How Writers Are Inaccurately Portrayed in Films
Quite often, fiction writers depicted in movies paint an unrealistic picture of how we come up with story ideas. Have you ever seen a movie where the writer can’t come up with a story or don't find success until they take the events that have happened on screen, write them down, and pass them off as fiction? Instantly, they’re wildly successful writers who just needed real world inspiration to thrive.
I don’t know about other writers out there, but that is not what I do when I write a work of fiction. Sure, I do draw from real life characters, places and events, but I don’t copy them word for word and then try to pass it off as fantasy. Coming up with original ideas is mostly done by combining imagination with interest in a theme, topic, or setting and taking it from there. Below are some examples of this lazy and inaccurate depiction of writers in movies.
Writers have to be careful when they draw inspiration from the people they know. If they give a villain the physical traits of their mother or use an embarrassing story that happened to their friend as a backstory for a character, for instance, they may find themselves having to explain their actions to these people. It is understandable that someone would think the worst whenever a writer seems to paint their friends and family in an unflattering light, especially to someone who has never seriously written a work of fiction and has wracked their brain to fill in the details of their story. It is not easy to come up with every detail out of thin air, as realistic as the characters or story may seem in their own head.
In films, the writer in the story can receive some serious backlash when they fail to disguise their inspiration for a particular character or story. In Something's Got To Give, Diane Keaton's character, Erica, writes a play based on her time spent with Jack Nicholson's character, Harry. When Harry walks in on the dress rehearsal, he is embarrassed by how negatively is portrayed and shocked by the realization that Erica kills him off at the end of the play. This makes her out to seem vengeful and even homicidal on a certain level, despite the fact that the scene is played for laughs. While it is clear that their time together weighs heavily on her and would inspire her next play, she copies dialogue word for word and paints a relatively unimaginative copy of what the cinematic audience has just witnessed. It downplays her character's reputation as a famous playwright and makes the audience feel that anyone could write a critically acclaimed play if they do the same.
Thinly Veiled Fiction
To suggest that a writer cannot write without copying from real life is insulting to our skills as writers. It underestimates a person’s imagination and ability to pick and choose scenarios to create the best possible story. After all, interior decorators do not create their wallpaper and furniture from scratch. Artists do not make their own paint, brushes, clay or whatever mediums that they use. They use pre-made tools and let their imagination run wild with those tools. So do writers.
In the movie Orange County, Colin Hanks' Shaun Brumder is a high school student who is passionate about pursuing a writing degree at Stamford University. When an error made by his guidance counselor causes him to not get accepted, he spends the rest of the movie determined to find a way in, fearing that the right education will keep him from becoming a writer. The one story that he has written is heavily based on his life at home. The fact that he hasn't written any others shows how he is waiting for new experiences at college in order to find new material. A conversation with his mentor makes Shaun realize how blindly his story was written, failing to see the themes and the deep connections that he has pieced together without realizing it. This is because of how close he kept the story to his real life and was merely retelling what he experienced everyday. It makes me question his skills as a writer.
Discouragement From Other Characters
Sometimes a character in a movie will be full of ideas and stories, but none of them are accepted by their readers, publishers, or critics. They are trivialized for their genre or content, and they are encouraged to draw from real life instead. Once they do, they become a success.
This interpretation of writers is illustrated in the film, Little Women. Jo is seen traveling from publisher to publisher in New York trying to get her stories published in different papers and journals. She is dismissed as a female author who writes from a female perspective, despite the fact that she writes adventure stories that would mainly appeal to male audiences. Once she does start to find some success, the critic that matters most to her, Friedrich, bluntly tells her that she doesn't put herself into her work. This comment hurts Jo to the point where she leaves everything behind to return home to her family and write down the story of her life. As a result, her book is published, and her adventure stories are left behind.
Expressing Ideas and Feelings
In terms of poetry, writers are encouraged to express their deepest feelings using rhythm, word choice, and style. While the speaker of the poem is not necessarily the poet, it is through the poet's perspectives that a feeling, idea, or story is told through poetry. Poets are encouraged to dig deep to find their inspiration and hope that they have the skills to craft a remarkable piece.
In the movie, My Girl, Vada is an aspiring poet who takes an adult writer's workshop over the summer in order to sharpen her skills. The assignments are confusing to her at first. She brings in rhyming poetry about ice cream and has trouble figuring out the purpose of a meditation session that they work on in class. Her internal monologue is full of deep thoughts that she misses because she isn't aware that she is having them. This is something that I can relate to, having passing thoughts fly by and not realizing until later that they had the potential to inspire a great piece of writing. It is not until she experiences a tragedy that she is able to come up with a poem that depicts her innermost thoughts and feelings. Again, it takes the imagination out of storytelling and makes the writer dependent on their surroundings to come up with a great piece of writing.
Characters Who Suffer With the Burden of Being a Muse
When writers draw inspiration from their family and friends, it's not hard for those people to identify themselves in the work, especially in the movies. As a result, they are left to deal with the effects of being that inspiration and questioning what the writer actually thinks of them. In the case of a story becoming famous and word getting out that the character was based upon that person, it adds another level of confusion and drama to a story.
In the movie, The Hours, it is mentioned several times by several characters that Meryl Streep's Clarissa was the inspiration for her friend's award-winning novel. He does little to disguise her, including every detail down to the street that she lived on. It is never discussed between the two of them, but Clarissa is constantly fielding questions about it and trying to convince others that the character is not her. She was just a model for the character. Her efforts turn out to be futile as anyone who has read the book can see plainly see the similarities.
How It's Done
There’s a scene in the movie, Inception that accurately depicts what writers do, though, the scene has nothing to do with writing but dream construction. In the movie, Leonardo Dicaprio’s character, Cobb, is training Ellen Page’s character, Ariadne, in the art of constructing dream worlds. He tells her to never recreate full places or memories. Take details from those real world scenarios and ground them into a re-imagined setting or situation.
“Always imagine new places,” he says.
This is what a fiction writer does. We reconstruct reality by blending bits and pieces of real life. When films suggest otherwise, it can cause confusion, upsetting our readers who know us, trivializing our process, and putting down the work that it takes to create a piece.
It is important that films depict writers accurately. After all, the movies themselves start out as a script on a page, created by a writer (or writers). It seems a slap in the face for a writer to underestimate the work of their colleagues by creating characters in their profession who cannot come up with their own ideas.
There is no reason why a great writer can't come up with an original story for their characters to write. It's what they as writers do, and it seems lazy to tell the same story within a story. The made up story can still depict the thoughts and feelings of the writer and what the experience during the movie itself. It just doesn't have to feel so familiar or make the writer seem to plagiarize their entire craft or use it to bluntly vent their frustrations with a situation or another character.
What is your favorite movie that features a writer, and how is that writer depicted in that movie? Leave your answers in the comments section below.