Please tell me you aren’t expecting an exhaustive list . . .

As it turns out there are a lot of movies, both documentaries and “docu-dramas” about books and the people who write and publish them. I’ve expressed the opinion before that writers require intellectual curiosity and I have recommended a number of books for writers, in some cases about writing and in some cases just about the creative process in general. I stand behind those recommendations, and now I’d like to offer a few movies (and TV shows). Many of these are available through Netflix, and one, Chip Kidd’s TED Talk, will link you to the full video online. Please do whatever you can to find and watch these movies.

Let’s dive right in with what will definitely be the most controversial of the bunch:

Grain of salt sold separately.

Grain of salt sold separately.

Ayn Rand and the Prophecy of Atlas Shrugged and The Passion of Ayn Rand

So yeah, I wrote a fantasy trilogy loosely based on Ayn rand’s novel The Fountainhead, and wrote a bit about that here. My parents, being suburban intellectuals of the 50s and 60s, had an extensive library that included books by the likes of John D. MacDonald, and not quite everything, but what it would be fair to call the “classics,” by Ayn Rand. The first of these I read, and I read it as a teenager, was Anthem. I’ll be honest. I read it because my mother told me it was science fiction (and it is) and because it was short (and it really is just a novella). I liked it. It was reasonably original for its day: a dystopian tale of a society in which individuality has been erased and our hero finally comes to assert himself by simply saying “I am.”

And this is where I tend to agree with Ms. Rand. Individual liberty, individual expression, and individual achievement are to be preserved, encouraged, and rewarded. She’s right that the rational mind should win out over brute passion, and we share a blanket rejection of the spiritual.

What the first of these movies, the lovingly one-sided documentary Ayn Rand and the Prophecy of Atlas Shrugged, gets entirely wrong is what most of what the neo-conservative movement gets wrong about the core tenets of Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism. The movie features a string of former CEOs (why former CEOs, one is left to ponder) bemoaning Big Government, and they all have the sheer balls to blame the current depression on over-regulation, which would be patently hilarious if it wasn’t so dangerous a meme.

We’re all broke now because the fox was put in charge of the henhouse, and yes, our failed government helped that along, but the film’s assertion that the economic collapse envisioned in Rand’s Atlas Shrugged—which, put simply, is precipitated by government over-regulation forcing her Objectivist Supermen (wealthy industrialists) to take their toys and go home—has actually come true, is just . . . Yeah. About half or more of this movie comes right out of Bizarro World.

So why am I recommending it?

Because the rest of it is about how this woman, a Russian émigré from a wealthy family ruined by the Bolshevik Revolution, came to be one of the most respected and at the same time, most reviled authors of (to use her own word) “romantic” fiction. That is worthy of study. I’ve also told any writer who would listen that your fiction has to be about something. Ayn Rand, like George Orwell, Frank Herbert, J.G. Ballard, and many others, put her political, social, economic, (etc.) viewpoint right up front. You may not agree with her, or any of them, but you have to respect the effort. This is available on Netflix now.

The second Rand piece, the fictionalized The Passion of Ayn Rand tends to focus in on her later years, including the very long, and for her somewhat torturous process of completing Atlas Shrugged. Then it gets into that later period, where she grapples with the critical backlash to Atlas Shrugged, which was extreme, and that (according to this movie, at least) led her into a period of defensiveness that forced her to circle the wagons around her own ideas, descending into a narrower and narrower view. Here’s where really every philosopher in human history has fallen. She got famous for her ideas, and just as famous for how many people hated her ideas. Then she gathered an “inner circle” of acolytes and yes men. Then she lost her ability to think of herself as a person instead of some kind of spiritual leader, and began to do everything she had always fought against: She created, or allowed to be created, a cult of personality that gave rise to a new collective. The movie is a beautifully made film about the corrupting influence of fame and the inherent human weaknesses of even this otherwise great intellect.

Can your writing drive you insane? Yes.

This one is not on Netflix, for streaming anyway, and you might have to dig around a bit for it, but you ought to.

On what might actually be an even less cheery note, I give you . . .

James Ellroy’s Feast of Death

If you haven’t read at least The Black Dahlia, Ellroy’s unqualified masterpiece, then you need to do that. And no, watching the movie adaptation will not do. In fact, this documentary begins with exactly what Ellroy thinks of people who only know him from the movie version of his novel L.A. Confidential.

I got a chance, several years ago, to see James Ellroy speak live at a book conference in Portland and he was terrific—and you’ll see a lot of that public persona in this movie. James Ellroy’s Feast of Death centers on the 1958 murder of his mother, still unsolved, and his parallel fascination with the also unsolved Black Dahlia murder case. I guess I should warn you that this film is not for the squeamish. You’ll see some extremely disturbing crime scene photos. But what this film reveals is the obsession behind the writer. What drives Ellroy to write the sort of hardboiled crime fiction he’s become so famous for, and what’s driven him to stop? You’ll also, if you watch and listen carefully in one of the scenes where Ellroy is having dinner with some of his friends in the LAPD, hear exactly what I’ve been trying to tell you about villain motivation. Also on Netflix now.

Okay, then, on a much lighter note . . .

Chip Kidd: Designing books is no laughing matter. OK, it is.

Is a TED Talk by the reigning king of the book designers. Chip Kidd is the graphic designer’s graphic designer. He’s a genius, pure and simple, and in this short talk he delves a bit into how he does what he does. Then he makes a case for paper as opposed to e-books that’s hard to deny. But it’s not a political speech, it’s something anyone who loves books needs to see. Chip doesn’t tear the lid off of anything, he simply describes his creative process on a few specific projects, and does it in a funny, entertaining way. I absolutely believe that as authors we need to understand what other creative professionals bring to our work, and the book designer is certainly not to be ignored or minimized. Watch this! And all you have to do is follow the link above. Thank you TED.

And speaking of design . . .

How to Make a Book with Steidl

. . . is another documentary, this one following Gerhard Steidl, of the eponymous German publishing house, as he travels the world. You’ll see him interacting with authors and photographers, with his own staff, and others, and you’ll instantly share his unabashed love of the printed page. This guy makes books. He doesn’t manufacture them, he creates them from nothing with all the passion and creativity of a fine artist.

The good news is that in the e-book era, the sort of stuff that Steidl is doing will not become a lost art. I have a feeling that these will be the only paper books that survive. In one case, we see Steidl selling a new edition of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road via an art gallery for $10,000 a copy. Gift books? Way, way, way beyond that. This one is currently on Netflix.

Another one that might be difficult to find, but in particular for the SF authors out there . . .

William Gibson: No Maps For These Territories

One of my favorite SF authors rides around in the back of a limo and talks about his life and work. He puts SF into a cultural context. He talks about his personal approach to his writing and how the world has changed around him. He shares my feeling that we’re already living in an SF world. Just watch this, and pay attention. You can buy the DVD.

Maybe the easiest to find, and the most entertaining to watch . . .

Prophets of Science Fiction

This is a terrific series from the Science Channel and Ridley Scott that focuses on one influential SF author per episode. The basis of the show is to look at stuff that each of these authors predicted that has come true, which is a bit goofy, actually . . . especially the weird assertion that George Lucas is the spiritual father of energy-based weapons because Ronald Reagan used his movie title to try to understand the Strategic Defense Initiative, but whatever.

What’s lots more interesting is the biographical information and imaginative recreations of these authors’ lives. The shows get into how they worked, what they had to say (back to theme again), and at least in the case of Philip K. Dick, how their work made them crazy—or how their crazy affected their work. Robert Heinlein’s struggle with the hippies who loved Stranger in a Strange Land is one of the SF genre’s great legends. And overall there’s a lot to be learned from the entire series.

You can get this on Netflix, and maybe on OnDemand, or set your DVR for Science Channel reruns.

I’ve bemoaned how much time I “waste” watching TV, but it hasn’t all been wasted, and none of these movies (or TV shows) will waste your time either.


—Philip Athans






About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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