As long as there’s been a holiday season, there have been writers inspired by it. During this 2020 pandemic holiday, we’ll likely be spending a lot of time couchbound and watching movies. So, here’s a roundup of some of the best films about writers, literature, writing and publishing.
1. Christmas in Connecticut
Directed by Peter Godfrey, 1945; (watch on Amazon Prime)
In this comedy of errors, Barbara Stanwyck plays Elizabeth Lane, a Smart Housekeeping food writer who’s also supposed to be a Martha-Stewart-esque domestic goddess, living in a Connecticut farmhouse with her husband and child. The real Elizabeth Lane is single, lives in a tiny NYC apartment, and dreams of a mink coat. Her column ideas come from her Hungarian chef friend Felix: Inspired by his recipes, she writes sensory prose for readers, painting domestic scenes of picking endive from her garden, using her spinning wheel by her hearth, and slinging pork chops for her family. Just before Christmas, her publisher demands she host a gourmet holiday dinner for him and a wounded war hero. In a panic, Elizabeth enlists Felix and her boyfriend’s Connecticut home and plays hausfrau, complete with pancake-flipping, tree-decorating, and cuddling a (borrowed) baby. Hijinks ensue when she and the handsome soldier fall for each other, and the whole plan falls into shambles and hilarity.
2. Bell, Book and Candle
Directed by Richard Quine; 1958; (watch on Criterion Channel)
What says Christmastime more than a bit of witchcraft? Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak starred in this strange, wonderful film (released on Christmas Day the same year as Vertigo) about Shep Henderson, a publishing exec who falls for beatnik, black-magic witch Gillian Holroyd (Novak) during the Christmas season. One plot twist involves Henderson seeking out an author (played by writer Ernie Kovacs) to write a book about contemporary witches, a project Gillian shuts down with a deft spell. The cinematography shows off New York at holiday time, and costumes evoke the era’s fascination with beatniks; in one scene, Novak wears a floor-length hooded velvet cape with a magenta-fur muff and red leather gloves, emitting major holiday-glamour vibes. Witches and warlocks hang out in fuzzily-lit, red-boothed underground jazz speakeasies and walk amongst the regular folks. The lovebirds’ path to romance isn’t easy; witches can’t fall in love without losing their powers, Henderson’s engaged to another woman, and who’s to say if it’s true love…or just a clever spell cast by Gil?
Directed by Whit Stillman; 1990; (watch on HBO Max, Criterion Channel)
A low-budget, surprise indie hit set shot on Super 16, Metropolitan revolves around a group of wealthy young preppies during Christmas debutante season on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. (Basically, college kids donning formalwear in different rooms of The Plaza Hotel, playing bridge and talking about ideas while flirting.) But the deft, hilarious and literate dialogue—adolescent/sophisticated banter, references to Jane Austen and Charles Fournier, and earnest discourse about their “UBA” (urban haute bourgeoisie) identity—elevate the film into something truly entertaining and satisfying.
4. Mixed Nuts
Directed by Nora Ephron; 1994; (watch on Tubi, Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play)
This overlooked 1994 gem was directed by Nora Ephron and co-written by Ephron and her sister Delia. It’s set in bohemian, pre-startup-culture Venice Beach, CA, on Christmas Eve, just as a landlord is handing out eviction notices to tenants at a building that includes suicide-prevention hotline group. There’s a powerful cast of weirdos—leads are a bumbling Steve Martin as the hotline director and lovelorn Rita Wilson, with supporting roles by Madeline Kahn, Juliette Lewis, Parker Posey, Adam Sandler, and Liev Schrieber in his first film role (he tenderly portrays an isolated transgender woman). It’s not afraid of bleak subject matter (i.e., suicide hotline, a strangler on the prowl), yet carries off a lighthearted, even hopeful tone. The literary tone comes from Ephron’s sarcastic, and wacky screenplay, and the earnest ‘90s vibe of bohemians trying to make it on the crusty Venice boardwalk. By placing the artists and infringing yuppies in conflict due to skyrocketing rents, Ephron explores culture versus capitalism. For example, when Adam Sandler’s writer character is asked what he does for a living and says he’s a writer? “What do you write?” / “T-shirts. I wrote Save the Dolphins.” / “What do you mean you wrote it?” / “I wasn’t the first person to write it, I was the first person to put it on a t-shirt.” All in all, it’s got a smart, chaotic and unhinged energy perfect for the 2020 holidays.
5. If You Believe
Directed by Alan Metzger; 1999; (watch on iTunes, YouTube)
This has all the elements of a throwaway holiday rom-com—a Scrooge-like character, a bump on the head that leads to a spirit visitation, and a serious lack of production values. But it’s also got solid literary deets that lend a sense of vérité. Ally Walker plays Susan Stone, a jaded literary editor at a publishing house. She’s rude to her assistant, ruins Santa for her niece, and blames others for her stalling career. After a fall, she begins seeing visions of herself at age 10, and her “inner child” (Hayden Pattierie) starts forcing her to rediscover things she used to love—opera, bubble baths, finding new writers. Through this metaphysical journey, literary details abound; at an editorial meeting, a colleague notes a writer they discovered via Ploughshares who’s “a shoo-in to win the Pushcart,” Susan skillfully edits a magical realism novel, and there’s a dog named Thoreau. It’s clear that Susan feels a disconnect between her working-class upbringing and the status she gained by attending Vassar and entering the elite publishing industry. This is ultimately what led to her unhappiness, and the dissonance between young-Susan and jaded-Susan; the therapeutic journey of seeing the two selves reconnect to create a new, whole person is satisfying and hopeful.
6. You’ve Got Mail
Directed by Nora Ephron, 1998; (watch on HBO Max, Vudu, Google Play)
You might not think of this rom-com as literary, but not only do the main characters work in book and publishing professions, it’s framed by the anonymous, highly literate emails that Tom Hanks’ and Meg Ryan’s characters exchange. Ryan plays Kathleen Kelly, the owner of a beloved Manhattan children’s bookstore that’s about to be closed down by mega-bookstore owner Joe Fox. Because they inhabit similar social spheres, they end up at the same publishing events with their partners, who work as a literary agent (Parker Posey) and lefty writer (Greg Kinnear). Because neither knows that their enemy is the recipient, their emails include intimate daily observations like the smell of a bakery pumped full of flour, Pride and Prejudice characters, and a butterfly that stows away in a subway car. Most poignant is when Kelly, who inherited the bookstore from her mom, muses about children’s literature: “I used to help my mother and it wasn’t just that she was selling books, she was helping people become whoever it was they were going to turn out to be…Because when you read a book as a child it becomes part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.”
7. Little Women
Directed by Greta Gerwig; 2019; (watch on Sling TV, Starz, Amazon Prime)
Greta Gerwig’s version of this Louisa May Alcott story of four sisters centers the emotional, feminist, and writerly journey of Jo March (Saoirse Ronan). It opens with her walking into a publishing office and haggling for payment for her short stories. (The publisher takes them, but tells her to make the next ones short and spicy, and make her heroine either married or dead by the end.) The timeline focuses on two different, pivotal Christmases, with the writing of March’s novel built in. Until the death of a beloved family member, she used her writerly talent only as a money-making venture. As viewers, we get to watch the birth of an artist, as March reluctantly leaves the loving confines of her sisters and family, struggles with her craft, and emerges with a writerly maturity that deeply intuits the importance of telling the real stories of women’s lives.
8. A Christmas Story
Directed by Bob Clark; 1983; (watch on Hulu Premium, YouTube, Vudu, Google Play))
Will Ralphie ever get his official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle? Chances are you know the answer, since this movie’s been overexposed on TBS’s 24-hour Christmas programming for years. Too, capitalism has swallowed this film whole; Target now sells Ralphie’s pink bunny suit at holiday time and the infamous “Leg Lamp” beloved by Ralphie’s father is available online. But the film was based on a short story by Indiana-born writer Jean Shepherd, about coming of age, longing and family. The velvet-voiced Shepherd (he was a radio raconteur) narrates this funny, satiric tale about the holiday’s commercialism, disappointments, and—if you’re lucky—love and understanding, too.
9. Desk Set
Directed by Walter Lang, 1957; (watch on Amazon Prime)
This comedy is set in the reference department of a ‘50s TV network, and pairs real-life paramours Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Bunny Watson (Hepburn) manages an all-woman team responsible for researching questions on topics which can range from Santa’s reindeer to Shakespeare to scientific facts about oceans. When computer expert Richard Sumner (Tracy) arrives a few weeks before Christmas, Bunny is threatened by his ability to automate and render her department obsolete, even while grappling with her attraction to him. Christmas is interwoven into the story, with views of Rockefeller Center’s Christmas tree, Hepburn’s glamorous dresses and coats in shades of red, green, white and silver, and stunning mid-century holiday decor adorning interiors. The literary tone exudes from the library setting, where the highly intelligent reference-desk ladies answer all manner of questions from biblical texts, fairy tales, Bartlett’s quotations, facts about American forests, and the “truth about the Eskimo habit of rubbing noses.” And throughout the plot around issues of artificial intelligence, Tracy and Hepburn give off a winning, convivial energy.
10. Bridget Jones’s Diary
Directed by Sharon Maguire; 2001; (watch on Amazon Prime and Hulu Premium)
Helen Fielding’s titular novel is loosely based on Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice and Austen’s details trickle into this romantic comedy—for example, the love interest for Bridget (Renee Zellwegger) is named Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), and she works at a large publishing house, (Pemberley Press, for those in the know). Her editor-in-chief is the rakish Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant, playing Austen’s Wickham character). The story takes place between two Chrismases in London. When they first meet, Jones and Darcy insult one another, but slowly grow closer, even while the heroine begins a dalliance with Cleaver. Publishing references abound: Bridget isn’t a literary writer (her job involves writing press releases), but she sorts out her feelings by writing in her diary. At a publishing launch for Kafka’s Motorbike, she chats up both British novelist Jeffrey Archer and Salman Rushdie, who are discussing the novella versus short story formats. Parts of the film haven’t aged well (casual racism from Jones’s mother, smoking indoors), but it’s good-natured heart is intact, complete with a dramatic, running-through-the-streets ending and solid chemistry between Zellwegger and Firth.
11. A Christmas Memory
Directed by Frank Perry; 1966; (watch on Open Culture, YouTube)
Truman Capote penned the short story on which this nostalgia-thick TV movie is based. The 50-minute film, which relates a simple story of the bond between a young boy and his elderly relative, is an autobiographical retelling of the time he spent in rural Alabama with his cousin Sook and their last Christmas together. Sentimental but not treacly (due to a touching performance by Geraldine Page), the film depicts the duo going about their day-to-day life in poverty as they prepare for the holiday—scraping together change to buy ingredients for fruitcakes to give as gifts, cutting down their Christmas tree in the woods, and flying kites together on Christmas day. It’s a sweet and touching film, made infinitely more compelling because it’s voiced by Capote himself.
12. Home for the Holidays
Directed by Jodie Foster; 1995; (watch on Hulu Premium, Amazon Prime)
In this warm, messy ‘90s tragicomedy, Holly Hunter plays Claudia, an art restorer who loses her museum job right before Thanksgiving, and has to fly home to spend the holiday with her erratic family, resulting in multiple meltdowns. There’s her mother (Anne Bancroft), father (Charles Durning), highstrung sister (Cynthia Stevenson), gay brother (Robert Downey Jr.) and her brother’s friend Leo Fish (Dylan McDermott). Its literary merit comes from Foster’s deft, poetic directorial hand, and, since it’s based on a short story (Chris Radant), the tone just feels literary and lyrical. The tale is anchored by the sensitive performances by Hunter and Downey and by the universal feelings the performances evoke—the simultaneous dread and contentment that come with eating too much food with your family at the holidays.
Directed by Jon Favreau, 2003; (watch on Hulu Premium, Starz)
This Will Farrell vehicle isn’t exactly literary in tone, but Buddy the elf does travel from the North Pole to New York to find his birth father who manages a publishing empire, specializing in children’s books. We meet Walter (James Caan) at Christmas-time, and he’s a Scrooge-y, telling a nun that indigent orphans will no longer receive free books. When Walter’s job is threatened, he brings in uber-successful children’s book contract Miles Finch to create a best-selling book that will save the department. Throughout the film, Buddy not only brings Walter’s family together with his infectious Christmas spirit, but also re-invigorates his father’s passion for publishing and storytelling. In the end, Buddy (VERY belatedly) comes of age by writing down his story about his journey through the “candy cane forest, through the sea of swirly twirly gumdrops,” becoming a successful children’s author, and founding a publishing company with his father.
14. A Christmas Tale
Directed by Arnaud Desplechin, 2008; (watch on Criterion Channel)
This French film revolves around an estranged family coming together at Christmas because matriarch Junon (Catherine Deneuve) has leukemia and everyone must get tested to see if they’re a match for a bone marrow transplant. The film’s tone fluctuates between dark, ribald, and funny and it’s structured so that each character gets to tell their story, leading the Village Voice to call it, “wry in the manner of a New Yorker story about small insights into the lives of characters.” Over several days at the family’s country home, there’s lots of smoking and lyrical dialogue; at one point, the playwright daughter muses, “I had to see my brother again, and see him triumph to understand physically that he is the disease.” The family’s artistic nature is apparent: they put on plays, read, play instruments and watch classic films. When the daughter asks her father for advice, he reads to her from Nietzche’s The Genealogy of Morals; “We have never searched for ourselves; how should it then come to pass, that we should ever find ourselves?” Still, Tale has an inherent warmth—this family is screwed up and knows it, but they’re still capable of finding laughter and connection at Christmas.
Photo: Criterion Collection