Writers in the Movies: Fact vs. Fiction

Midnight in Paris
Owen Wilson dreams of writing the Great American Novel in Midnight in Paris | Sony

Susan Johnston knows a thing or two about writing. The Boston-based writer-blogger has contributed to The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, PARADE Magazine, and many other publications. So she knows what she’s talking about when she says that writers aren’t always depicted accurately in movies. I so agree. Read on for Susan’s thoughts, and be sure to check out her blog, The Urban Muse, and follow her on Twitter @UrbanMuseWriter.

Ever watched a movie and felt so distracted by inaccuracies you wanted to yell at the screen, “That would never happen in real life”? Or is that just me? As a freelance writer and blogger, I’m especially critical of movies that feature writers. Often, their protagonists fall into one of these extremes: the stereotype of the starving or creatively frustrated Bohemian or the glamorous, super-successful author who’s become filthy rich from a single book or income stream.

Not that I don’t enjoy watching writers on-screen. I’d just like to clear up a few misconceptions. Here are five movies that feature writers and a look at what they got right (and wrong):

Midnight in Paris
Owen Wilson, searching for literary inspiration in Midnight in Paris | Sony

1. Midnight in Paris (2011, PG-13)

The fantasy: When a screenwriter trying to pen the Great American novel (Owen Wilson) visits Paris with his fiancée (Rachel McAdams), he travels back in time to meet literary idols like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, who help him polish his manuscript and come to terms with his illusions.

The reality: Time travel may be a fantasy, but many writers and other creative types will identify with the protagonist’s struggle between commercially viable and creatively fulfilling work.

2. Beauty & the Briefcase (2010, TV-14)

The fantasy: Hilary Duff stars as a freelance writer who goes undercover, working at an investment bank so she can write about her experiences dating men in the business world.

The reality: Newbie writers don’t appear on the cover of women’s magazines (true, Hilary Duff appeared on the cover of Cosmo, but her character definitely wouldn’t). Editors don’t meddle in your love life, pointing out what you’ve been too dense to notice yourself.

Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper in Limitless
Robert De Niro looks skeptical of Bradley Cooper's Limitless writing abilities | Dark Fields Production

3. Limitless (2011, PG-13)

The fantasy: A debut novelist played by Bradley Cooper cranks out his book in a few days after taking an experimental drug that boosts his focus and memory. He then enters the business world and struggles to protect his stash in this thriller film.

The reality: Nonfiction writers can land a book deal based on a proposal and a few sample chapters, but it’s almost unheard of for an unknown novelist to get an advance without writing a single word first. But I certainly sympathize with the pressure to deliver, as publishing can be über-competitive.

Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City
Yep, this column will pay for this month's rent … or not … | HBO

4. Sex and the City (2008, R)

The fantasy: Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) lives the fabulous single life in Manhattan, sipping martinis and sporting Manolo Blahniks, all from the money she earns through a single dating column in a newspaper and a book of her columns.

The reality: As Jane and I can tell you, most freelance writers juggle many different assignments at once to make ends meet. However, Carrie’s struggles with writer’s block and her mixed experiences with book reviewers do ring somewhat true.

Meryl Streep in Adaptation
Meryl Streep as writer Susan Orlean in Adaptation | Columbia Pictures

5. Adaptation (2002, R)

The fantasy: In the process of adapting Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief as a screenplay, Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) discovers that Orlean (Meryl Streep) is involved in a sordid affair with her book’s subject. As a subplot, Kaufman’s aimless twin brother (also Nicolas Cage) lands a movie deal himself.

The reality: The off-screen version of Susan Orlean reportedly laughed at the absurdity of her movie portrayal. And while the movie’s protagonist is aghast at his twin’s sudden screenplay success, we’ve all seen that sometimes oddball scripts or concepts actually do sell (for better or worse), while more artistic ideas simply languish in a drawer. Writing is subjective, so what appeals to one agent or movie house may not work for another.

Have you seen any of these movies? What other movies portray writers accurately (or not)? What would you add to this list? Share below in the comments. 

Buy on Amazon:

[amazon_link id=”B001DDBCV4″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Sex and the City[/amazon_link]

[amazon_link id=”B004UXUSPA” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Midnight in Paris[/amazon_link]

[amazon_link id=”B0048KQQC4″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Beauty and the Briefcase[/amazon_link]

[amazon_link id=”B0051MKMNC” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Limitless[/amazon_link]

[amazon_link id=”B00441GYOW” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Adaptation[/amazon_link]


  1. NoPotCoooking Avatar

    I always groused about Sex and the City because of the reasons you pointed out! Ridiculous, but I still enjoyed the series and the movies!

    1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

      Same here – I still really liked the Sex and the City series. It’s one of those where I’d buy the complete series if I had unlimited funds. But since I’m a freelance writer, I don’t! 🙂

  2. Sheryl Avatar

    I enjoyed reading this post. Sex and the City always got my attention, even though I knew darn well Carrie’s lifestyle, given her job, was an absolute fantasy. Show me a freelance writer who gets by on one single column and I’ll show you a pair of tread-worn sneakers, not Blahniks!

  3. Roxanne Avatar

    Absolutely. The one that got me (now I cannot remember the name of the movie) showed a writer at a BIG NYC newspaper, getting stuck in the “bridal ghetto” writing about weddings. As someone, who did that for 6 + years, the amount of time the guy spent WITH the couple was outrageous. There is no way you can follow people around for weeks on end like that. Great post!

    1. Susan Johnston Avatar

      Roxanne, that movie sounds familiar but the name escapes me as well.

    2. Jane Boursaw Avatar

      Was it 27 Dresses? That’s the one where James Marsden plays a wedding columnist, and Katherine Heigl is the girl who saves all of her bridesmaid dresses. I’ll have to go back and see if his job is to follow couples around, but I’m thinking it is… if so, totally unrealistic…

    3. Erin Avatar

      Yes, it was 27 Dresses, and I found it to be incredibly unbelievable as well.

  4. Alexandra Avatar

    I loved this post! The movie that comes immediately to mind is Julie & Julia, but I’m too damn hot to elaborate except to say how lucky Julie was to have succeeded the way she did, but I do not believe she has had the same success since, so part of it was the gimmick of trying all Julia Child’s recipes, which I also did when I moved to France, only I did not think to write about it back then …

    1. Susan Johnston Avatar

      I definitely thought of Julie & Julia but since the movie is based on her memoir, it is based somewhat on reality, even if would be tough to replicate.

  5. Living Large Avatar

    Finding Forester. Loved the movie and it ranks as one of my all time faves. But come on, making enough from ONE book early in his career so that he can afford a life time personal assistant who, among other duties, shops for him and delivers his goods right to his door? If we could all be so lucky with our breakout book.

    1. Susan Johnston Avatar

      I saw Finding Forester awhile back and I remember liking it but the details are a bit hazy to me. Does not sound very plausible, in my opinion.

      1. Casey Avatar

        I remember hearing from my mom-in-law that Salinger was able to live off Catcher in the Rye royalties for pretty much his whole life… but his needs were probably fewer than mine!

      2. Jane Boursaw Avatar

        That’s one I’ll have to check out – Finding Forrester. Haven’t seen it yet. Here it is on Amazon.com.

  6. Kate Avatar

    Haven’t seen “Beauty and the Briefcase,” but it sounds similar to the other one, “How to Lose a Guy/Man in 10 Days” (or some title close to that): The writer fake-dates a guy to write about it in her Cosmo-ish magazine. In all the years I’ve been working as a writer, I’ve yet to get an assignment that requires me to go date a specific person!

    1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

      I know – there’s something inherently wrong with an assignment where you’re supposed to date a specific person. I see lawsuits in that writer’s future! Though I must admit, I do have a soft spot for How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.

  7. Kerry Dexter Avatar

    how about Murder She Wrote? mixed success on that one too, I think.

    1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

      Not to mention the fact that anytime Jessica shows up anywhere, people start dying. Run for the hills, people! Scatter!

  8. Allie Avatar

    This is a great piece! My favorite unrealistic writer movie is Never Been Kissed. It’s absurd from start to finish, starting with the idea that a copy editor and wannabe writer for a newspaper would be sent into a high school undercover for a year, posing as a student. It gets even more ridiculous from there, and some of the editor/writer interactions are especially funny.

    1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

      You know, I just caught the end of that movie on TV not too long ago, but think I have it on DVD here somewhere. Will have to un-earth and watch it. I do love Drew Barrymore.

  9. merr Avatar

    I have not seen any of these movies but I enjoyed the post and its interesting observations about fact vs fiction on the screen.

  10. sarah henry Avatar

    As a writer really appreciated this post as I often scoff at the cinematic portrayal of the writer’s life, which is, let’s face it far from glamorous.

    Especially deadline writing at home in your pjs when you haven’t brushed your hair or teeth and don’t get up from the computer for hours.

    Not that I know anyone who works like that. Just saying.

    Susan Johnson’s blog is a wonderful resource. Thanks for highlighting her here, Jane.

    1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

      No, none of us work like that, Sarah. Not ever. 🙂

  11. Vera Marie Badertscher Avatar

    Great post, and my memory is not good enough to dredge of movies with writers, but the feeling of “HAH! Life is not like that.” are almost always there. Mostly it is because of the gorgeous lifestyle–penthouse apartments in NYC for freelancers–fat chance! I recently read an interview where the writer subject said that he was friends with many really big name travel writers who all complain about their poverty when they go home to their humble digs. No wonder they travel!

  12. Jennifer Margulis Avatar

    Was adaptation worth seeing? I’ve never heard of it. I’ve seen all the others except Midnight in Paris (even though my dad looks a lot like him, I am not a Woody Allen fan! I enjoy watching movies where writers are portrayed, even though they so often get it wrong.

    Next will you write a post about FAMOUS BLOGGERS in the movies (can’t wait to hear your take on Julie & Julia…)?

    1. Susan Johnston Avatar

      Adaptation was a little strange for me. They took some pretty extreme liberties with the Susan Orleans character, but I did enjoy the relationships between Charlie Kaufman and his twin (both played by the same actor).

    2. Jane Boursaw Avatar

      I actually picked up a copy of Julie & Julia at our local Borders going-out-of-biz sale last night. Saw it in theaters when it first came out and loved it. Went back to see how I rated it – 4 out of 5 reels in my review. You’re right – it’s time for a Famous Bloggers post, now that blogging is more mainstream.

  13. Mary Jo Manzanares Avatar

    The Ghost Writer. Gets involved solving some espionage ring or counter spy thing. Didn’t see to do much writing, though.

    1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

      Loved The Ghost Writer. I’ve really gotten into spy movies lately, especially when they’re really well done.

  14. Jeanine Barone Avatar

    This was a great idea for a post. Loved it. And I’ve seen all of these but I typically suspend disbelief so the fantasy aspect of each one of these writer’s lives didn’t bother me.

  15. MyKidsEatSquid Avatar

    This IS a fun post. I haven’t seen any of these movies either. I’m trying to think of that movie with Will Farrell and Emma Thompson where he’s the reincarnation of one of her book characters. What’s that one?

    1. Susan Johnston Avatar

      Stranger Than Fiction. I rewatched that movie for this post, actually, but somehow I didn’t feel like it really leant itself to this format. I mean, it was already so fantasy-based that the fiction part was pretty obvious.

      1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

        I actually really liked Stranger Than Fiction, partly because it was nice to see Will Ferrell in a role where he wasn’t just acting stupid. But yeah, I see what you mean about the fantasy/fiction aspect.

  16. ruth pennebaker Avatar

    How about the Jack Nicholson novelist character in The Shining? I have days when I feel it’s an accurate portrayal of a writer’s life.

    1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

      More days than I’d like to admit, Ruth!

  17. Melanie Avatar

    I’ve always liked Adaptation, exactly because it is SO absurd-not because it has a darn thing to do with being a real writer. I’m a sucker for Kaufman movies in general though.

    1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

      I almost picked up Adaptation in a bargain bin the other day. I should really check it out one of these days.

  18. Don Avatar

    Always figured that Carrie Bradshaw’s column was just cover for how shall we say it a Holly Golightly sort of lifestyle. In fact this is hinted at in a few episodes. most notably the one about the dashing French architect who leaves one large on her nightstand. And I’ve known a few Carrie/Holly types, who let Mr. Big run loose because, after all, he pays the bills. This is no fantasy.

    1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

      Good point! When I first watched it, I was too swept up in the whole fantasy about a writer in NYC to notice, but now that I’ve actually BEEN a writer for a few decades, I know too much.

  19. Rick Castro Avatar
    Rick Castro

    I love watching movies too. I enjoyed watching Adaption and Midnight Paris which was really awesome. Thanks for sharing the other movie title. I’ll make time to watch those too.

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