Howl and the 10 Best Movies About Writers: How Many Have You Seen?

6 years ago

Howl opened last week in a limited number of theaters to mixed reviews. The long-awaited film ambitiously weaves James Franco's portrayal of Allen Ginsberg with an animated version of the poem that served as the Beat Generation's manifesto.  

A few disappointed reviews won't keep away the film's primary audience of readers and writers who are fascinated by the lives of literary icons, who are inspired by attempts to communicate the precious experience of creating with words, and who admire the complicated endeavor of using one art form to portray another -- in this case, animation within a larger film reinvents an important poem that defined a generation.

Image courtesy Werc Werk Works

The Beat poets in general (Kerouac, Cassady and Ferlighetti are characterized along with Ginsberg in Howl), and the obscenity trial of Ginsberg in particular, represent a vibrant period in recent American lit and legal history.  A genuine attempt to explore Ginsberg and his work, starring the amazing James Franco?  What fan of movies about real writers wouldn't give that a go?

Howl's fierce devotion to poets, poetry, and the burning snap of typewriter key might makes you want to geek out with other movies about writers. I'm not sure where Howl will rank in my list of favorites. Here are my top 10 recommendations of other must-see films that celebrate the lives of writers (as you can see I'm partial to the lives of women who write) and the living history of literature.

Out of Africa

Meryl Streep  and Robert Redford were at the top of their romantic games in this luscious and intoxicating capture of Danish author Isak Dinesen's time in Africa.  Simply hearing Meryl read the opening incantation “I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong hills” brings the writer in me to my knees, and the “Don’t move. I want to move. Don’t move,” exchange is one of the most erotic scenes in film.


Of the many films featuring the singular brilliance of Truman Capote, the Philip Seymour Hoffman 2005 movie is my favorite.  It shows the interviewing and writing process behind In Cold Blood, the tenuously exploitative tension of Capote's relationship with his subject, and Capote’s draw to fame and hedonistic desires.  Plus, as lagniappe we are given Catherine Keener’s portrayal of author Nelle Harper Lee. Fantastic!


Gwyneth Paltrow  and Daniel Craig star in this 2003 film about the creative and destructive marriage between poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. The script focuses on the drama between the writers which certainly doesn’t do their work justice, but as a movie it works as feminist morality play telling the story behind the loss of an important American voice and post-modern icon.


What happens when a searing mind like that of British author Iris Mudoch is stripped by Alzheimer’s disease?  Judi Dench and Kate Winslet racked award after award including the Oscars for Best and Best Supporting Actress for this wonderful, devastating work.  

The Last Station

The dramatic last year of Leo Tolstoy’s life, stunningly portrayed by Christopher Plummer.  In addition to being a well-written and wrenching love story, never have copyright, author’s wills and questions of public domain been so intriguing.

Naked Lunch

David Cronenberg’s adaptation of William Burroghs' novel is essential viewing for writers because it is attempts to film the visceral process of writing.  It really defies description as a film, if for no other reason than the autobiographical main character’s  typewriter is alive and gives him clues and instructions for completing bizarre missions and reports. It's a bit queasy making, but like Burroughs himself, it's quite a piece of work. (FYI, the character of Martin is based on Ginsberg.)


If you are a fan of movies about writing full of meta, Barfly hits the motherlode.  Alcoholic author Charles Bukowski wrote the film about living in Los Angeles, and then wrote about his experiences in Hollywood making the movie in the book Hollywood.  More meta: if you saw Precious you heard the film referenced when the school secretary says “I went to see that movie Barfly last night…that piece of shit was depressing.” Meta-meta-meta. Bonus: Barfly stars a pre-plastic surgery and pre-steroid (1987) Mickey Roarke.

My Brilliant Career 

Austrailian author Miles Franklin’s autobiographical novel of the same name created family strife because it too closely described her family and her struggles as a young woman intent on becoming a writer despite family pressures to marry. Judy Davis owns the screen, well, brilliantly, as the strong and unstoppable Sybylla.

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle

Robert Altman directed this jackpot of a writer’s movie, with Jennifer Jason Leigh portraying Dorothy Parker.  Lili Taylor is memorable as Edna Ferber, and the witty improvisational dialogue is sparked with actual Algonquin Table wit, much of which is very helpful for writers.  For example, I have many annual uses for Parker’s explanation for missing a magazine publication deadline: Someone else was using the pencil.

Henry & June

Bohemian Paris in the 30s, Anais Nin’s affairs with both Henry Miller and his wife (played by a young Uma Thurman), the first film to be rated NC-17, directed by Philip Kaufman who later directed Quills, another writers-in-film masterpiece.  Need I say more? 
In addition to Howl, I’m looking forward to seeing Hemingway and Fuentes when it releases.  Like the Beats, the Lost Generation offers rich stories about characters I love to learn more about.  Do you know of other movies about writing that are on the horizon?  What favorites of your own from this genre would you add to this list?

Contributing Editor Deb Rox would rather watch a movie about writers than actually write any day, mostly because popcorn gets the keyboard buttery. 

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