Writers are the best people imaginable to make documentaries about.
They’re generally strange, solitary people who’ve lived fascinating lives, and range from the mildly eccentric to the criminally insane. But surprisingly, there’s not as many of them as you might think. Docos that is. Undoubtedly due in part to the fact that access to these often shy, complex creatures can be testing, and also like their artist counterparts, their work often isn’t truly appreciated until after they’re pushing up daisies. There are, however, a few flicks out there that do wordsmiths the justice they deserve. Here’s five to start with.
George Orwell: A Life in Pictures
If you’ve never plunged yourself seriously down the Orwellian rabbit hole, then it’s high time. Combined with the books you read at gunpoint in high school, 1984 and Animal Farm, the rest of Orwell’s fiction, reporting and essays accumulate in a body of work that is undoubtedly the most complete and definitive work of the dissident writer. Despite being one of the most celebrated and widely read writers of all time, Orwell—whose real name was Eric Arthur Blair—died of tuberculosis (by then a curable disease) with barely a penny to his name, at the age of 46. No sound or video recordings of the great man remain, but the above BBC doco, through reenactments, offers a fascinating insight into his extraordinary life.
Richard Flanagan, Life After Death
Tasmanian Richard Flanagan is one of the true gems of Australian literature. His beautiful, Man Booker-winning Narrow Road to the Deep North, is a must read, and Life After Death (another Beeb production) offers an insight into the process of his writing the novel and all of the pain that it dragged up. Far more than just a novelist, Flanagan has also produced some devastating journalism, particularly in defence of the natural beauty of his native Tasmania; most notably his Monthly cover story “Out of Control”, which exposed the unethical dealings of the Gunns logging company. The story kickstarted major protests against the exploitation and pollution of Tasmania’s forests, and resulted in Gunns abandoning their plans for a $2 billion pulp mill near Launceston, the company going bankrupt, and a former Gunns chairman being convicted of insider trading. Don’t mess with Flanagan or Tassie.
Best Of Enemies
Sure it’s not a biography like the others, but if you enjoy watching highly intelligent people who hate each other’s guts attempting to passive-aggressively turn each other into paste on live television, then this one’s for you. Gore Vidal’s one of the most celebrated American writers and public intellectuals of the modern age, a certified bon vivant and liberal, and somewhat of a moral panic for conservative white America. William F. Buckley was a Catholic, conservative author, TV host and general shmoozer, who despised Gore on every level. Some genius at ABC decided to stick them on TV together, in light of sub-par rating, to jazz up the network’s coverage of the 1968 Democratic and Republican National Conventions. The result? Some of the most entertaining, vicious and quick-witted shit-hurling in the history of television.
Joan Didion: The Center Will not Hold
It had everyone who’d ever read a book jumping up and down last year, and with good reason. Joan Didion was an incredible writer of fiction and non-fiction who lived and worked through the period of some of the most significant change in American cultural history. From more or less getting picked out of the crowd at Vogue in her early days, to moving to Hollywood in its unprecedented golden years (Harrison Ford used to come over and tend to any of her woodworking issues), it’s a hell of a ride negotiated in the chicest of styles by one unsuspectingly cool woman. The fact that, unlike a few of the other old soaks on this list, Joan is alive and gives her candid version of the story, is the film’s ultimate validation.
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
The good Dr. was many things, and the parody that he created for himself and the fact that it threatens to outlive his work, is largely of his own doing. But let that not take away from the thing that put him on the map in the first place: the guy was a wordsmith of the utmost order—this is just a taste. By far the guilty pleasure of this list, if you can make it past the shudder-worthy cringe that is Johnny Depp twirling a pistol around and reading from a book of Hunter’s work, you’re in for an hour or so of laughs at the disposal of the man’s kookiness and wit. The temptation to end on “Buy the ticket, take the ride” is great, but such indulgence should be, avoided?