29 February 2020

A Different Kind of Movie

One thing that hasn't gotten much coverage here at SleuthSayers lately is novels/stories/movies about the subject of writing. I found one of my long-ago columns at Criminal Brief that discusses that ("Stories About Stories"), and what I remember most about putting together that post was that I liked most of the novels and stories about writing, but I didn't like many of the movies. Some that I did enjoy were Adaptation, Misery, Miss Potter, The Man from Elysian Fields, Stranger than Fiction, and--more recently--Trumbo. I think there's plenty to be learned from all of these, including those that didn't appeal to me, but I finally decided that it's probably just hard to make a movie about writing that's entertaining.

The other night, though, I watched a DVD I got via Netflix that I thoroughly enjoyed, called The Professor and the Madman (2019). Not a title that grabs you, right?--and not one that gives you any indication of the subject matter, either. But . . . it's an adaptation of the Simon Winchester book about the creation of the first edition of The Oxford English Dictionary, in the mid-1800s. It was enlightening, yes, but in a good way, and kept me entertained throughout. And yes, I realize it wasn't actually about writing--but it was certainly about publishing, and about words themselves. I even re-watched it with my wife later that night, and she enjoyed it also. (She likes maybe five percent of the movies I like--she not only ignores but rolls her eyes at all the rest.)

Quick overview: The professor in the title, James Murray (Mel Gibson), is the Scottish teacher who is assigned to compile the information for the dictionary; the madman, Dr. William Minor (Sean Penn), is the unlikely ally who, from his cell in Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, assists Murray by sending him more than ten thousand entries. I thought the writer and director did a great job of showing what an almost-impossible undertaking this was.

Besides the main story--Murray's task of finding and defining every single word in the English language up to that point in time--there is an accompanying plot about redemption and friendship and forgiveness. At one point, that side-story brought a tear to my eye, something that usually happens only when I watch movies like Old Yeller, or Dumbo (the scene where Dumbo's mom is in the jail car and cradling him in her trunk through the bars, whoa, that gets me every time . . .). And it doesn't hurt that most of this movie was true.

Admittedly, The Professor and the Madman had a lot of things (besides its title) going against it. First, it received almost no promotion and had limited distribution. I just happened to notice it while browsing Netflix possibilities, and took a chance on it. Second, it is definitely slow-moving; not much action or excitement at all. Third, it has only two "name" stars: Gibson and Penn. The only other faces I recognized were those of British actor Eddie Marsan and Game of Thrones actress Natalie Dormer. Possibly because of all these things, I doubt if you've even heard of the movie, and if you have, I doubt you took the trouble to find and watch it. I almost didn't. But you should.

Having said all that, I will now take off my scholarly hat--it doesn't fit anyway--and go back to watching my cop movies and westerns, with an occasional space opera thrown in, and my wife'll go back to her sighs and eye-rolls. But in this case, I'm glad I took a break from my usual fare.

I suggest you give The Professor and the Madman a try. If you do, or if you've already seen it, tell me what you think.

And if you know of some interesting movies--OR novels/stories--about writing, please let me know in the comments. Writing is a fascinating subject, not just to us but to non-writers as well; there have to be other good ones out there.

Now, where'd I put that Die Hard DVD…


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Well, you asked for it, John. So here’s a bunch of movies about writing or writers. And I had to stop myself from going on even more.

    In a Lonely Place (one of my favorite of all movies, in fact lots of faves here)
    Sideways (another fave)

    The Words (ditto -- and many of the below as well)

    The Player

    Sunset Boulevard

    The Bad and the Beautiful (well, not totally about a writer but Dick Powell
    plays one)

    Ask the Dust (though the book is better, but the movie is beautiful to look at)


    Bright Lights, Big City (more about publishing I guess)


    Deconstructing Harry

    Wonder Boys


    Annie Hall

    The World According to Garp

    The Third Man (Joseph Cotten plays a writer)

    The Mask of Dimitrios (Peter Lorre is a writer trying to find out
    about Dimitrios)

    Dead Poets Society

    As Good As It Gets (just watched again the other night, terrific movie,
    Nicholson is beyond wonderful as are they all)

    Born Losers –- okay, it’s not about writers, but I think John and I have a special affection for it so I had to include it. And it was written by Billy Jack himself so I guess it ties into writing just by having been written ;-)

  3. Interesting. Have to check out that film. Movies about writing? Lot of movies about writers writing. Recently saw GENIUS about Thomas Wolf staring Jude Law and Colin Firth as Maxwell Perkins. Saw TOLKIEN. Interesting. HEMINGWAY AND GELLHORN with Clive Owen and Nichole Kidman. I wonder if I'm not as successful because I'm not a drunkard. I remember seeing a made-for-tv movies back in 1974, F. SCOTT FITZGERALD AND THE LAST OF THE BELLES staring Richard Chamberlain and Blythe Danner with a story within the story (how he wrote the short story) with Susan Sarandon and David Huffman. I need to see it again. Again, a drunken writer. A recurring tragedy.

  4. The original book, "The Professor and the Madman" is extremely good as well.
    I loved "Adaptation" - but then Charlie Kaufman's scripts knock me out.
    And to add to Paul and O'Neil's exhaustive lists, "Zorba the Greek" - Alan Bates as a writer in full writer's block.
    "Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle" - Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Club, writers almost all.

  5. Paul, I knew you'd have a lot of these boiling around in your head. Great list! I watched BORN LOSERS again a few months ago, and I still love it, even though my God is it corny. And there'll always be a special place in lists like this for MISERY. We only THINK we suffer, as writers . . .

    O'Neil, I think my favorite recent movies about writers are TRUMBO (well, screenwriting, there) and GENIUS. Every writer (and publisher, and agent) needs to see GENIUS. And I've not yet seen HEMINGWAY AND GELLHORN, but now I will.

    One that I don't believe made any of our lists is MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, which I thought was pretty good too. As for being a drunkard, I heard someplace that there are three things that can make a good fiction writer: (1) alcoholism, (2) a dysfunctional childhood, and (3) general weirdness. I can claim only one out of three--I hope that's enough.

    Thanks, guys!

  6. Eve -- I agree with you on ADAPTATION--that was a great movie. It got several Oscar nominations and several wins too. I think Chris Cooper (to me he'll always be July Johnson in LONESOME DOVE) won both an Oscar and a Golden Globe.

    Thanks for the other additions!--I've not seen MRS. PARKER. I also have not read Simon Winchester's book, but now I'd like to. The whole storyline of putting together the dictionary was fascinating to me, and I think it would be to anyone who loves books and words.

  7. Haven't seen the move, but I can recommend the book.

  8. I do plan to read it, Janice. Thanks for the comment!

  9. I enjoy watching movies about writers, or in which writers are significant characters. Mostly I enjoy pointing out the things moviemakers get wrong: novel manuscripts bound like movie scripts being one of the mostly glaring errors.

  10. Good point, Michael--I'd never thought of that. Also, all writers in modern-day movies use Apple laptops (which, on second thought, might be pretty accurate).


  11. Great post. I've seen a couple of the movies you mention.

    My favorite writing movie is Finding Forester with Sean Connery. I've seen it a few times. Watch for Matt Damon at the end.

  12. I remember that one, Pat. Unusual role for Connery! I also remember Matt Damon at the end--and the cool music that was played during the closing credits. (It's funny sometimes, the things that stick in your mind afterward.)

    Thanks for the comment!

  13. This is a great list of books and films I should check out or re-visit.

    Has anyone else read Possession by A. S. Byatt? I read it years ago and don't remember details, but it was about two 19th century poets who fell in love, and their letters back and forth. If I remember correctly, it was inspired by or maybe even based on the Brownings. It was terrific.

  14. Hey Steve!

    I have NOT read that book, have never heard of it. But I'm making a note.

    Many thanks!

  15. John, after I mentioned F. SCOTT FITZGERALD AND THE LAST OF THE BELLES, I went to YouTube, found it and watched it as I wrote today. It's still a good piece, explaining how and why he wrote the short story "The Last of the Belles." It isn't perfect but it kept me watching. Here is the link for anyone interested: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kybkrv7OJFU&t=1523s

  16. O'Neil, thanks for that link! I'm headed there now.

  17. I read the Winchester book but had never heard of the movie. I will watch it.

    I don't think anyone mentioned JULIA (about Hammett and Lillian Hellman) and THE OLD GRINGO (about Ambrose Bierce).

    My problem with MRS PARKER AND THE VICIOUS CIRCLE is that Robert Benchley is played as the persona he wrote about (the original "little man" a decade before Thurber), and that is NOT who he was in real life. For example, the character in the movie would never had led the fight to save Sacco and Vanzetti.

    Did anyone mention SAVING MR BANKS? And, a bit of a stretch, but MOTHER NIGHT.

  18. Rob, I think you'd like the movie. And thanks for the others you mentioned. I'm turning into a slacker--the only one I've seen, of those, is SAVING MR. BANKS, and I truly enjoyed that one. Although I got pretty frustrated with Emma Thompson's character and her stubbornness. If ever I found myself in that situation, I hope I'd be a lot easier to work with.

    Many thanks!


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