The life of a writer isn’t traditionally exciting. It involves a lot of sitting alone in a room for hours with a computer, staring at walls to find the profound, and training for the day procrastinating will become an Olympic event. The most dangerous thing that can happen is a paper cut, skyrocketing insecurity, carpal tunnel syndrome, or the development of an unhealthy addiction to Twitter and napping.
But if you go by what movies show us, the life of a writer is one fraught with constant life-threatening danger and perforated with madness. This week’s DVD/Blu-Ray release of Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths is a perfect example. Colin Farrell’s struggling screenwriter (which is 90% of screenwriters) finds himself constantly removed from his desk and surrounded by murderous psychopaths. So, in honor of McDonagh’s film, we’ve decided to honor cinema’s persistent torment of authors and gather together movies that inject danger into everyday writerly situations and processes.
WARNING: Major spoilers everywhere.
THE WRITERS: Being John Malkovich screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, and his twin brother, Donald, who are struggling to adapt Susan Orlean’s non-fiction work, The Orchid Thief.
THE WRITERLY SITUATION: Adapting isn’t easy. It’s a perpetual battle between how much to stay true to the original source material and how much liberty to take. To say nothing of the challenge of reducing novels hundred of pages long to a two hour movie. No matter what you do or how well you do it, you’re going to face inevitable “the book is better” dismissals.
THE DANGER: Charlie Kaufman is so creatively crippled by the pressures of adapting Orlean’s book that he starts to over-think the material and question the legitimacy of it. Which leads to him and his brother to travel to Florida to spy on their subject. Things go wrong fast as they’re caught and threatened at gunpoint in a swamp. All of which leads to Charlie’s twin brother dying and witnessing a man-hungry alligator chomp down on Chris Cooper.
THE WRITER: Successful playwright Barton Fink (John Turturro) is brought to Hollywood to become a screenwriter on a “wrestling movie.”
THE WRITERLY SITUATION: Writing is an inherently lonely profession, so it’s important for writers to have friend to maintain contact with the outside world. Plus, companions make excellent social comfort, proofreaders, and sources of art-inspiring experiences.
THE DANGER: Barton Fink would make any writer think twice about who they befriend. When Barton has a friendly drink with Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), he couldn’t possibly have known the man would turn out to be a serial killer who kills Barton’s lover dead in his bed, sets the hotel he’s in on fire, and most likely murdered his parents.
In the Mouth of Madness
THE WRITER: Horror novelist Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow) whose best-selling works elicit Harry Potter and Twilight levels of enthusiasm — and are scarier than Stephen King’s books.
THE WRITERLY SITUATION: A writer needs to be like a sponge — open and willing to absorb anything that might help influence his or her work. It’s a necessary and valuable attribute to have, one that can greatly improve an author’s writing.
THE DANGER: Instead of absorbing an inspiring experience, Cane instead has Lovecraftian Chthulu-like beings infiltrate his creativity. Bad enough sure, but then they leverage his writing to mass-influence readers into summoning the monsters back into the world and unleashing the apocalypse. Oh, and their return requires Cane to rip apart his face to create a portal for them to enter.
THE WRITER: Paul Sheldon (James Caan), a writer of a historical romance series centered on a character named, Misery Chastain.
THE WRITERLY SITUATION: A successful novelist writing a series with a recurring character will inevitably have fans that grow a little attached. Some fans might get a little bit too attached. Most times it will manifest itself with fan letters/fiction, weird paintings, or way too many appearances at book readings. Generally pretty manageable.
THE DANGER: Sheldon doesn’t have it that easy. He gets a psychotic infant-killing nurse who really doesn’t like that killed off his popular character. So, she breaks his ankles so he can’t escape and makes him write a novel bringing Misery Chastain back. The good news is Sheldon survives. The bad news is he has to see his captor kill a cop before being forced to beat her to death.
THE WRITER: Author Mort Rainey (Johnny Depp) retreats to his isolated cabin as he struggles with having discovers his wife having an affair and the subsequent divorce.
THE WRITERLY SITUATION: If a novel is popular enough, there are always those who come out of the wood works to cry “plagiarism” and try to cash in. Generally these things come from money-hungry opportunists (and liars) and are taking care of pretty swiftly and easily by lawyers.
THE DANGER: Sometimes though — as happens to Rainey — a Mississippi dairy farmer named Shooter (and with an absurd drawl) will show up on the doorstep of your writer’s retreat and say you stole his story. Which his pretty innocuous compared to when Shooter goes on to burn a house down and kill people to eliminate evidence Mort didn’t plagiarize. But wait, that’s still tame compared to the revelation that Mort is actually just crazy, developed a second personality in the wake of his wife’s infidelity and has been Shooter all along. Who then proceeds to murder said wife and her new lover, and bury them outside his cabin.
THE WRITER: Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is a true-crime author hoping to find fertile subject matter, recapture the massive success he experienced years ago and resurrect his career.
THE WRITERLY SITUATION: True-crime authors have to go to some dark places to research and write their books. They often have to push themselves deep into the darker aspects of humanity to get what they need and past the points many of us would go.
THE DANGER: It’s doubtful most true-crime authors would go as far as Oswalt — who moves his family into the house the subjects of his book were actually murdered in. It’s also hard to imagine most people reacting to a mysterious box of snuff films in the attic with a “Hey, this will make my book even better!” instead of “We need to get out of here.” The author’s persistence and ambitions is rewarded with a pagan deity who increasingly terrorizes him and builds up to an end game that involves Oswalt’s daughter killing him and entire family.
THE WRITER: Joe Gillis (William Holden) whose screenwriting career in Hollywood hasn’t panned out and left him broke is hounded by debt collectors and seriously considering moving to Ohio for a newspaper job.
THE WRITERLY SITUATION: Making a steady, comfortable living as a writer isn’t easy. It can also take a good deal of time and luck. Until that happens, many will pick up whatever work they can to make ends meet while they pursue their passions. Usually they find jobs of the assistant, retail, technical writing variety.
THE DANGER: Gillis finds himself instead playing accidental gigolo to former silent star, Norma Desmond. Which is totally fine. It’s good work if you can get it. It becomes more problematic when his Sugar Mama proves to be kind of insane, shoots him to death, and leaves him to be water-logged in her pool.
THE WRITER: Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa), a popular author of violent crime whodunit-esque novels that seem to particular victimize women.
THE WRITERLY SITUATION: Promotional book tours can be exhausting, but they can also put authors in touch with their audiences – whether local or all over the world. In the process a writer can learn about how their work affects readers and critics. That can sometimes include pretty harsh criticism.
THE DANGER: Harsh criticism is what Neal gets when he’s called a misogynist by one journalist and criticized by a television host for writing deviant fiction by another. The problem arises when that host — initially unbeknownst to Neal — internalizes the novel’s violence too much and starts killing young women. Neal puts his life in danger by employing his fake detective skills to find the killer. He does, which is right about when his mind snaps. An old trauma and murderous side get unearthed, and he goes on his own murderous rampage with an ax to snuff out anyone who has humiliated him — most of all his adulterous fiancée and her lover (Mort from Secret Window can relate). Neal eventually meets his fatal end impaled upon some modern art.
The Dark Half
THE WRITER: Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton) a writer of unsuccessful literary fiction who also uses a pseudonym — George Stark — to write violent crime novels that are far more successful.
THE WRITERLY SITUATION: Depending on whom you ask, writing isn’t something that can be learned, it’s simply a talent one is born with. For many it’s something they feel powerfully inside of them from very early on and is about as necessary as breathing.
THE DANGER: Thad is one of those people born with a talent for writing. He is also born having absorbed his twin. Several years later his brother shows up as a supernatural tumor in Thad’s brain — complete with eyes, teeth, ears, and a nose. He gets excised from Thad’s body, but that doesn’t stop him from manifesting as Thad’s problematic alternate personality — George Stark — who he uses as a pseudonym to write violent, lurid pulp fiction. OK, so far this isn’t dangerous so much as just weird and gross. Problem is Thad decides to symbolically bury his alter-ego (complete with fake grave). Which pisses George off. So, like most stubborn identical twins, he decides to become a corporeal being, crawl out of his grave, and start killing people. And of course, he frames Thad for it. Eventually George threatens to kill Thad’s family, they engage in a thrilling write-off, and Thad watches George get picked apart by sparrows. Yeah, this movie is something, let me tell you.
THE WRITER: An aspiring scribe, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) takes on a caretaker position at an isolated hotel to have a peaceful and quiet environment to write in.
THE WRITERLY SITUATION: Writers require their routine to incorporate an ideal location that provides a comfortable, fertile environment for productivity. For some, picking a perfect place can make or break how well one writes.
THE DANGER: Jack probably could have picked a better place than one on top of an ancient Native American burial ground. One that — coupled with writer’s block — proves to incite a psychotic break, homicidal tendencies, necrophilia, a serious vendetta against trees (whether in the form of wooden doors or wasted typewriting paper), and a pretty miserable death.