“The Words”: What would you do to become a successful novelist?

The Words is a movie about writers and writing.  Not a very good one, alas.  The basic plot is straightforward: an unsuccessful writer comes across a manuscript in an old briefcase he buys in Paris.  The manuscript is brilliant.  He passes it off as his own and becomes famous.  Then the real author confronts him, and complications ensue.

Except they don’t, really. The complications are actually in the narrative structure.  The unsuccessful writer (played by Bradley Cooper, of all people) is just a character in a novel written by a successful novelist (played by Dennis Quaid, of all people), who is narrating the story to a rapt audience.  By the end we are made to wonder if the successful novelist is really writing about an episode in his own writing career–did he, too, get his start by stealing someone else’s work?  The writers seem to think it’s sufficient to hint at this possibility without resolving the question.  I guess they deserve some credit for not going in for cheap melodrama.  But the plot is filled with so many holes and absurdities that it doesn’t really matter.  I lost interest early on.

Part of the problem is that it’s really difficult to dramatize a writer on screen.  Writers, and the writing life, are just too boring.  The only interesting portrayal I can recall is in The Wonder Boys.  Let me know if I’ve missed any.

But I did find the movie’s central premise poignant. In this post I pondered Oliver Sacks’s self-threat to commit suicide if he didn’t finish a book in ten days, and I felt a twinge of sympathy. Here I pondered a young writer who evidently plagiarized parts of her first novel, and I felt a twinge of sympathy.  In the movie, the unsuccessful writer has poured three years of his life into a novel that is supposedly pretty good but completely unsaleable.  Now he risks his career, his self-respect and, ultimately, his marriage to achieve what he has always dreamed of–to win the awards, to be on the front page of the Times book review, to be something more than just another unsuccessful writer with a boring job at a publishing house, his nose pressed up against the window as he gazed in at the powerful and the talented and the just plain lucky.  And I suppose yet again I felt a twinge of sympathy.  If only the movie had made more of that . . .

3 thoughts on ““The Words”: What would you do to become a successful novelist?

  1. Good review. I’m like you, I can’t think of a movie that compelling portrays the writing life. You’d think there would be something on Hemingway. His life might make for an interesting story.


  2. Pingback: Writers in movies: Love Actually | richard bowker

  3. Pingback: Writers in movies: Stuck in Love | richard bowker

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