Launched in 2018 as a year-long celebration of our 10th anniversary, this monthly post proved so popular that we’re keeping it going. Look for Writescape’s 10 on the 10th for writing tips, advice and inspiration on the 10th of every month. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.
Movies. Film. The cinema. The flickers…or flicks as they became known. Since 1895, the art of filmmaking has left a legacy of profound movie moments. For nearly 125 years, audiences have lost themselves in the stories unfolding on theatre screens. While the way we watch movies has changed — reclining and wired-for-motion seats in state-of-the-art theatres to surround sound in homes with 75″ television screens and Netflix at the ready. What hasn’t changed is the importance of a compellling story to create excellence in film.
Yes. Of course. Some “blockbuster” films are more about sound and fury than a believeable plot and characters. At a recent screening of “Aquaman,” Writescape’s Ruth Walker almost always knew the next plot twist or line of dialogue before it was voiced. “It was a fun movie with great visual effects,” she said. “But so predictable.”
Nonetheless, in our first 10 on the 10th for 2019, we’ve come up with an admittedly arbitrary list of movies that are useful to explore and perhaps will help you find some inspiration to be completely unpredictable.
#1 I Remember Mama— a 1948 movie about a young aspiring writer who discovers her “ordinary childhood” as a Norwegian immigrant in 1900 San Francisco is actual gold for her stories. Memoirists, be inspired because despite a dose of sentimentality, there is also a frankness in this movie that surprises. All memoir is strongest when it tells the truth. The movie is based on the stories of Kathryn Forbes which she based on her own Norwegian-born grandmother’s life in early twentieth century San Francisco. Real life is the well of inspiration for writers everywhere.
#2 Adaptation written by Charlie Kaufman who is also, coincidentally, the lead character played by Nicolas Cage — a funny and unsettling 2002 film about a screenwriter failing at adapting a novel for film and his overshadowing, successful twin. Twists. Identity crises. Writerly angst. More twists. Confusion. Mayhem. In fact, many writers will recognize this as just another day in the life. Is this Kaufman’s memoir? Sort of. For the screenwriters among you, here’s a link to the screenplay on Stephen Follows’ website.
# 3 Sense and Sensibility 1995 Ang Lee version for a film adaptation of a timeless plot. All of Jane Austen’s books make for terrific film and television series but this is an excellent example of subplot doing brilliant service to the main plot. Austen wisely set the subplot with the main character’s sister and made these sisters different in almost every regard. The simple main plot of girl falls for unattainable boy needs the heightened tension of girl’s sister falls for falsely attainable boy while one true love watches in agony from the sidelines. The standard romance plot in Austen’s hands becomes a look at social status and, in particular, women’s power (or lack thereof) in the early nineteenth century England. A deceptively simple plot with a potent punch.
#4 Pan’s Labyrinth — this visually stunning and mood-rich 2006 film set in 1944 Fascist Spain was written and directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Part fairy tale and part historical film, this Spanish-language movie blends reality and fantasy so well that belief in the mythical creatures is as strong as in the heroic characters. Why should you see it? Del Toro worked from his 20-year journal notes of ideas and concepts to carve out a screenplay that feels like an ancient parable told long ago. He had the whole screenplay in his head before he wrote a single word of it. And bonus trivia for all writers: he wrote the English subtitles because he was disappointed with the subtitle work on his earlier movies. Clearly, a writer who is dedicated to his craft, and who cares about his audience and conveying his story to them.
#5 Dinner at Eight — a clever, star-studded 1933 comedy/drama. The whole complex plot revolves around a high-society dinner party organized by a wife to help her husband’s business dealings and all the problems in the hours before: Suicides, business failures, affairs, sneaky backroom deals and lack of a single man to balance the table setting. Nonetheless, Mrs. Jordan’s dinner gets served precisely at eight. The “over-acting” of the age is a fabulous metaphor for when stereotypical characters can be successful because they carry a message: pretense vs reality. No one is who they pretend to be. The writing is darn good as well, adapted from a Broadway play.
#6 Julie and Julia – 2009 “blogger” story based on the real-life Julie who has a blog in which she will make a Julia Child recipe every day and blog about it. We get Julia Child’s history as well, as Julie’s life takes twists and turns she didn’t expect. Julia refused to acknowledge the Julie blog which adds another rich layer to the background of the story. A useful examination of writing two POV characters and ways to create thematic connections between two separate stories. In real life: Julie and Julia never met and they don’t in this movie, either. Yet we suspect they could have been friends.
#7 Run Lola Run — a 1997 German thriller written and directed by Tom Tykwer. It’s a simple plot: Red-head Lola has 20 minutes to get 100,000 Deutsche Marks to her boyfriend Manni or he’ll rob a store to get the money to pay back the mob. Much of the movie is about Lola running. And running. And, yes, running. But it is a clever tale, told with three different endings. Every action and interaction Lola has the first time she tries to save Manni shows up in the next two endings. Like the butterfly effect, a simple pause not taken or decision delayed has consquences. And through each iteration, there are important constants that anchor the themes of free will and fate. Take note of the “blind woman” character and her pivotal role: is this fate for Lola or is she being given the chance to, at last, get it right?
#8 The Princess Bride — This 1987 classic film’s screenplay was adapted by the novel’s writer, William Goldman. Directed by Rob Reiner, the movie preserves many of the elements that make the novel a delight to read. Ironic. Self-aware. Fantastical. Romantic. Adventurous. And rich in life lessons, including: There is such a thing as Mostly Dead. Revenge can’t give us back what we’ve lost. And inconceivable is a word that can be overused and, occasionally, misused. The Princess Bride is a story of True Love, framed by a grandfather reading the book to his ill grandson. It honours the gift of imagination and delights in playing with the tropes of fairy tale and fable, just as the novel continues to do for readers since its 1973 publication date.
#9 Misery – a 1990 adaptation of Stephen King’s best-selling 1987 novel, the movie was directed by Rob Reiner. And the screenplay adaptation was written by William Goldman. Despite that successful pairing for The Princess Bride, there is little humour in this movie but plenty of irony. And really, it’s about a best-selling novelist, so already it has a hook for any writer. The movie is true to the novel with few exceptions. Given that many of Stephen King’s novels and novellas have been made into movies, it’s interesting to note that this is the only one to have garnered an Academy Award. Actor Kathy Bates embodies the obsessed fan Annie Wilkes and deserved that award. King structures well-paced plots and develops engaging characters that translate well onto the screen. However, this is a psychological horror film so it’s not for everyone. But with a novelist as our protagonist and a crazed reader as our antagonist, it comes close to the writerly bone. Perhaps having a Number One Fan is not always something to strive for.
#10 Moonlight — a 2016 coming-of-age film, written and directed by Barry Jenkins. Just like Del Toro, this movie’s writer and director lovingly crafts an evocation of time and place that is both highly specific and broadly universal. As writers, we strive to create characters and storylines that resonate with readers. Moonlight manages that because it is unflinching in giving us flawed characters with rich layers of humanity. At its heart, the storyline explores the outsider’s journey: a quest to discover who he is and embody that person. It takes the standard 3-act structure to heart: each act, or chapter of the film, is a slice in the life of a boy who becomes a teen and eventually, in the third act, an adult. There’s a lot of learn even from the film techniques of Jenkins, for example, changing the colour tone and palette of each act to echo the time in which it occurs and the emotional energy of our lead character.
As writers, we need to be aware of tone and palette choices in our stories. As we gain ability of that technique, it will transfer into emotional resonance every time we want it to occur in our writing.
More on that subject another time.
This list of movies for writers is by no means exhaustive. What movies do you think writers should put on their “must watch” list?