In movies, the writer typically gets a raw deal: romanticized and patronized alternately in films that do almost everything to represent literary geniuses except to actually depict them writing.
The best films on the subject attempt to inject their verbal and visual language with a sense of the writer’s spirit. The “Shirley,” of Josephine Decker, just released on VOD platforms, plays fast and loose with the facts about her subject, the American Gothic sorceress Shirley Jackson of the mid-century.
Jackson’s unglamorous love life is staged as the kind of suburban horror novel she may have written herself, rather than providing a credible biographical portrait.
Interpreted in a tense, feverish manner by Elisabeth Moss, Jackson becomes a kind of housebound witch with a cauldron typewriter, assaulting and feeding off her young academic lodgers creatively.
I have concerns about the monstrous portrayal, but it acts as an atmospheric evocation of her work’s creepy, stomach-churning strength. When it comes to great Jackson adaptations, cinema is still not as far as it should be – the 1963 original, The Haunting (on Chili), came closer than the recent iteration of Netflix’s miniseries – but a curious, ambitious stopgap is Decker’s film.
It reminded me of the 1979 film Agatha (on Google Play), a similarly imagined, smoke-filled mystery that made Agatha Christie a fitting mystery, played by Vanessa Redgrave with odd, sad eccentricity.
Even if it is an enigmatic homage, it’s more fascinating than any dreary dramatization of Christie’s literary rise. Jane Campion can say the gold standard twice when it comes to at least somewhat conventional literary biography.
Her sprawling study of New Zealand author Janet Frame and her battle with misplaced mental health care, An Angel at My Table (1990; on Amazon Prime), is classic in form but quietly adapted to the lyrical creativity of Frame.
In its imagery, Campion’s subtly rapturous account of the relationship between John Keats and Fanny Brawne, Bright Star (2009; on iTunes), is not only stunning but poetic.
I have a soft spot for Impromptu (1991; again, on iTunes), a dryly witty account of the affair between French writer George Sand and composer Frederic Chopin that pays homage in abbreviated but acerbic form to the gendered ideas of the former.
The literary biopic genre, on the whole, has yet to catch up with an evolving, more diverse canon, although an early counterexample was a poignant, straight TV adaptation of Maya Angelou’s 1979 memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (on YouTube, from the fine Reelblack channel). Charlie Kaufman served up a wry self-portrait and an entirely fictional vision of his less talented literary twin in the genius screenplay farce Adaptation (2002; Netflix), which veers between memoir and deranged fiction, with a roaring reckoning with author Susan Orlean thrown in for good measure. In her first and only feature film, Malina, Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek captured the tortured tension between the personal and artistic self of a writer: in this seldom reviewed 1991 film (available on Amazon’s Mubi channel), Isabelle Huppert provides an exceptionally real, unaffected analysis of writing mania. But maybe a film about the cruel ebb and flow of literary creativity has never been more piquant than Joachim Trier’s 2006 debut Reprise (on Amazon again), which tracks the divergent journeys of two friends who share the common dream of becoming authors.
It’s the kind of tongue-in-cheek analysis that makes a writer wonder if, and pushes him back to the blank screen, he’ll ever step in front of a keyboard again. The Witches (Warner Bros, PG) Also new on streaming and DVD The devilishly macabre 1990 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book by Nicolas Roeg could hardly be improved, but this slow, plastic Americanization by director Robert Zemeckis, new on DVD, falls almost perversely short of the mark, from the odd miscasting of an otherwise game Anne Hathaway to the brutally ugly visual americanization DNA (Netflix) French actress-director Maïwenn goes for a high-falutin, confrontational melodrama, the consequences of which can be thrilling or annoying, or both, as in this family show about a French feud.