Maya Hawke as Flannery O’Connor in “Wildcat.” Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

There’s a cliché that goes, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” the premise being that using one art form to explain another is a fool’s errand. Well, tell that to the movies, where art-minded directors have sought to make writers and other artists big-screen entertainment forever.

Case in point, “Wildcat,” the brand-new flick where actor-turned-director Ethan Hawke directs daughter Maya in a big-screen biopic of famed Southern writer Flannery O’Connor. The author of two acclaimed novels and a pair of influential short-story collections among other works, O’Connor’s brief life (she died of lupus at 39) was marked by physical pain, struggles with her Catholic faith and battles with her imperiously unsympathetic mother.

The film, which just wrapped up a residency at Portland’s PMA Films and is now challenging audiences at Maine’s arthouse cinemas, reportedly does a diligent dance around its subject, even if the old adage applies. So the question is, what movies have found a way to make the decidedly un-cinematic art of writing an insightful and entertaining watch? And how?


The writer: Charlie Kaufman

The dance: Make a dark comedy of writer’s block.


Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s twisting tale of his real-life inability to adapt writer Susan Orlean’s un-filmable nonfiction book “The Orchid Thief” is as close an approximation of the sweaty, lonely, damnable process of writing as there is. Nicolas Cage’s Kaufman is so flummoxed by his task that he conjures a world in which the only solution is to turn writing rules inside out. What results is fiendishly clever and deeply funny.


The writer: Dorothy Parker

The dance: Deconstruct writers’ boozy self-regard in period dress.

Director Alan Rudolph simultaneously worships legendary writer and Algonquin Roundtable wit Parker (an outstanding Jennifer Jason Leigh) and shows how the lure of cleverness for its own sake undermines productivity. The film’s clutch of infamously catty writers drink, love, write and make practiced sport of each other – in that order – with Leigh’s Parker hiding her own pain under the cloak of her role as New York’s literary assassin. Deeply sympathetic to the troubled writer’s many misfortunes, the film yet underscores the need for a writer to actually, you know, write.

‘SHIRLEY’ (2020)


The writer: Shirley Jackson

The dance: Have the writer’s fictional world encroach on her real one.

One of the greatest writers of psychological mystery and horror, Jackson’s own struggles with physical and mental health issues and her troubled marriage to a philandering academic is compressed almost unbearably into one eventful summer. A visiting young female writer’s presence ignites the sort of unbearably intense and enigmatic battle of wills that mark Jackson’s prose, the film’s blend of fact and fiction channeled brilliantly by star Elisabeth Moss.


The writer: Yukio Mishima

The dance: Use fact and fiction to capture the mad genius behind one of the strangest true stories ever.


Director Paul Schrader tasked himself with examining how one of Japan’s most acclaimed authors wound up leading a failed armed invasion of a military base, eventually committing suicide by sword when it failed. Far from being a fringe figure, Mishima (Ken Ogata) was a celebrated novelist and playwright whose descent into cultish revolutionary Schrader plumbs via dramatizations of the author’s fascinatingly dense prose. The mind of a troubled writer becomes a kaleidoscopic tale of fragmented genius. (Honestly, Mishima’s end would be like Stephen King leading a militia in a doomed takeover of Bath Iron Works.)


The writer: Harvey Pekar

The dance: Blur the line between Pekar’s autobiographical graphic novels and the making of his biopic.

Cult cartoonist and writer Pekar was a legendarily irascible figure, whose blue-collar depictions of his life in Cleveland and frequent appearances on “Late Night with David Letterman” made him something of a folk hero. The film from directors Shari Springer Bergman and Robert Pulcini casts peerless schlub Paul Giamatti as Pekar, even as the real, deeply unimpressed Pekar narrates and even interacts with his Hollywood doppelganger. As the real Pekar mocks the process of turning his life into art, we marvel at how he and the filmmakers do just that.

‘NAKED LUNCH’ (1991)


The writer: William S. Burroughs

The dance: Film the unfilmable.

David Cronenberg may have been the only director brave enough or foolhardy enough to match madnesses with Burroughs’ notoriously hallucinogenic and scandalously gross magnum opus. The film drops a Burroughs surrogate (an eerily Burroughs-channeling Peter Weller) into a dark, sticky underworld made up equally of Burroughs eventfully tragic life and the author’s phantasmagorical, autobiographical adventures in writing, drug abuse, and illicit sex and violence. With Cronenberg as our guide, writing becomes as much of an addiction as heroin, with the perils of each endeavor grotesquely intertwined.

To sum up with a question: Are all writers in pain?
Answer: No comment. But I’ll toss out a theory.

Writers write because it allows them to frame their pain with the uniqueness they know in their bones is theirs and theirs alone. If you see things the way most people do, you don’t need to write about it. And if you do, what you produce is as forgettably digestible as movie popcorn. Great writing is a heroic battle against a foe who knows your every weakness – there’s nothing more cinematic.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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