The author Charles Bukowski once wrote, “Writing about writer’s block is better than not writing at all.” Therefore, I will write this blog about screenwriters experiencing writer’s block.
There are actually many movies that feature this nightmare, including Stranger than Fiction, Ruby Sparks, Secret Window, Limitless, The Shining, Barton Fink, and Adaptation.
In Limitless and Ruby Sparks, writer’s block is featured early in the plot. Both protagonists of these movies, Eddie Morra and Calvin Weir-Fields, stare at blank pages and become easily distracted, until drugs and romance cure them of their disease.
Meanwhile, Steven King doesn’t let his characters move on from this debilitating syndrome; the Secret Window and The Shining were both adapted from his novels, and they both feature a struggling writer who slips into a murderous rampage. Perhaps murder is the answer to every writer’s frustration?
These films portray the frustration of writer’s block creatively and artistically (the tantalizing flashing cursor in Limitless, the anxious blank page atop Calvin’s typewriter in Ruby Sparks, the repeated "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" in The Shining). However, the two films that fully explore the malaise of their respective screenwriters are Barton Fink and Adaptation, and I will view these works as meta-films.
In the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink, the eponymous screenplay novice struggles to write a B-movie about boxer Wallace Beery. Unlike Limitless, Ruby's Spark, and The Shining, there is considerable emphasis on Barton Fink's environment; Barton's dilapidated hotel room, not him, seems to receive the most focus in the Writer's Block scenes. The slimy, peeling walls, the mysterious beach portrait, the persistent buzzing of mosquitos: it's almost as though the room is preventing him from writing.
What makes Barton Fink so brilliant is how it meshes fantastical elements to explore Barton's frustration and confusion. It almost seems like the Coen Brothers knew poor Barton's situation intimately well...
...and they did! They wrote the Barton Fink when they themselves experienced writer's block with Miller's Crossing screenplay. In fact, there are so many connections between Barton and the Coen Brothers that it is difficult not to view Barton as a projection of the brothers' frustrated selves. Here are a few similarities:
- They wear glasses
- They are Jewish
- They all call New York their home
- They are highly educated
- They struggle with their writing material
The first three similarities are fairly straightforward, but the fourth and fifth comparisons could use elaboration. Joel Coen went to NYU and Ethan Coen went to Princeton, where he wrote a 41-page essay titled, “Two Views on Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy.” If that title doesn’t scream “educated elite,” I don’t know what would. This characteristic is also found in Barton, when he talks to Charlie, the "common man."
And I could tell you some stories –
Sure you could! And yet many writers
do everything in their power to
insulate themselves from the common
man – from where they live, from
where they trade, from where they
fight and love and converse and –
and – and... so naturally their work
suffers, and regresses into empty
formalism and – well, I'm spouting
off again, but to put it in your
language, the theater becomes as
phony as a three dollar bill.
I'm not sure if the Coen Brothers are pretentious; if they are, I would definitely draw another parallel there.
I've written that they both struggle with their writing material, but the material they work with are very different; Coen Brothers had been having a difficult time with the highly convoluted plot of Miller’s Crossing, while Barton Fink was tasked to write a bio flick about a boxer. In addition, Barton and the Coen Brothers have different degrees of freedom. The Coen Brothers have almost complete control over their movies (they direct, produce, write, and edit all their major films; they later created their own production company, the Mike Ross Company), but Barton’s screenwriting was heavily scrutinized by Libnick, his boss (must have a lot of action, be fruity, but not too fruity, have the Barton Fink quality, etc.). This is why the brothers have stated that Barton's struggles were not meant to reflect their own experiences with the industry. It is rather their frustration as writers that they channel unto Barton.
To summarize, the Coen Brothers created a less likable version of themselves and dragged him through hell.
Charlie Kaufman, on the other hand, does the opposite in Adaptation; he splits himself into the sad, frustrated but sophisticated Charlie Kaufman and the happier, simpler fictional twin brother, Donald Kaufman. In the movie (and in real life, apparently) Charlie struggles to write a film adaptation about the Orchid Thief, partly because it lacks a "filmable" plot, and mostly because he is extremely worried about not doing the book justice. On the contrary, Donald writes cliched psychological thrillers. With Donald's help, the movie about a mopey writer finally develops a faster-paced (and pulpy) plot, as they discover the author of Orchid Thief's secret and fight to survive her murderous rampage.
What's interesting to note is that Kaufman treats both his characters with sympathy; how Charlie feels, thinks, acts is all laid out for the audience to observe, and Donald's unsophisticated (suggests that Flowers for Algernon is about flowers) and enthusiastic view of life is lovable. As works of meta-cinema, Barton Fink and Adaptation are the antithesis to each other; while the Coen Brothers are the smart-aleck bullies that make their character's life hard, Charlie Kaufman is the parent who asks, "Tell me what what's wrong."