Writers in movies: “Little Women”

I haven’t done one of these in a while. I assume you’ve all seen Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, so I don’t have to include spoiler alerts.

The difficulty with portraying writers in movies is that they’re mostly boring people, and what they do is mostly boring. Scribble scribble. In Little Women, Jo March is scribbling in her attic room by lantern light. When she finally gets the idea that she should be writing the story of her family rather than fantastical adventure stories, she starts scribbling really fast. This is fine, because I would watch Saoirse Ronan scribbling names from the telephone book. But anyway, Greta Gerwig has Ronan’s right hand cramp up, so she switches the pen to her left hand and keeps scribbling. This is a lovely touch!

And then we see the accumulating pages laid out on the attic floor. Five pages, then quick cut to ten pages, then to twenty, and so on. She’s making progress! This is fine, but I was bothered by the lanterns on the floor illuminating the pages. That’s because I had PTSD from the scene earlier in the movie when sister Amy burned Jo’s novel page by page after Jo wouldn’t let Amy join her and Laurie at the theater. Don’t put the pages of your novel near a source of fire, Jo!

In the movie we get a big, sisterly fight when Jo discovers what Amy has done, then some parental words about forgiveness from Marmy, and a couple of scenes later Jo and Laurie save Amy from drowning after she falls through some pond ice. Don’t do it, Jo and Laurie! Drowning in icy water is a fitting punishment for burning someone’s novel!

I digress. The scenes of grown-up Jo negotiating with the hard-nosed New York editor are lovely. I was afraid the whole flashback approach Gerwig came up with would be irritating, but it wasn’t at all. (The Irishman uses a double-flashback structure that also worked OK, although the complexity of the device seemed unnecessary.) Anyway, Gerwig took a big risk, I thought, when she goes all meta on us and has Jo and the editor discussing the climax to her book, and he convinces her to have a scene where the heroine gets together with her hot boyfriend Friedrich — a scene that didn’t take place in real life or in the real book. But that’s the scene we see in the movie. And it was nicely done! (The excellent 1994 version of the book just includes a comparable get-together scene with the boyfriend — Gabriel Byrne in that case — without the narrative hijinks.)

Anyway, the movie was really good. Bring your hot writer boyfriend or girlfriend to see it.

Richard Adams

Amidst all the dispiriting deaths in 2016, that of Richard Adams didn’t get a whole lot of attention.  But his Watership Down was a masterpiece, I think.  In it, he created a world so vivid, so completely realized, that it rivaled Lord of the Rings.  And it was about, you know, rabbits. Forty years later, I still look at a rabbit nibbling on some grass and I think of the word silflay.

I read his second novel, Shardik, and I thought it was just okay.  I didn’t bother with The Plague Dogs.  But Watership Down is forever.

“Would that the dead were not dead! But there is grass that must be eaten, pellets that must be chewed, hraka that must be passed, holes that must be dug, sleep that must be slept.”


Writers in movies: A Walk in the Woods

Another in a random series.

A Walk in the Woods, a film based on Bill Bryson’s travel book about hiking the Appalachian Trail, seems to be a small-scale hit.  At the showing we went to, the median age was about 70, and everyone seemed to enjoy it.  The reviews have not been kind, though, and the reviews are correct.  The scenery is great, but the movie tries too hard to be zany and wacky and crazy, and the result is disjointed and just not very funny.  Also, what’s up with casting Emma Thompson as the wife of a guy in his seventies?

The main character, of course, is a writer.  In real life, Bryson was a middle-aged guy who took on  the Appalachian Trail mainly because he had a book contract.  That’s motivation enough!  In the movie, he’s an old man who is taking on this challenge because he’s facing the reality of sickness and death.  And the movie actually has a motif of Nick Nolte saying something like “Don’t put that in your book!” whenever something embarrassing happens, and Redford responding “I’m not writing a book!”  He has a notebook, but the only thing we seem hi put into it is a note to his wife when they’re in a bit of trouble.  Only at the very end, when Nolte seems to tacitly give him permission to write about their adventures, do we see Redford start the book.

In other words, because this is mild middle-of-the-road entertainment (and it stars Robert Redford!), they chose to downplay the fact that the main character is supposed to be a working professional writer, in favor of a vague Everyman schtick.  The result is amiable but empty.  And Emma Thompson needs better roles!

A Spool of Blue Thread

Anne Tyler is a writer who faded from my attention over the years, but you know . . . she’s very good, even though, like most novelists, she seems to write the same book over and over again.  Here is the beginning of the Washington Post review, which captures what I felt:

The characters in “A Spool of Blue Thread” look like the same Baltimore family members we’ve socialized with for 50 years in Anne Tyler’s fiction. In fact, everything about her new novel — from its needlepointed title to its arthritic plot — sounds worn-out.

So how can it be so wonderful? The funky meals, the wacky professions, the distracted mothers and the lost children — they’re all here. But complaining that Tyler’s novels are redundant is like whining that Shakespeare’s sonnets are always 14 lines long. Somehow, what’s familiar seems transcended in these pages, infused with freshness and surprise — evidence, once again, that Tyler remains among the best chroniclers of family life this country has ever produced.

(I should say, though, that my lovely wife begs to differ and believes that, at age 75, Tyler has forgotten how to be funny.)

BookBub sends me an email every day with blurbs about all the thrillers and mysteries and bestsellers they have on sale. And they all sound the same.  Like so:

After a US colonel is murdered in Istanbul, Special Agent Vin Cooper suspects a serial killer is at large — but the truth is even more terrifying…


When a young professor is horribly murdered, coroner Sara Linton uncovers the work of a twisted mind — one that is all too ready to kill again. And her past could hold the key to catching him…


Special Agent Jack Randall is determined to catch the elusive shooter responsible for killing a prominent lawyer. But to find the murderer, he’ll have to delve into his own haunted past…

Some of these books are surely great, with quirky characters and clever plots and great writing.  But somehow I never end up buying any of them.  But now I have to go back and read all the Anne Tyler novels that I missed.  I need fewer special agents with haunted pasts and more quirky Baltimore families.

In which I run into Edgar Allen Poe

I was walking from the Boston Common over to Jacob Wirth’s after my road race when I ran into this guy with his pet raven at twilight:

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Poe was born in Boston in Boston in 1809, although he went to Virginia soon afterwards.

Poe’s reputation has risen since his death and stays high. In addition to being a writer of fiction and poetry, he was also a good literary critic.  Here is Wikipedia summing up Poe’s opinion of our old friend Heny Wadsworth Longfellow:

A favorite target of Poe’s criticism was Boston’s then-acclaimed poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was often defended by his literary friends in what was later called “The Longfellow War”. Poe accused Longfellow of “the heresy of the didactic”, writing poetry that was preachy, derivative, and thematically plagiarized. Poe correctly predicted that Longfellow’s reputation and style of poetry would decline, concluding that “We grant him high qualities, but deny him the Future”.

“We grant him high qualities, but deny him the Future” — is that prescient or what?

Here’s more about the Poe statue.

The road race, you ask?  Don’t ask.  Here’s a photo of the pack going into Kenmore Square.

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Notice that my part of the pack isn’t exactly “running”. The folks heading in the other direction, back from Kenmore Square toward the Common–they’re running. Sheesh.

Writers in movies: The Romantic Englishwoman

Another in a random series.

The Romantic Englishwoman is a 1975 movie with A-list credentials: it stars Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson, it’s co-written by Tom Stoppard, and it’s directed by Joseph Losey (who also directed Accident and The Go-Between).  I love Tom Stoppard, but I hated this movie.

Caine plays a successful novelist and screenwriter; Jackson is his do-nothing, dissatisfied wife.  They have a beautiful kid, a beautiful house, beautiful friends, a nanny, but, well, you know.  Jackson goes off to Baden Baden for reasons she can’t articulate.  Caine is insanely jealous.  She comes home and in turn is jealous of him and the nanny.  He decides to write a screenplay about all this.  He invites the good-looking drug dealer she met in Baden Baden (Helmut Berger) to stay with them, basically trying to stage-manage his screenplay.  There are complications.  Jackson runs off with the drug dealer; Caine goes in pursuit.  They get back together again, in an abrupt ending that neither my wife and I understood in the slightest.  But perhaps that’s because we had long since stopped caring.  (By the way, that sexy poster has nothing much to do with the movie, although Jackson does have a brief, weird nude scene.  It’s kind of depressing to think that she’s now 78.  We should all stay young and gorgeous forever!)

You can see that intelligent people were behind the movie.  It’s about fiction mirroring reality (or maybe vice versa), and it seems like half the shots in the film involve showing someone’s reflection in a window or a mirror.  The plot has the makings of a thriller (the drug dealer is being pursued by bad guys), but the movie shrugs this off in favor of baffling deep meanings.  (And the Caine character tells his producer that he doesn’t want to write a thriller.)  But the movie didn’t bother making anyone even slightly sympathetic, so I just wasn’t interested in the deep meanings.

Caine’s character isn’t particularly interesting.  He’s a selfish jerk, which is of course entirely accurate for a writer, but we don’t get any sense of why he’s so successful, what makes him tick, or how he writes.  I can think of a couple dozen Michael Caine movies that I enjoyed more.  And virtually anything else by Tom Stoppard.

Writing as an act of faith

My friend Jeff Carver has a nice post up about writing as an act of faith, and how that faith was unexpectedly rewarded for him the other night.

As he says, writing is an act of faith almost by definition.  Maybe hubris is a better word — you have to think: I have the talent and the resolve to bleed out 70,00 words that will entertain and maybe also uplift and inspire a host of unknown readers.  (Actually, for Jeff it’s more like 200,000 words.)  And, of course, you have to be prepared for your faith to be shaken when you read your first draft.

I have one quibble with his post.  He is working on his second draft in front of a roaring fire at a secluded B&B on Cape Cod.  Frankly, anyone can write a frickin’ novel sitting in front of a roaring fire at a secluded B&B on Cape Cod.  Real authors write their novels while police are shooting at bank robbers outside their windows.  Let’s see him try that!

Writers in movies: Young Cassidy

In honor of Saint Patrick’s Day, here’s an Irish writer in this occasional series. This time it’s Young Cassidy, the 1965 biopic of Irish playwright Sean O’Casey starring Rod Taylor, Maggie Smith, and Julie Christie.

As you can see from the poster, the movie doesn’t emphasize his writing. OK, it doesn’t mention it at all.  But boy, do we get an idea of what his soaring male senses are up to.The writing does show up in the actual movie, of course.  But they aren’t able to do much with it.  We just get a peek at him now and then staring with grim determination at a blank sheet of paper or a typewriter, in between his brawls and his romances.  (The young, gorgeous Julie Christie only has a few couple of scenes, but she makes, um, quite an impression.)

The movie really isn’t very good — and it was a flop at the box office.  Mostly it’s just a bunch of more or less disconnected episodes from O’Casey’s autobiography, never building to much of anything.  But we do see Rod Taylor betraying his best friend by making him a character in The Plough and the Stars — that’s a nice writerly touch.  And (spoiler alert) the ever-faithful Maggie Smith finally dumps him, realizing she isn’t cut out to be the wife of a famous writer.  Another nice touch.

Anyway, if you want to experience more of Rod Taylor’s soaring male senses, here is the the trailer (assuming I can get the embedding to work):

Writers in movies: Stuck in Love

Another in a random series.

Stuck in Love is a pleasant indie movie from 2012 starring Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Connelly.  Here’s the IMDB summary:

An acclaimed writer, his ex-wife, and their teenaged children come to terms with the complexities of love in all its forms over the course of one tumultuous year.

What the summary leaves out is that both the kids are writers (or would-be writers) as well — the father (Kinnear) is determined to make them novelists like him.  So we’re given a whole family full of writers, which is a recipe for dysfunction and angst if I ever heard one.

The writer/director, Josh Boone, drops quotes from Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor into the script and clearly has a sympathetic sense of the writing life.  Here’s something he gets right: The movie begins with Kinnear preparing Thanksgiving dinner for his son, who is in high school, and daughter, who home from college.  At dinner the daughter drops the news that her novel has been accepted by a major publisher.  The predictable result is that dinner is ruined.  The father is upset that she abandoned the novel he has helped edit and written an entirely different book over the summer; the brother is so jealous of her success that he can’t be at the same table with her.  Writers are just awful!

Here’s what Boone gets wrong: The daughter writes a novel over the summer, sends it to her agent, who submits it anonymously and gets it accepted by a major publisher, and page proofs are ready by Thanksgiving?  Really?  In what universe?  (I’m into the fifteenth month of working on my current novel, so I may be feeling especially grumpy about this part.)

The father has written two successful literary novels, but has had writer’s block since his wife left him.  The writer’s block is reasonable; I’d be pretty upset if Jennifer Connelly dumped me.  But, with no other apparent income, he still manages to live in a gorgeous ocean-front house and pay his daughter’s tuition to college.  How does that work?

Later in the movie, the son writes an SF short story, which his sister gets hold of.  Then what?  Without telling the brother, the sister sends it to Stephen King, who loves it so much he gets it published in a major SF magazine and calls the kid to let him know.  Of course.  Happens all the time.  (I remember the stories I wrote when I was in high school; just thinking about them makes me cringe.)

In other words, this is a typical movie world, where success comes too easily and is rewarded too much; love is what’s hard.  It makes me appreciate the world of The Wordsin which the writer is talented and hard-working, pours his soul into his novel, and gets exactly nowhere.  That’s a lot more like the real writing life.

Writers in movies: Their Own Desire

Another in a series.

Their Own Desire is a 1929 movie starring Norma Shearer. Here’s the Wikipedia synopsis:

A young woman is upset by the knowledge that her father is divorcing her mother in order to marry another woman. Her own feelings change, however, when she falls in love with a young man who turns out to be the son of her father’s new love.

First thing’s first: this movie is terrible.  Norma Shearer chews enough scenery to get an Academy Award nomination (she lost to herself, for The Divorcee, so I guess she couldn’t feel too bad about the defeat).  But the plot is primitive, and everyone else in the case is pretty bad, particularly Robert Montgomery as her love interest, maybe because he has to say lines like this, at a moment of high drama:

I’ve got the little ol’ canoe down at the landing; let me run you over to the little ol’ love nest.

The writer in the movie is Norma Shearer’s father, who splits his time between writing novels and playing polo at his club.  Apparently those were the days when writers belonged to clubs, and polo was a thing they played there.

The only reason why Dad is a writer and doesn’t have some other high-class occupation is so that to movie can include a scene where he describes to Norma Shearer the plot of his latest novel, which involves a 45-year-old married man falling in love with another woman.  Our heroine’s response is to laugh at the very idea of an old man like that falling in love.  Little does she know that the novel is based on her father’s own life, and soon frumpy old Mom will be dumped for the glamorous Mrs. Cheevers.  Irony!

Their Own Desire is bad, but still I’d rather watch a bad movie from 1929 than a bad one from 2014.  The past is a different country, and it’s interesting to pay a visit now and then.