My Brilliant Career – 1979. Based on Miles Franklin’s 1901 novel of the same name, My Brilliant Career, directed by Gillian Amstrong, tells the story of Sybylla (played by Judy Davis), a free-spirited woman in late 19th-century Australia, who rejects the offer of marriage from a wealthy suitor, choosing instead to keep her independence so she can pursue her writing ambitions. Miles Franklin was the pen name of Australian writer and feminist Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin, who was also a great champion of Australian literature. Sybylla faces not only the social and political obstacles to wanting to pursue an independent path but also the challenges of being a writer. As the novel puts it: “I am afflicted with the power of thought, which is a heavy curse.”
Adaptation – 2002. From the pen of Charlie Kaufman comes this tale of a self-loathing writer, named Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicholas Cage), who is asked to write a screen adaptation of The Orchid Thief, the real-life non-fiction title by American journalist Susan Orlean. “Kaufman’s” struggles to adapt the book run parallel to the events of the book itself. Charlie struggles to write a successful adaptation of The Orchid Thief and his depression is compounded by his twin brother Donald’s selling of a clichéd thriller script for a six or seven figure sum. Suspicious of Orlean’s account of the events in the book, Charlie decides to investigate her, with Donald’s help, resulting in even more plot twists. Adaptation goes some why to explaining why writers tend to keep copious amounts of notes – there is so much going on in their heads. There is meta and then there is the brilliant Adaptation.
The Shining – 1980. As scary as it can be, writer’s block is not normally this horrific, but given that The Shining came from the mind of Stephen King, what is to be expected? Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the King horror stars Jack Nicholson and Shelly Duvall as Jack and Wendy Torrance, who agree to act as caretakers of an isolated hotel in the winter months, giving Jack the space he needs to write his book. Their son, Danny, appears to have ESP. I like to think the look of horror on Shelly Duvall’s face when she finds page upon page of her husband’s scribblings of the same line over and over – “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” – is the realisation that he’s a hopeless writer after all and not simply that he’s been possessed, which he has.
Wonder Boys – 2000. Writer’s block of a less horrific kind this time. In director Curtis Hanson’s 2000 comedy, based on the Michael Chabon novel of the same name, Michael Douglas plays Professor Grady Trip, a novelist and creative writing teacher who finds himself unable to finish his second novel. His younger (and third) wife has left him and he’s having an affair with the university chancellor, whose husband is the head of his department. To make matters worse, Trip’s editor (Robert Downey, Jr.) arrives in town and takes an interest in the work of one of Trip’s students, played by Tobey Maguire, who has his own issues.
The Royal Tenenbaums – 2001. Let’s face it, writers have a reputation, undeserved or otherwise, for eccentricity and, dare it be said, sometimes preciousness. Owen Wilson’s character in director Wes Anderson’s hilarious The Royal Tenenbaums is Eli Cash, an assistant professor of English literature and a novelist, whose latest tome, Old Custer, has propelled him to fame. Its success helps obscure his drug problem and insecurities, up to a point.