The lives of writers are often as fascinating as their work. The movies we have selected here focus on people who couldn’t have been more different in terms of personality, social status and circumstances – from aristocrats to those living from day to day, from academics to political radicals, from those who achieved success during their lifetime to those who were ignored. The thing they have in common is that they wrote and often suffered for their work, and left us books to discover and enjoy over and over again.
Director: Jay Roach
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., John Goodman
Dalton Trumbo is a successful Hollywood screenwriter and novelist and mild-mannered family man who, due to his political beliefs, is tried for un-American activities, blacklisted and sentenced to years in prison, despite having committed no crime. Following his release, Trumbo works constantly under several false names, receiving no credit for his work, despite having authored two Academy Award winning scripts. In 1960, with the help of actor Kirk Douglas and director Otto Preminger, he is finally acknowledged again and able to rebuild his career.
Bright Star (2009)
Director: Jane Campion
Starring: Ben Whishaw, Abbie Cornish, Paul Schneider
A subtle visual poem, Jane Campion’s movie follows the romance between John Keats and Fanny Brawne, which began in 1818 and lasted until the poet’s death of tuberculosis in 1821, at the age of 25. Quick-witted, practical and interested in fashion, Fanny aspires to make her own living as a dressmaker.
John Keats is her opposite – shy, oblivious of his own needs and thinking himself a failure. Following the death of the poet’s brother, the two begin to spend more time together and fall in love, and their bond only becomes stronger as tragedy strikes.
The Last Station (2009)
Director: Michael Hoffman
Starring: Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Paul Giamatti
Based on the eponymous novel by Jay Parini, “The Last Station” focuses on the final months in the life of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. The 82 year-old-writer, who has started a Christian-Anarchist community, rejects private property, despite being a Count, and considers changing his will in order to leave his entire wealth to the Russian people.
His wife, Countess Sofya, feels betrayed and fights against the new will, in order to secure the future of her family. Viewing his life as something that he must leave behind, Tolstoy runs from his estate and dies near the Astapovo train station.
Miss Austen Regrets (2007)
Director: Jeremy Lovering
Starring: Olivia Williams, Greta Scacchi, Hugh Bonneville, Imogen Poots, Tom Hiddleston
Based on the surviving letters written by Jane Austen to her sister, Cassandra, and her niece, Fanny, this TV movie focuses on the final years of the writer’s life. Approaching her 40th birthday, Jane Austen is quick-witted, flirtatious despite her rejection of marriage, cynical and exasperated with the people who view her novels as romantic instead of social satire.
As her young niece becomes increasingly preoccupied with finding a husband, Austen reflects on her own past and the way in which her refusal to get married has affected her family.
Director: Bennett Miller
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins Jr., Chris Cooper
The movie focuses on the events that led author Truman Capote to write “In Cold Blood,” the last work he ever completed, as well as one of the first non-fiction novels. In November 1959, fashionable author Capote learns about a gruesome murder case where the four members of a family were brutally killed in their own home. Wishing to document the case, he travels to the small Kansas town where the events took place, together with his friend, fellow author Harper Lee.
After the two suspects are caught, Capote goes to interview them and forms a strange attachment with Perry Smith, one of the accused. The author attempts to provide proper legal representation for the two, but only manages to drag out the case, which ends up taking over his life. Eventually, Capote realizes that the reasons for his repeated visits to the prisoner are mostly selfish and manipulates Perry Smith into telling him his version of the events.
Director: Christine Jeffs
Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Daniel Craig, Blythe Danner, Michael Gambon
Young American poet and, later, novelist Sylvia Plath becomes infatuated with British poet Ted Hughes after reading his work. When the two meet, he reciprocates her feelings and they get married. Bothered by Ted Hughes’ persistent women admirers, Plath, already suffering from depression and having had several suicide attempts, begins to live in constant fear of infidelity on her husband’s part. Marriage, motherhood and growing success are of no help to her mental state.
When her worst fears come true, and Ted Hughes begins an affair with another woman, Sylvia leaves him, taking their two children with her. A sudden surge of creativity – during which she produces some of her most famous works – is followed by debilitating depression that eventually drives her to commit suicide.
Diector: Richard Eyre
Starring: Judi Dench, Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Bonneville
Based on the books “Iris: A Memoir” and “Elegy for Iris,” written by John Bayley, the movie documents the relationship between Bayley and his wife, the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch. When the pair met as young academics at Oxford University, Bayley was a shy, nerdy young man, easily dominated by the free-spirited, outspoken Iris and awed by her literary talent.
Decades later, Murdoch, who, in the meantime had become one of the UK’s most celebrated novelists, exhibits the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Her timid, passive husband assumes the role of caretaker, but can only watch as his wife’s mind deteriorates further and further.
Director: Richard Attenborough
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Debra Winger, James Frain
Set in the 1950’s, the movie tells the story of the romance between author C.S. Lewis and the woman who would become his wife, American poet Joy Gresham (née Davidman). Reserved bachelor C.S. Lewis, called “Jack” because he dislikes the name “Clive,” is a Professor at Oxford University and shares a house with his brother.
When Joy Gresham, with whom he had maintained a two-year correspondence, comes to Oxford, accompanied by her son, the writer’s world is turned upside down. The American is outspoken and direct, creating quite a stir amid the stern Oxford professors. Lewis is, at first, intrigued by her intellect and manner and, as their friendship deepens, he learns the details of her troubled marriage. Following her divorce, the two get married in 1956, but the union is a brief one, as Joy soon becomes gravely ill.
Director: James Lapine
Starring: Judy Davis, Hugh Grant, Julian Sands, Bernadette Peters, Emma Thompson
The movie provides a fictionalized look into the beginning of the relationship between author George Sand and composer Frédéric Chopin. Famously dressing as a man and writing under a male pseudonym, Baroness Aurore Dupin sets her sights on the sensitive up-and-coming composer and begins to pursue him.
Upon hearing that Chopin was invited to spend some time at the country house of the Duchess d’Antan, Aurore/George decides to invite herself to the party, not knowing that several of her former lovers are also in attendance. Among them is composer Franz Liszt, whose jealous lover, Countess Marie d’Agoult, pretends to be in love with Chopin and does everything she can to prevent the relationship from happening. Awkward hilarity ensues.
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)
Director: Paul Schrader
Starring: Ken Ogata, Kenji Sawada
The movie provides a fictionalized account of several episodes in the life of Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima, set in parallel with dramatized scenes from three of his novels. One of the major figures of 20th century literature, considered for the Nobel prize on several occasions, Mishima was also a political radical who, after a failed attempt at a coup d’état, died by committing seppuku, ritual suicide, in 1970. Though sickly as a child, Mishima later became a follower of bushido, the samurai code of honor, and kept a strict physical regimen for the last 15 years of his life.
Though aware of his homosexuality from an early age, he followed social rules by marrying and having children. In 1968, he formed a radical private army, whose actions would lead to his death.
Anca Rotar is a Romanian-born writer, over-thinker and caffeine addict. She is the author of two books, Hidden Animals and Before It Sets You Free, both available from Amazon.com. Among her interests, which she finds it hard to shut up about, she counts fashion, yoga, city breaks and deadpan sarcasm. She is also currently studying Japanese, so wish her luck. You can sample bits of Anca’s creative writing here.