Tom Jolliffe on what makes writers a popular choice for a protagonist…
There are many popular archetypes for a cinema protagonist. How often do you see a cop as the lead character in a film? It’s a regular character choice, particularly in action and thriller films. Almost every protagonist needs some kind of vocation I suppose but one particular career of choice that has regularly been used, has been that of the humble writer. Just why are writers so regularly cast as the protagonist of books and films (and on many occasions books turned films)?
Well one simple thought to start might just be the old adage of writing about what you know. It’s almost meta, but a book or a film needs to be written, so said writer casts a wordsmith as his central character. Maybe it has a piece of themselves within the story. See Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation for example) where Kaufman split himself into two on screen, with Nic Cage playing twin writers. One of whom a very direct representation of Kaufman, and the other a more exaggerated extension. Stephen King has a long standing history in casting writers as the protagonists in his books, and a number of those of course were adapted to film. He’s also never been adverse to scraping around into some of the darker areas of his psyche.
In most of these films, which find a writer central, there’s a kick off point. Maybe they need to write something (Barton Fink, Swimming Pool), tasked with doing their work, or they suffer consequences directly from their work (Misery, Stranger Than Fiction). There are several consistent aspects of a writers character that have been often used. Writers are outsiders, loners. If they exist within a family dynamic, they’re often closed off from the family, a barrier existing. That’s been seen most evidently in something like The Shining. In Kubrick’s version, Jack Torrance lacks a certain warmth and connection. He’s almost fraying at the beginning of the film, a long standing history of potentially violent explosions (as he makes reference to accidentally breaking his son’s arm years prior). Nicholson portrays the increasing descent into madness without restraint, but with total, terrifying conviction. Are writers that crazy? I’m a bit out there, but I don’t envision ending my days frozen in the middle of a maze, post axe-wielding meltdown.
The loneliness these writers feel can thus evolve into a number of ways. It can become violent like Torrance in The Shining. Sometimes though, it drives a distance between them maintaining relationships and truly understanding people. Occasionally there’s an arrogance, something that leads the protagonist in Misery to becoming imprisoned by a super-fan who saved him from a car wreck. His selfishness compounds her possessiveness as a reader. She’s frustrated at him killing off a beloved protagonist. It’s a great film of course and an interesting counterpoint to Torrance in The Shining. Indeed in a more comical way, that inability to empathise and a particular arrogance is evident in As Good as it Gets. Once again Jack Nicholson is cast as a writer, but this time he’s more of an obnoxious curmudgeon.
Writers might find themselves cold to people, but bewitched by them as potential characters in future stories. This can become particularly evident in the regular trope where the writer suffers writers block. In the vastly underappreciated (and oddly forgotten) Swimming Pool, Charlotte Rampling is cast as a Detective fiction writer who has found her comfort spot and never moved off course. She’s set up in a remote retreat to write another entry in her ongoing series (think a lower rent Agatha Christie) but is creatively empty. Step in the daughter of her publisher who arrives unannounced and repels the writer, before bewitchingly intriguing her. The beauty of the whole thing, is it plays out like a slightly lightweight mystery novel. Suddenly she’s essentially the protagonist in the kind of story she might have written. There’s sex, intrigue and murder. Very much deserving of maintaining the kind of buzz and acclaim it got on release (and Rampling is atypically superb).
Another aspect of the writer protagonist can often be neuroses. In no doubt brought on by that inherent isolation and inability to mix well with others, it exacerbates a paranoia and awkwardness within. Barton Fink perfectly represented that neuroses working over time, as an acclaimed playwright whisked out to become a Hollywood screenwriter who is almost consumed by the crazy machine of the Mank era (see also Mank, David Fincher’s recent acclaimed bio pic). The titular Barton (John Turturro) can’t write what should be a simple B picture and is increasingly distracted by fellow writers, producers and patrons of the dilapidated hotel he lives in. The Coen’s brilliant and vastly underrated classic sends up that Hollywood era wonderfully and offers some surreal twists along the way. It’s one of those films too which most Coen fans who get to 3rd/4th viewing begin to pick up more and more and it fires up their best of list.
Woody Allen, whose raison d’etre has been the neurotic artiste, has often cast himself as a writer in a constant battle of self-doubt, unable to refrain from bouts of self-centred self destruction. The increasingly maligned Manhattan (given much of Allen’s own history and as a middle aged protagonist dating a minor) certainly riles the cancel culture age, though it’s hard to ignore a sharply written, and gorgeously shot film bolstered with particularly fine performances by the female cast. Additionally in the context of the film, Allen’s character is less mature and grounded than his 17 year old love interest played superbly by Mariel Hemingway (who was nominated for an Oscar). More recently there was Alexander Payne’s excellent, Sideways which certainly had a very distinct stylistic bow to Allen (with Payne’s own inimitable stamp). Paul Giamatti’s middle aged aspiring writer (and wannabe wine snob) is struggling in the wake of a breakup, so a trip to wine country could make for disaster or reinvention. Along the way he manages both with masses of neuroses and awkward behaviour along the way.
As a writer myself I certainly identify with a few of the foibles (not quite to Torrance levels, just to repeat). We generally tend to be the person outside during the party talking to the cat. We’re also walking anomalies of contradiction. I remember seeing a swarm of premiere photos popping up for one of my films with the cast and crew. I’d never been told about said premiere and after party and the poor old writer can occasionally be an afterthought (there was even a missed credit on another film, and I’ve had a perpetually misspelt surname across the years). Mind you, had I been invited I probably wouldn’t have gone. So I’m not too bitter…not at all (Jack Nicholson stare…). I’ve not yet dipped into the potential well of traits that having a protagonist writer might offer me (I’ve done musician, actor and artist mind you). Perhaps the fear would be in digging up too much of myself into a story. Still, as the cinema machine continues and writers pound out new films, the protagonist writers still find their way to screen and still continue to fascinate with their recognisable traits. What’s your favourite film about a writer? Let us know your thoughts on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.