American Fiction, Argylle, and cinema’s love of writers and novelists

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With two rather different films out on the same day – American Fiction, Argylle – we ponder cinema’s fascination with writers, novelists and storytellers in general.

NB: The following contains a spoiler for 2002’s Adaptation.

Whether it’s prodding away at a typewriter, scrawling in a notepad or squinting at Microsoft Word, writing basically involves sitting on your arse for hours at a time, slowly going insane. Which makes it all the more surprising that so many films deal with the world of writing and writers – perhaps the most un-cinematic profession this side of knitting or sweeping chimneys.

If there’s one thing that novelists and screenwriters know a lot about, though, it’s themselves, which is perhaps why we’ve seen so many films about the weird-when-you-think-about-it process of being paid to basically make stuff up. This leads us to the 2nd February 2024 – whether by coincidence or design, the release date for two very different films about novelists.

The bigger, more in-your-face one (particularly in terms of marketing) was Matthew Vaughn’s Argylle – a spy thriller in which a meek, cat-loving novelist (Bryce Dallas Howard’s Elly Conway) is swept up in a globe-trotting, bullet-strewn adventure straight out of one of her airport paperbacks.

In the other corner, we have the more unassuming American Fiction, a darkly hilarious satire about the publishing industry – specifically where it intersects with thorny issues like race and class. Jeffrey Wright is sublimely cast as Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison, a middle-aged, jaded professor and novelist who watches as a rival author’s book, titled We’s Lives In Da Ghetto, brings her fame and wealth by offering a stereotypical depiction of working class African American life – teenage pregnancies, drug addiction, that sort of thing.

american fiction review jeffrey wright
Jeffrey Wright and Erika Alexander in American Fiction. Credit: Curzon

Frustrated that his own work is so reliably overlooked, Monk sits down and hurriedly bashes out a novel of his own, written in the first-person, which attempts to offer an even more cliched account of a young Black man living in contemporary America. To Monk’s horror, the publishing industry greets the book eagerly, precisely because it fulfils their mostly white, middle-class preconceptions about how African Americans speak and behave. Much like Robin Williams’ father in the under-seen World’s Greatest Dad, Monk finds himself in the middle of a media circus, forced into telling ever greater lives to maintain the fiction he’s created.

In their own distinct ways, Argylle and American Fiction both attempt to visualise the imaginative worlds of their respective novelists. In Argylle, for example, one action scene is shown from Elly Conway’s perspective as a fight unfolds aboard a train; as Sam Rockwell’s spy despatches villains left and right, the sequence intercuts with Henry Cavill’s fictional agent (the Argylle of the title) performing the same moves. It’s Vaughn’s attempt to highlight the bewilderment of seeing fiction and reality appear to bleed into one another – something Philip K Dick often liked to write about in his stories. (Without spoiling things, there are a number of twists in Argylle that could be described as vaguely phildickean…)

In American Fiction, we have a terrific scene in which Monk sits at his desk, imagining an aggressive confrontation between his book’s protagonist, Stagg R Leigh, and his father. Director Cord Jefferson has these fictional characters physically existing in the same space as Monk, and occasionally breaking off mid-sentence to berate the author for a poorly-chosen choice of words or for a particularly brutal fate he’s dreamed up on the spur of the moment.

Aside from how well the scene’s blocked and shot, it deftly lays bare how writers can’t help but put themselves into their work, whether consciously or not – by this point in the film, the relationship between Monk and his own father has already been established. In his haste to dash off a story he never even intended to publish, he may have inadvertently revealed a wellspring of anger he didn’t know existed.

That fiction writers are essentially creating worlds and events in real-time is something briefly explored in 2022’s The Lost City, starring Sandra Bullock. Like Argylle, The Lost City’s about a novelist who’s dragged into an adventure uncannily like one of her trashy books. In the opening scene, we see Bullock and love interest Tatum stuck in an Indiana Jones-like temple ruin seething with snakes, a villain (Stephen Lang) and his henchmen gloating about the heroes’ impending death. But then Bullock and Tatum’s characters begin questioning the logic of the whole scenario (“what do the snakes eat…?”), and one by one, each element in the scene winks out of existence.

Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum inThe Lost City
Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum in The Lost City. Credit: Paramount Pictures.

What we’re seeing, we soon realise, is a scene that only exists in the mind of Bullock’s novelist, Loretta Sage. Suffering from a monumental case of writers’ block, Sage is trying and failing to create a new yarn for her heroine Dr Angela Lovemore, but her growing disillusionment with her work has left her uninspired and thoroughly stuck.

The depiction of writers as roundly dissatisfied and struggling to compose a new sentence is a common one in film – and if movies are about screenwriters or novelists at all, they’re almost always wrestling with their work in some way or another. In fact, most writers in movies are quite spiky, shambolic and potentially difficult to like – which might be why actors are drawn to playing them, since there’s the challenge of humanising them and making them worth rooting for in spite of their flaws. The aforementioned Jeffrey Wright brings warmth and pathos to a character who can sometimes be intellectually vain and snooty; his performance underlines one of the film’s themes, really: that nobody’s perfect, and even the most right-on people can have their moral blindspots.

Wright’s turn as Monk therefore joins the pantheon of great screen depictions of writers and authors, alongside Melissa McCarthy’s wonderfully dishevelled performance as the real-life literary forger Lee Israel in 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me. Then there’s Nicolas Cage as a fictionalised Charlie Kaufman (and his fictional brother Donald) in 2002’s Adaptation. Kaufman has always been unusually good at laying the interior lives of his characters out like a landscape for viewers to roam around in, and Adaptation is perhaps his most accessible meditation on what it feels like to struggle creatively.

Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me? Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Like American Fiction, Adaptation is about a writer caught in the age-old battle between art and commerce – desperately craving fame and respect, but also too principled (and perhaps too pretentious) to sell out and write a trashy serial killer screenplay purely because they’re so hot right now. (Adaptation’s final joke being that the fictionalised Kaufman eventually caves in and comes up with a crowd-pleasing final act straight out of the Robert McKee playbook.)

Of course, there have been absolutely dozens of films about writers over the decades, from Sunset Boulevard to The Shining to another of this year’s Oscar nominees, Anatomy Of A Fall – a mystery-drama that is also in part about the power of storytelling, all served up with an added dash of creative jealousy. The diversity of all these movies, and many more besides – they span action, horror, drama, satire – speaks to our fascination with writers and storytelling in general.

Perhaps it’s because, although few people get to be novelists, storytelling is still something we know, love, and do all the time in one form or another. Between them, American Fiction and Argylle also reveal some thought-provoking truths about the 21st century publishing industry. American Fiction addresses the reality in cutting terms; when Monk fears out loud that his ruse will be uncovered by a fact-checker, his agent (John Ortiz) counters that publishers can’t even afford proper editors these days.

Argylle, meanwhile, points something out without necessarily even meaning to: as the publishing industry shrinks and the opportunities for new, up-and-coming authors dries up with it, the prospect of becoming a successful novelist like Elly Conway is about as likely as becoming an invincible super spy like James Bond.

American Fiction and Argylle are out in UK cinemas now.

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