When it comes to the big screen and the small screen, it seems writers don't fare too well.
There's definitely a stereotype at play in big and small screen version writers - and it's not a good one. In general, writers are either annoying geeks meddling with police departments or socially inept recluses and in most if not all cases, mentally unstable neurotics on the verge of cracking up.
The first writer I ever witnessed on television was the inimitable Jessica Fletcher, of the classic Murder She Wrote TV series. Here the writer in question was popular crime writer Jessica Fletcher, as famous for her crime solving abilities as her bestsellers. And here was the first and infamous installment of the writer as detective aide extraordinaire. Jessica's writerly expertise on the area was always the special ingredient that helped solve a case and save the day. Indeed each episode played out as a murder mystery novella. We rarely saw Jessica at her typewriter but rather on the hunt for clues in a case. Apart from the ingraining of a stereotype, the only negative connotations associated with this version of the small screen writer was her meddlesome busybody personality (albeit a mutation of a writer's natural curiousity) and the annoying jingle-jangle theme tune!
This popular TV incarnation can be seen today in US crime series Castle which follows the adventures of Richard Castle, bestselling crime writer who shadows a detective in the NYPD for research and ends up on a permanent working placement, thanks to his unique insight into criminal caper. (Quite the modern day mutation of Mrs Fletcher we note, but Castle is not near as meddling or annoying; on the contrary he is quite witty, charming and a humorous addition to the department.) The series sways from the serious and dramatic to the comic and romantic. It regularly pokes fun at the notion of the writer as the ultimate nerd. But nerds get to save the day. As it turns out, it is always Castle who provides the missing link to a case and solves the unsolvable. And ultimately comes off as cool. He even gets to wear his own 'writer' imprinted bulletproof vest when in the field in a declarative coup for geeky writers everywhere.
But crime buffs are about as good as it gets for screen versions of writers. Speaking of - Jack Nicholson's character in the Oscar-winning film As Good As It Gets is quite an example of the stereotypical writer, namely - grumpy, unsociable, obsessive compulsive, neurotic and reclusive. When we first meet this disdainful character, we need not wonder what the heck he does for a living (apart from attending psychiatrist appointments and his preferred restaurant) - what else could it be but a writer? When we see all the books in the apartment, it's a big hint. And what does Mr Sarky do in the evening? Sit down at his computer and work on his novel of course. So that explains his general ill-temper and all round misanthropy then... (And I'm not even going to mention The Shining....!)
It gets worse. Johnny Depp does a genuine creepy impression of a writer on the brink of breakdown in Secret Window. Think you've finally stumbled upon a normal representation of a writer, a good-looking young disheveled Mort Rainey? Think again. His genre is crime: and you either go one way or another with that - to the local police department as an aide-de-camp or to the teetering edge of sanity. Depressed after his divorce and suffering from writer's block, he ends up writing his own murder mystery into real life in a schizophrenic twist that even the most unimaginative of writers can see coming.
Seems murderous intentions are an inevitable side effect of being a writer. In the 1987 black comedy Throw Mama Off the Train Billy Crystal's lead is a frustrated writer in the midst of a debilitating writer's block. And what better way to unleash the creativity again than to go on a murdering spree with a student who just happens to need his annoying mother murdered off and then turn it into a bestselling book at the end? Just shows you what writer's block can do!
Michael Douglas's writer and professor in The Wonder Boys (main pic) doesn't come across much better. Here we have a failed writer, halfheartedly teaching a class while trying to reconcile his failing marriage. A weekend's adventure with his student protége and an earnest editor takes him on an existential quest which only confirms his failure further. Yet again, another depressed and mopey and whiskey drinking writer. Tobey Maguire who plays the gifted student is (as expected) introverted, dark, silent most of the time, and just plain weird. What we learn from this film seems to be that writers are strange creatures who sit about all day in dressing gowns at a typewriter or spend all their time dealing with the black clouds of existential burden.
The writer as recluse is the main subject of the film Finding Forrester, with Sean Connery's writer based loosely on the notoriously reclusive Catcher in the Rye author, JD Salinger. After writing the definitive American novel William Forrester disappears from society and is stumbled upon by a young promising African American writer Jamal who strikes up a friendship with the reclusive writer. There's no doubt that Forrester appears as a great writer, but again, a socially inept one. He suffers anxiety attacks when out in public and prefers solitude to society. But hey, at least he's not psychotic. Meticulous yes, neurotic no. There's a reverence and respect this character demands, but alas, it portrays the writer in yet another negative 'outsider' light.
Cantankerous is another word that describes writers on the screen. A relatively small scale 2005 TV film Shadows in the Sun featured Harvey Keitel as a grumpy, alcohol-guzzling writer living it up in his rural refuge in Italy. Weldon Parish was quite the writer in his day, but in his old age is suffering from writer's block and prefers to find inspiration at the bottom of a bottle rather than with a pen. Joshua Jackson is the aspiring young writer who stumbles upon him and acts as the catalyst for the pending realisation and mending of ways. It's yet another cliché of the writer as an alcoholic or substance-dependent. Also, I remember vaguely years ago in Australian soap Home and Away there was a writer featured in the story - a drunken, down-and-out former great writer and Irish too - to add insult to injury! Writers hitting the bottle when block strikes is an all too familiar adage that film and TV likes to exploit to no end.
Women writers are just as badly portrayed (if at all that is - another stereotype of the screen writer is that they're always male). Emma Thompson's novelist in Stranger Than Fiction is neurotic in the extreme. The story is a quirky parable on the relation of fiction to reality and the main character played by Will Ferrell is at the mercy of this author as the puppet-string-controlled main character in her current novel. (It takes the term 'omniscient narrator' to a whole new dangerous level.) Thompson's novelist is the stereotypical brilliant yet tortured writer, a chain smoker and an obsessive eccentric who is obsessed with death and the emptiness of existence. And, in yet another stereotype, she has the obligatory straight-talking practical editor to keep her on schedule and sane while in the process of finishing her novel. (Note to self - writers are the crazy ones; editors and publishers the normal ones who keep these mad geniuses on a leash.)
Carrie from Sex and the City is perhaps the most glamorized and popular version of the TV writer (and the most positive perhaps). Rather than being mentally unstable, neurotic, psychotic or manic depressive, she's upbeat and optimistic and leads a normal life (and an empowered one). Her writing is not an obsession, but a profession and one which helps her comprehend the reality of her own life and the complexities of modern love and romance. But then again - she is a columnist - not a real writer per se and so escapes the occupational hazards that fiction writers come up against. But there's an exaggeration here too - do writers really live such glamorous lifestyles? Can they afford regular splurges on designer clothes from a singular weekly column?? And is international book deal success and celebrity status so easily garnered from said column?
Ahh. It's a pretty depressing depiction isn't it? Recluses, schizophrenics, eccentrics, manic depressives, psychotic murderers.... why are big and small screen writers so darn.... crazy? WelL I think it's a result of exaggerating normal writer traits into these more dramatic and dangerous transgressions in order to make appealing drama. Otherwise, they'd be too ordinary to feature in a screenplay. Writers infact lead a boring life - typing in solitude for hours on end without anything exciting happening, interspersed with eating, moping, bathroom breaks, staring into space . Not exactly the stuff of great action flicks.
Or maybe these Hollywood executives are merely paying homage to the 'strangeness' of the profession. Expressing their intrigue about it. Because it is mysterious. And rightly, very psychological in terrain.
What writers have left an impression on you from TV or film? There are loads more, but I'm sure all displaying the same typical characteristics. Or are there exceptions to the rule lurking out there?
I'd love to know!
Oh and as an exception to the rule - I have to mention my favourite writer out of them all - Lucas from US TV series One Tree Hill. The series begins with Lucas (played by Chad Michael Murray) as a high school basketball player (clearly not a geek) and a budding writer. And how refreshing to see that he's young, good-looking, sociable and leads a NORMAL life with none of the stereotypical negative writer qualities! He's a tad brooding yes, but only in the endearing way. His writer self only serves to deepen his character - sensitive, honest, contemplative, philosophical and wise - not deform it! A feature of the show is his voiceover narrations (incorporating quotes from the likes of Shakespeare) which highlight the theme of each episode and are taken from notes he pens on the events of his life and those around him. After graduation he acquires a publishing deal for the novel he puts together from these and goes on to enjoy bestselling success, with the only ensuing dramas being the emotional kind not the murderous - of which, like all good writers - he turns into fiction. At last, a positive, normal and authentic representation of a writer. Film directors - take note!