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10 Authors Who Adapted Their Books About Writers into Films

Updated on February 5, 2017

Writers Writing About Writers

There are lists of films about writers and even lists about authors who adapt their own books into screenplays, but here is a rare triple threat: 10 writers who adapted their own book into a screenplay about a character that is a writer. In the ego-driven, self-centered universe of a writer, this takes it to a whole new metalevel. Authors writing about being a writer, or often themselves, as the central character of their book and then adapting their own work into screenplays.

"The Third Man" Book Cover
"The Third Man" Book Cover

Graham Greene’s The Third Man

A film of no small consequence. It’s often one of the highest voted mystery films of all time, and was voted on the BFI’s list of greatest British Films. It’s a definitive cornerstone of the Film Noir genre and a film that certainly carries more weight than the literary material it’s based on.

In fact, author Graham Greene wrote the novella, The Third Man, to find the voice of the film before adapting the screenplay himself (A.V. Club). The novella itself wasn’t published until 1950, after the film’s release in 1948. The author character of interest is Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), an American western author traveling abroad in Vienna. The film’s production history is rife with conflicts of ego, and despite the screenplay and novella being written by Greene alone, the stories differ notably (NY Times).

"Full of Life" Book Cover John Fante
"Full of Life" Book Cover John Fante

John Fante’s Full of Life

An oft regarded unsung hero of American literature, John Fante, published his novel Full of Life in 1952. It is about a struggling writer, Nick, who must swallow his pride to ask his estranged father for help in difficult times. Fante himself made ends meet by writing screenplays for Hollywood, one of which was this Columbia Pictures’ adaptation of his own novel in 1956. Fante’s works were often autobiographical, including his most popular book, Ask The Dust. Fante certainly carried the theme of the struggling writer throughout his works.

The film adaptation was directed by Richard Quine and starred, Judy Holliday and Richard Conte. The film was relatively successful and Fante received a nomination for the Writers Guild of America award.

"The World According to Garp" Book Cover
"The World According to Garp" Book Cover

John Irving’s The World According to Garp

Based on John Irving's award-winning bestseller, The World According to Garp is a comedic drama about the strange, but endearing lives of a husband and wife who are both writers. While both a modern classic of American literature and an Oscar nominated film, Irving can't take all the credit as he co-wrote the screenplay with director George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and screenwriter Steve Tesich (Breaking Away). Irving’s novel was published in 1978 and the film was released in 1982.

The film starred, Robin Williams, Mary Beth Hurt, Glenn Close and John Lithgow.

Original Movie Trailer

Whitley Strieber’s Communion

Maybe the aliens told him to do it. Author Whitley Strieber published his Communion: A True Story in 1987, revealing his personal account of contact with what he claims were extraterrestrials. The 1989 film adaptation by the same name closely follows Strieber’s story as a New York writer (Christopher Walken) and the events that lead to his writing the book. Although, despite a screenplay adaptation by the author himself and being directed by a close personal friend of Strieber, Christopher Walken’s performance was criticized as being more Walken, than Whitley. (NY Times)

Communion Trailer

Michael Tolkin’s The Player

One could easily show the 1992 film The Player to students of screenwriting. Overtly satirical in tone, Tolkin’s portrayal of Hollywood vs. the Screenwriter hit all too hard in the struggles of being a screenwriter. Michael Tolkin published his novel in 1988 and then adapted for the screen this story about the death of a disgruntled writer David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio). Or one could also view the story as the struggles of a producer (Tim Robbins) who must kill a writer to succeed. Therein is a symbolism or message from Tolkin, that in Hollywood creativity is death, and the art of the deal is survival. That’s a lesson any film student should take to heart. The film has received abundant acclaim for Altman’s direction, more so than the book itself, which seems fitting for a story about a bitter writer.

"The Player" Movie Trailer

Christopher Hampton’s Total Eclipse

British writer Christopher Hampton published his second play, Total Eclipse, in 1967. Years later in 1995, the wonderful Polish director Agnieszka Holland snatched up a young Leonardo DiCaprio to star in this intimate and historically steeped love story between 2 great French poets, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. As you’d guess by now, this screenplay about poets was adapted by Christopher Hampton from his own play.

Leonardo DiCaprio in "Total Eclipse"
Leonardo DiCaprio in "Total Eclipse"
King's "The Shining" Book Cover
King's "The Shining" Book Cover

Stephen King’s The Shining

Stephen King famously shunned Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of his 1977 novel The Shining (IntellectualDevotional). So, 17 vengeful years later King adapted his novel into his own teleplay for a T.V. mini-series. It’s vengeful in that reportedly, Kubrick did not even bother reading the draft of a screenplay that King penned, and was quoted as calling the author’s style as, “weak” (MentalFloss) This example pretty much nails the context of this article: an author adapting his own novel after being dissatisfied with an earlier adaptation of a story about a writer going insane. Some of the most memorable things about The Shining, were Kubrick’s additions to the story - for instance the psychotically repeated proverb on Jack Torrance’s typewriter, “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy,” is not in King’s novel or screen adaptation (Metro).

King on Kubrick (BBC)

Jerry Orbach & Al Pacino
Jerry Orbach & Al Pacino

Ira Lewis’ Chinese Coffee

Ira Lewis wrote his play Chinese Coffee, a simple, mano a mano staging about a struggling New York writer who visits a friend for a favor in 1992. After a run on Broadway, Lewis adapted his work into a screenplay in 2000 for Al Pacino to direct and star with Jerry Orbach (Law & Order, Dirty Dancing), which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. What's even better about this selection on the list, is the majority of the dialogue revolves around a manuscript the author character shares with said friend, based on their friendship. Adapting any relationship to the page comes with personal peril, as the film's tagline says: "there's a fine line between friendship and betrayal."

Patrick Marber’s Closer

Ask Patrick Marber what's better than writing an award-winning play and he'd probably tell you getting nominated for also writing the film adaption. Marber’s stage play for Closer began its successful run in 1997, and then wrote his screenplay adaptation for Mike Nichols to direct in 2004. Within the film’s ensemble cast of A-listers, Jude Law plays the central character, a frustrated British writer entangled in a web of sex, desire, and regret. Marber’s Closer, both onstage and onscreen, continues to disturb and delight audiences. (The Guardian)

"Closer" Movie Clip

Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz

Blue Like Jazz, is a semi-autobiographical work from Donald Miller and his second book, published in 2003. Miller then adapted the screenplay putting his book of reflections from an existential, spiritual crisis in cinematic form. It was a collaborative effort with director Steve Taylor and photographer Ben Pearson, who was the film's cinematographer. While the story doesn't so much emphasize the life of a writer, the autobiographical nature of the material certainly explores the formation of Miller's thoughts as an author. The film was also noteworthy for having raised nearly $350,000 for production on Kickstarter in 2010. (Indiewire)

"Blue Like Jazz" Movie & Book
"Blue Like Jazz" Movie & Book

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    • Jason Cangialosi profile image
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      Jason Cangialosi 10 months ago from Denver, Colorado

      Thanks Kathleen. That should be a fun watch list, I hope you enjoy looking into some of these films.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 10 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Very interesting and well done. I've only seen "Closer". I'll take a look at some of the others. Thanks for the info.