Nicholas Cage in Spike Jonze’s 2002 film “Adaptation”.
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Is it possible to make a good film about writing?

Too often, films are very inarticulate when talking about books. 

In Wim Wenders’ very earnest new film Every Thing Will Be Fine, James Franco plays a young writer, Tomas, who is involved in a fatal accident and can’t seem to decide if it has affected him badly or not. The inference one is probably expected to draw is that it has had an adverse effect but literary success follows so maybe it was not such a bad thing after all. When challenged at one point in the film about his books after the accident being better, Tomas says, in a scene that might have been culled from a daytime soap: “I’m a writer. With every book I write I hope to get a little better. That’s all there is to it.”

Wenders used to make beautifully wistful films about social misfits, nostalgia and lack of belonging. That was way back in the 1970s and 1980s. These days, a few serviceable documentaries aside, his work is of a far lower stamp. Every Thing Will Be Fine does not quite plumb the depths of his career nadir, The Million Dollar Hotel, a 2000 collaboration with Bono, but it takes itself way too seriously for such an insubstantial film. Part of the problem is Franco in the main role, who despite how much he might say it on screen, does not pass muster as a writer, and certainly not a critically acclaimed one. Franco in real life is a published author, but he is also an artist and a filmmaker, none of which he is particularly accomplished at (his two Faulkner adaptations, As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury, were as pointless as they were bloodless, and thankfully barely noticed by anyone). He is more campus dilettante than Renaissance Man but another problem with Every Thing Will Be Fine is that watching mournful films about writing and writers is just not much fun. Few writers in history, the good as well as the bad, have led interesting lives (as recent events have shown, they are sometimes not even very smart) and their craft is a particularly undramatic one.

Every Thing Will Be Fine (Wim Wenders, 2015)

A Perfect Man (Yann Gozlan, 2015)

Another recent film, the French thriller A Perfect Man, directed by Yann Gozlan, makes writing very dramatic indeed by portraying it as fraudulent. Mathieu, played by Pierre Niney, is a twenty-something aspiring novelist gifted with the industriousness common to budding writers who don’t realise how untalented they are. He knocks off a novel in a hurry, probably without even rewriting it, sends it off to a Left Bank publishing house and receives a suspiciously abrupt rejection letter. He loses faith until, one day when working as a removal man, he stumbles upon a rather gripping war diary left behind by a recently deceased veteran of the Algerian War. Sensing an opportunity, he types it up and submits it as a novel. It is a roaring success, the reviews dythrambique, as the French would say, and he lands an improbably sexy young literary critic (Anna Girardot) for a girlfriend. She grants him access to the French haute bourgeoisie and the royalties on the book allow him to live comfortably until his publishers get antsy about the delay on his “difficult” second novel. Mathieu then starts getting anonymous threatening letters from someone who appears to have seen through his ruse.

A Perfect Man is a silly, enjoyable caper that is deliciously trashy but nonetheless resolves the conundrum of making a none-too-convincing character’s literary success credible. Not that it’s terribly original – its storyline is similar to the 2012 Bradley Cooper film The Words, which in turn has been accused of plagiarising a Swiss novel from a decade earlier. And while A Perfect Man cannot be considered too realistic, it does provide a palpable sense of the fear and shame one gets from going a sustained period without writing.

The better, more enjoyable films about writers tend to externalise the writerly angst in a heightened, almost baroque fashion. John Torturro’s Barton Fink struggles to write on his first job in Hollywood and winds up being framed for a murder. Two of the more accomplished Stephen King adaptations Misery and The Shining play on the anxiety of literary fame and writer’s block respectively. In Rob Reiner’s Misery, bestselling novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) falls into the clutches of Annie Wilkes, a deranged fan, played by Kathy Bates. Sheldon is promptly, ahem, “persuaded” as to the folly of killing off his bestselling character Misery Chastain and by immobilising him with some heavy-handed tactics, Annie sees to it that he has no distractions from his writing.

In Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1981), writer Jack Torrance takes on the job of winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel in the Rockies, bringing his young family with him. He is convinced that the isolation and the light workload will be conducive to getting to work on his novel. It is a feeling familiar to many writers, convinced that a retreat will be the catalyst to productivity. The reality turns out to be somewhat different with Torrance stalling for weeks on end and eventually being driven to madness, apparently by ghosts of the hotel’s past. Jack works through his writer’s block by typing “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” repeatedly, and he also takes to writing on the walls of the hotel. Though Stephen King himself disliked the film, it is, in its particular over-the-top fashion a fine parable of thwarted literary effort. The fact that Jack, in his madness, turns on his wife (Shelley Duval) and young son is a barely sublimated portrayal of the writer who allows devotion to their work destroy their relationship with their family.

One of the great over-the-top films of this type is John Carpenter’s Lovecraftian In the Mouth of Madness, a critical and commercial flop on its release in 1995, but which is a brilliantly horrific account of the power of the writer. In this case, the writer, a reclusive horror master Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow) is absent – he has gone missing and his publisher assigns an insurance investigator, played by Sam Neill, to locate him. Cane’s books have been known to induce violent hysteria in some readers and it appears his latest magnum opus, In the Mouth of Madness is the deadliest yet. The film is part satire of the publishing industry, part white-knuckle thrill ride, and is a hugely enjoyable example of a small sub-genre of film, where manipulative writers confuse and terrorise their characters.

In the Mouth of Madness (John Carpenter, 1995)

Alain Resnais’ 1977 collaboration with David Mercer, Providence, stars John Gielgud as an ageing novelist who conceives of his relationships with his family in a series of imagined “drafts”. This approach was later used in a rather clumsier way by Marc Forster in Stranger than Fiction (2006), in which Emma Thompson was the puppet-mistress of a bemused everyman played by Will Ferrell. The recent Norwegian film Blind (directed by Eskil Vogt) features a novelist who has recently lost her eyesight and who projects her fantasies and suspicions through her writing, imagining her husband cheating on her with a younger woman, upon whom, on a whim, she bestows sudden blindness.

Blind (Eskil Vogt, 2015)

More successful still is Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, in which two screenwriting brothers, a fictional version of Kaufman and his even more fictional identical twin sibling Donald, are living together while pursuing wildly different projects. Charlie is tasked with adapting Susan Orlean’s 1998 non-fiction book The Orchid Thief, about rare-orchid poaching in Florida, while Donald is attending Robert McKee seminars and is pitching a trashy thriller to a Hollywood studio. The pair end up collaborating after Charlie runs aground, and they encounter Orlean, played by Meryl Streep, and the film diverges sharply, or rather desists from attempting to follow, her original text. The screenwriting credits for Adaptation are shared by the two brothers, making Donald Kaufman, along with the Coen brothers’ editor Roderick Jaynes one of the few fictional people to be nominated for an Oscar. It is also one of the few instances where real-life authors have been integrated into the meta-textual fabric of a film (Guillaume Nicloux’s 2014 mockumentary The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq is another). One imagines the rarity of this happening is less due to reticence on the part of authors than the fact that most writers are simply not recognisable enough for the conceit to be fully effective.

Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002)

One of the main problems with films about writers is that the films are too often very inarticulate when talking about books. This is clear from some of the worse films of the sort, such as biopics of Sylvia Plath (Sylvia – 2003) where Ted Hughes, played by Daniel Craig actually tells the young Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow) to ‘write what you know’, and Iris Murdoch (Iris – 2001) where Murdoch’s lectures are rendered rather gauche by Richard Eyre’s terribly middle-brow direction. Jane Campion has made two of the better literary biopics in An Angel at My Table (1990), in which Kerry Fox plays the troubled New Zealand writer Janet Frame and Bright Star (2009) which dramatises the relationship between John Keats and Fanny Brawne. The first succeeds because it is based directly on the first volume of Frame’s memoirs, the second because it doesn’t concern itself overly with writing, focussing instead on the tale of doomed love.

Elsewhere, even films that have a credible writerly presence, such as Ethan Hawke’s Jesse (Hawke is another real-life writer) in the Before Sunrise trilogy, can’t escape sounding silly when talk turns to books, as a clunky conversation about Jesse’s work demonstrates in the third film Before Midnight. Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of the Michael Chabon novel Wonder Boys on the other hand undercuts the pomposity of the literary world, having a fabulously self-regarding Updikesque character played by Rip Torn (his opening words in a conference speech are “I… am… a… writer”). When Michael Douglas’ creative-writing professor Grady Tripp shows the manuscript of his long-awaited second novel to a student played by Katie Holmes, she is disheartened to find the two-thousand page behemoth is nigh unreadable, bogged down in superfluous details, such as “horses’ dental records”. Wonder Boys is an intelligent but light-hearted campus romp, its setting a site of literary ambition, both hopeful and frustrated (why else do creative writing MFAs exist other than to give a living to impecunious writers, themselves graduates of the same courses?) and it is as funny as the better Woody Allen films about writers (of which there are many, from Love and Death to Midnight in Paris).

Wonder Boys (Curtis Hanson, 2000)

Reprise (Joachim Trier, 2006)

One of the few better “serious” films about writing is the 2006 Norwegian film Reprise, directed by Joachim Trier, and written by Eskil Vogt, director of Blind. The film recounts the contrasting fortunes of two childhood friends, who attain literary fame at around the same time, one of them turning away from it after a bout of depression. Reprise is particularly good at talking about literature, in a way that most films about writers aren’t. Erik, Phillip and their circle sound like real writers in their conversations among themselves and also in their TV appearances, parroting Knausgaardian axioms about creating one’s own literary destiny by living it out. It is as annoyingly pretentious as it is credible but these are convincing young writers, possessed of a certainty they are radically reinventing literature from the cocoon of the world’s most comfortable society. Joachim Trier doesn’t spend any time showing us his heroes’ efforts at writing – the drama takes place at margins of writing – the bravado, the anguish of poor reviews and the withering confidence of the afflicted writer. Reprise is a good film about writers because it recognises that much of the stuff of writing and literary circles is, well, talk. And unlike many other such films, it can talk that talk.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

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Why does food taste better when we Instagram it?

Delay leads to increased pleasure when you set up a perfect shot of your dinner.

Been on holiday? Take any snaps? Of course you did – but if you’re anything like me, your friends and family didn’t make it into many of them. Frankly, I can only hope that Mr Whippy and I will still be mates in sixty years, because I’m going to have an awful lot of pictures of him to look back on.

Once a decidedly niche pursuit, photographing food is now almost as popular as eating it, and if you thought that the habit was annoying at home, it is even worse when it intrudes on the sacred peace of a holiday. Buy an ice cream and you’ll find yourself alone with a cone as your companion rushes across a four-lane highway to capture his or hers against the azure sea. Reach for a chip before the bowl has been immortalised on social media and get your hand smacked for your trouble.

It’s a trend that sucks the joy out of every meal – unless, that is, you’re the one behind the camera. A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that taking pictures of food enhances our pleasure in it. Diners at the food court of a farmers’ market in Philadelphia were asked either to photograph their meal or to eat “as you normally would”, then were questioned about how they found it. Those in the photography group reported that not only did they enjoy their meal more, but they were “significantly more immersed in the experience” of eating it.

This backs up evidence from previous studies, including one from this year in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, which found that participants who had been asked to photograph a red velvet cake – that bleeding behemoth of American overindulgence – later rated it as significantly tastier than those who had not.

Interestingly, taking a picture of a fruit salad had no effect on its perceived charms, but “when descriptive social norms regarding healthy eating [were] made salient”, photographing these healthier foods did lead to greater enjoyment. In other words, if you see lots of glossy, beautifully lit pictures of chia seed pudding on social media, you are more likely to believe that it’s edible, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
This may seem puzzling. After all, surely anything tastes better fresh from the kitchen rather than a protracted glamour shoot – runny yolks carefully split to capture that golden ooze, strips of bacon arranged just so atop plump hemispheres of avocado, pillowy burger buns posed to give a glimpse of meat beneath. It is hardly surprising that 95 million posts on Instagram, the photo-sharing site, proudly bear the hashtag #foodporn.

However, it is this delay that is apparently responsible for the increase in pleasure: the act of rearranging that parsley garnish, or moving the plate closer to the light, increases our anticipation of what we are about to eat, forcing us to consider how delicious it looks even as we forbid ourselves to take a bite until the perfect shot is in the bag. You could no doubt achieve the same heightened sense of satisfaction by saying grace before tucking in, but you would lose the gratification that comes from imagining other people ogling your grilled Ibizan sardines as they tuck in to an egg mayonnaise at their desk.

Bear in mind, though, that the food that is most successful on Instagram often has a freakish quality – lurid, rainbow-coloured bagel-croissant hybrids that look like something out of Frankenstein’s bakery are particularly popular at the moment – which may lead to some unwise menu choices in pursuit of online acclaim.

On the plus side, if a diet of giant burgers and salted-caramel lattes leaves you feeling queasy, take heart: if there is one thing that social media likes more than #avotoast, it is embarrassing oversharing. After a week of sickening ice-cream shots, a sickbed selfie is guaranteed to cheer up the rest of us. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser