Times story by Alexander Huls that asks “What makes a writer interesting as a movie character?”

Screenwriting — a torturous act practiced in solitude while staring at a screen or typewriter, punctuated by a neurosis or two — is not an inherently cinegenic profession. Nonetheless, Hollywood has produced a catalog of movies that try to capture the trade, using a sprinkle of movie magic to transform the seemingly boring pursuit. Here’s a look:

Adaptation (2002)

The writer: Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) struggles to adapt “The Orchid Thief” by Susan Orlean in something of a love letter to the struggle of writer’s block.

How much we see him write: He continually reads his source material and dictates his bolts of inspiration into a recording device. He even makes multiple attempts at sitting at his typewriter, before giving up after 15 seconds.

Degree of neurosis: “I’m a walking cliché,” Kaufman tells himself at the beginning of the movie in a stream-of-consciousness purge of his negative thoughts and impostor syndrome that continues throughout the film.

Writerly moment: Charlie excuses himself from a party to go home to write, but instead flops down face first onto his bed because it’s easier.

Barton Fink (1991)

The writer: John Turturro stars as a playwright who is invited to Hollywood to write a wrestling movie. It proves to be more difficult than he anticipated.

How much we see him write: Despite spending much of the movie staring at an empty page, when Fink gets going on a beautiful Underwood typewriter, he tip-taps his way through a whole ream of blank paper.

Degree of neurosis: Fink is a cluster of writerly traits: Painfully awkward, lonely, eager for praise, quick to despair and driven by the idea that writing “comes from a great deal of pain.”

Writerly moment: Desperate for companionship, when asked about his writing by his neighbor at the hotel (John Goodman), Fink unspools an unprompted two-minute monologue about his literary ambitions. “I know sometimes I run on,” he apologizes.

Mank (2020)

The Writer: Exiled to an isolated ranch to dry out and recuperate from a broken leg, Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) sets out to write the screenplay for “Citizen Kane.”

How much we see him write: He occasionally dictates parts of “Citizen Kane” to an assistant (Lily Collins), but the film is more preoccupied with flashbacks of Mank’s past.

Degree of neurosis: Self-destructive alcoholism and gambling are combined with an eagerness to entertain that hints at a deep-seated lack of self-worth.

Writerly moment: Mank, on his recovery bed, surrounded by loose and crumpled pages, a tidy symbol of the not-so-tidy creative process.

In a Lonely Place (1950)

The Writer: Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), a struggling screenwriter, becomes a murder suspect when a woman who came to his apartment on business later turns up dead.

How much we see him write: You’d think being investigated for murder, while also falling in love with a neighbor (Gloria Grahame), would hinder productivity. Yet Steele writes an entire script in the course of the movie, a healthy amount of which we see him doing by hand on a legal pad.

Degree of neurosis: Anger management is a bigger concern for Steele, but there are small bursts of writerly insecurity, like when he jokes with someone, “One day I’ll surprise you and write something good.”

Writerly moment: After several all-nighters and days of writing, Steele assumes the official pose of his profession: exhausted, hunched over a writing instrument, elbow on a table, and hand on head as if trying to physically pull thoughts directly from his brain.

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