All relationships need to be tested every now and again, but there are some things in life that a romantic partnership can’t always bounce back from: infidelity, the loss of a child, dark secrets, etc. Add to that list of crucibles “a man deciding to write a novel,” a pop-culture trope that turns out to be surprisingly common once you start to look for it. When a cerebral guy apprehensively confides to his wife or girlfriend that he thinks he has an idea for a book, thunder might as well crack outside — this is an omen of near-certain doom.
It’s understandable. All power to those who can make it work, but the writerly lifestyle is not always conducive to functional romance. Authors are prone to treating every case of writer’s block like the collapse of civilization, working regularly into the wee hours, and subsisting on a diet of caffeine and self-loathing. In commemoration of the release of Tom Ford’s latest film, Nocturnal Animals — a fine new entry in the “Novelist Husband Sabotages Own Personal Life” subgenre — we’ve compiled eleven more pop-culture relationships soured by a man’s writerly ambitions. Read on, and if you start to get the feeling that this list might secretly be about you, rest assured that yes, it is.
Nocturnal Animals (2016)
When they first meet as rosy-cheeked undergrads, it’s Edward’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) bookish aura — his sensitivity, his romantic streak, his devotion to the life of the mind — that attracts Susan (Amy Adams) to him. But fast-forward a few years, and Edward’s self-awareness has curdled into toxic self-doubt. He can’t seem to crack the damn thing, and his sustained failure opens up a fissure in the couple’s relationship that widens into divorce before too long. The pair go their separate ways and life moves on, but once Edward finally makes good and sends Susan a copy of the finished novel, that’s when matters turn dark. Hmm, wonder where he got the idea for the beautiful redheaded wife character who gets … well, she’ll have to read to the end to find out.
The Affair (2014–16)
We’re not our best selves when we’re struggling professionally. Failure saps a person’s self-confidence and compels them to find quick and easy gratification elsewhere. That’s usually where the person on the side comes in. Fragile male egos require constant maintenance, and the strain of writing a novel only amplifies the issue; when one-hit wonder Noah (Dominic West) leaves his family to shack up with young waitress Alison (Ruth Wilson) and slog through his second novel, you don’t condone his actions, but you do get a sense of where he’s coming from. The pair’s indiscretion has consequences reaching far beyond themselves, and the unorthodox structure of this Showtime series (multiple unreliable narrators will often tell their version of the same scene) tracks how the aftershocks of their choice affect those they love.
Maggie’s Plan (2015)
Sometimes a marriage’s dissolution is for the best, and the exacerbating force of a husband’s scribblings can often uncover issues that would have otherwise gone unacknowledged. University employees Maggie (Greta Gerwig) and John (Ethan Hawke) get together as he’s preparing both to release his first novel and leave his first wife Georgette (Julianne Moore). A few years of marriage to the preening, self-involved author force Maggie’s eyes open, however, and John’s plans for a second novel push Maggie to the realization that he was better off with the equally unpleasant Georgette. What follows is an unusually amicable and just plain unusual uncoupling, in which the two women collude to trick their shared lover into getting back where he belongs.
The Shining (1980)
In Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, the master brought the maddening frustration of writer’s block to an almost elemental extreme. Staring at the blank page and waiting for words to magically appear is more than enough to push Jack Torrance (heeeeere’s Jack Nicholson) to the brink of sanity, and the combination of the Overlook Hotel’s stifling solitude and a few malevolent spirits winds up tipping him over the edge. Any writer who’s felt the walls closing in while facing down the business end of a deadline recognizes his mania a little too well.
Behold, a marriage so thoroughly torn asunder by the scourge of sci-fi writing that it takes nothing less than the end of the goddamn world to repair it. Wannabe-Ray-Bradbury Jackson (John Cusack) is a bum and his wife, Kate (Amanda Peet), knows it, separating from him before the film begins. A weather-event apocalypse casts him in a pretty positive light, however, as his various acts of valor during the pair’s evacuation eventually send his wife back into his arms. (Her boyfriend, Academy Award–winning director Tom McCarthy, gets conveniently killed just before they reach safety.) The film wisely concludes before the next day, when Kate realizes that Armageddon or no, Jackson remains a hapless sci-fi novelist.
Midnight in Paris (2011)
The persecuted creative-intellectual is a cornerstone of Woody Allen’s filmography, whether that means a TV producer with a girlfriend who doesn’t understand him, a standup comedian with a girlfriend who doesn’t understand him, or, in this case, a Hollywood screenwriter with a girlfriend who doesn’t understand him. Sentimentalist Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) enjoys the old-fashioned things in life, and quietly ignores the nagging feeling that his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) doesn’t share his passions. But when he’s whisked off into a Lost Generation fantasy to pal around with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, he can no longer ignore the differences between himself and his partner. The incident provides him with inspiration to write something less hacky than usual, and also gives him the pressure he needs to split from someone clearly ill-matched.
Deconstructing Harry (1997)
Did you think Woody Allen was only going to show up on this list once? In Deconstructing Harry, author Harry Block’s (Woody himself) insistence on drawing from his own personal life in search of fodder for his books doesn’t just crack up his marriage and cost him a girlfriend. It alienates just about everybody he knows, from the past mistress who’d rather not see her dirty laundry hung out to dry on the page, to the devoutly Jewish friends who don’t enjoy Harry’s treatment of religion in his work. The film is essentially a feature-length plea for Allen’s critics to stop sniffing around for real-life analogues in his movies; the delectable irony is that the interplay of Harry’s personal and professional tribulations make it one of Allen’s more directly autobiographical statements.
Before Sunset (2004)
Yes, it is a novel that ultimately undoes the marriage between incurable romantic Jesse (Ethan Hawke again) and his unseen wife in the second film of Richard Linklater’s Before cycle, but that’s almost incidental, tossed off in the final minutes when the writer decides not to board the plane that would return him to his family. The focus is not on what he’s leaving behind, but what’s keeping him there — the love of his life, incandescent Celine (Julie Delpy). When Jesse encounters Celine for the first time in years at a book signing, it’s as if the universe itself has clicked back into place. No two people have ever belonged together more, extant partners be damned.
The Last Five Years (2014)
A marriage with one creative type is tough, but a going-nowhere actress (Anna Kendrick) settling down with a young novelist (Jeremy Jordan) getting his first taste of literary celebrity? Their fate is sealed. It all happens with such sad inevitability in this poignant musical, and not just because her half of the story is told in reverse: First he gets a fancy new agent, money starts to come in, and then there’s fawning attention at release parties, strained schedules, and the inevitable infidelity. The seething resentment between the two of them is simply too great a strain for their love to bear. She can feel herself getting left behind as he ascends into the next echelon of society, and he’s frustrated that the woman he fell in love with can’t find it in herself to be happy for him. If only one of them had gone into accounting.
Writing a book can drive a big enough wedge into a relationship; writing a book specifically about your partner is a marital death wish. Obituary-scribbler Dan (Jude Law) breaks into the world of the novelist by dramatizing the life of his girlfriend, sad-eyed stripper Alice (Natalie Portman). Incredibly, that doesn’t go so well; compelled by varying degrees of sadness, the two of them both embark upon extramarital flings with equally miserable souls. Everyone’s at least a little at fault in Mike Nichols’s drama, but of course it’s the novelist who sets the chain reaction of infidelity in motion who comes out looking the slimiest.
Secret Window (2004)
The fantasy of the thinker retreating to the deep woods to craft his masterpiece in pristine solitude is a potent one, with adherents stretching from Henry David Thoreau to Justin Vernon. Director David Koepp and Johnny Depp put a macabre spin on that tradition in this Stephen King adaptation about a novelist working in a secluded cabin, who’s stalked by a man he may or may not have plagiarized. The self-imposed exile doesn’t sit too well with him, and it’s far harder on his wife; his obsession with his work has pushed her to file for divorce at the opening of the film, and a thoroughly lame twist deals her an even grimmer fate.
Listen Up Philip (2014)
Even as the assorted writers mentioned above start to lose touch with their romantic opposites, they at least have the decency to make an effort to get them back. Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), however, is one of a kind: The committed asshole hardly seems to care that his burgeoning literary fame is driving away his charming photographer girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss). He couldn’t give two shits about anything other than his own career and the approval of his mentor Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), a hardened old man who foreshadows Philip’s future. When Ashley’s finally had enough of Philip’s prickishness and leaves, it’s like he barely notices.