x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

On the same page: authors seen on screen

Whether it is a straightforward adaptation from book to screen, or an entirely fictionalised account , filmgoers are fascinated by authors and their creations.

Christopher Plummer as Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station.
Christopher Plummer as Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station.

You don't need to know much about the film world to realise that book adaptations are bigger business than ever. JK Rowling ensured a generation of children were introduced to reading, and the phenomenal success of Stephenie Meyer's vampire saga Twilight looks set to continue with the release of the third in the series, Eclipse, later this year. But it isn't just writers' work that ends up on the silver screen. Everyone from Shakespeare to Hunter S Thompson has been brought to life by modern Hollywood. The latest addition Christopher Plummer's masterful performance as the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station, for which he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. So just what is it about writers and writing that is so fascinating to filmmakers?

Unsurprisingly, the most common way for authors to make an appearance on screen is in the straightforward life story, frequently based on a biography or autobiography. Iris, for example, tells the moving story of the author and philosopher Iris Murdoch, as seen by her husband John Bayley, based on his own memoir Elegy for Iris. While the film is not a clear, linear portrayal of her life, it covers two prominent periods of it: the younger Murdoch's (Kate Winslet) blossoming relationship with Bayley, and the beginnings of her passion for writing; and her later years, where the ageing author (Judi Dench) battles against the onset of Alzheimer's disease. It takes the viewer on a very personal journey with Murdoch, discovering not only her works but also the person behind the pages.

Like Iris, films most often concentrate on the darker sides of writers' lives. Many filmmakers have explored the addictions, or demons, that haunt creative minds. In a classic example, the ill-fated poet Sylvia Plath was played by Gwyneth Paltrow in 2003's Sylvia. Condemned by Plath's daughter, the film focuses on her marriage to Ted Hughes, as well as the increasing state of depression and insecurity that followed her until her suicide in 1963. This type of film appeals to the many people who feel a personal connection, not just with an author's work, but with their struggle to produce it.

Other films explore the connection between reader and author more directly. The Hours, for example, shows Nicole Kidman's Virginia Woolf battling her own issues with depression while writing Mrs Dalloway, but also portrays two other women in different eras whose lives are touched by the book. Of course, unlike biographers or documentarians, filmmakers can, and frequently do, leave reality behind. Two famous examples aptly demonstrate how cinema can "buy the ticket and take the ride" with some of history's most fertile imaginations, and explore not just their lives but their ideas and their legacies.

Terry Gilliam directed a live-action version of Hunter S Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, with Johnny Depp as the film's protagonist, Raoul Duke. The film is part adaptation, part biopic, just as the book is (Duke is widely acknowledged as Thompson's alter-ego, and the events are based on two trips to Nevada in the early Seventies). The viewer takes the trip with Thompson, where all his experiences are brought to vivid life via Gilliam's monstrous effects. A slightly more refined example of this is Finding Neverland, where again we find Depp, but this time as the Scottish playwright JM Barrie. The film explores the imaginary adventures he has with the children of his friend Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, bringing them to life on screen and showing how they provided the inspiration for his greatest work, Peter Pan.

The other sort of film that audiences gravitate towards is perhaps best summed up by the tagline of the film Shakespeare in Love: "Love is the inspiration." It certainly has been for several films about writers, where a relationship or affair is offered as the inspiration for the most beloved writing of our time. Jon Madden's Shakespeare in Love is an almost entirely fictional account of the Bard (played by Joseph Fiennes) overcoming a severe bout of writer's block by falling in love with Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is appearing in the first production of his new play Romeo and Juliet. It is also suggested at the end of the film that the relationship inspired The Tempest. The film immerses the audience in the world of Shakespeare, with dialogue and visual references to his plays, and some characters within the film are based on real people, but its relationship with reality does not go much further.

We are also transported to another world in the 2007 film Becoming Jane, which focuses on the young Jane Austen and her love for a lawyer named Thomas Lefroy. Despite a complete lack of historical accuracy (there is little to suggest Austen and Lefroy's relationship went any further than written correspondences, with the film's producers admitting this was not a biopic in the strictest of terms). The film sparked a rush of interest in Austen's personal life and it became evident that many of Austen's fans wanted to believe that her novels were more than simply the work of a creative mind.

Of course, there is one further, slightly more cynical, reason why films about authors are such a draw for writers and directors. Portraying a creative genius can imbue a film with borrowed intellectual heft and gravitas. Whether it is to unearth a dark past, take a psychedelic ride with the author himself or learn about who inspired your favourite romance writer, these films are often met with a shower of awards and praise. The Last Station earned two Oscar nominations. This continues the legacy of Shakespeare in Love, a film that gained such momentum with audiences that not even Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan could beat it to the 1999 Oscar for Best Picture.

There are more stories to tell. Philip Kaufman (director of Quills and Henry & June, the story of Henry Miller) is planning a film about Ernest Hemingway, telling the story of the love affair that inspired one of his most famous works, For Whom the Bell Tolls. It appears as though the future brings even more legends from literary past, to delight the cinema crowds of the present.