Friday, March 22, 2013

Watching writers at work

What most impressed me while watching the 2007 movie Becoming Jane the other night were those scenes showing Jane Austen, as played by Anne Hathaway, writing. I think that is what I will remember most about the picture.

To be sure, watching writers write is not most people's idea of entertainment. Writing can be enjoyable, even exciting work -- I write this blog for fun, after all -- but watching somebody write is nothing special. During my career in newspapers, I felt a little sorry for those teenagers who, on Career Day, would come in to watch reporters and copy editors at work. Observing reporters on a beat might have been interesting, but watching them actually write their stories must have been torture. It would have been more exciting, and probably more educational, for students to observe somebody paint a house, pick up garbage or even make french fries at a local fast-food restaurant.

Yet those scenes showing Jane Austen writing were, I thought, both important to the story and, in a way, captivating. The movie is about Austen's brief romance that ends unhappily, leaving her to devote her life to her stories. When we watch her write, sometimes staying up most of the night to write page after page, we witness more passion and commitment than we see in her scenes with her lover. We get an understanding of how Jane became Jane.

I contrast Becoming Jane with a couple of other movies about writers I've seen in recent months, Shadowlands and Midnight in Paris. The former is about C.S. Lewis, the latter about a writer, played by Owen Wilson, transported magically to Paris between the wars, where he encounters Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot and others. Were you to watch these two movies without benefit of sound or subtitles, you might never guess they were about writers. We see Wilson carrying a manuscript around, but there isn't much actual writing shown on the screen. It is like watching a movie about Babe Ruth without any scenes showing him swinging a bat.

I think Shadowlands and Midnight in Paris are better movies. I have watched each of them more than once and hope to enjoy them both many more times in the future. Becoming Jane, on the other hand, is more of a once-is-enough kind of film. In one respect, however, this is the superior movie. It actually shows us a great writer writing.

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