Writers Who Need Movies Made About Them

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Our occasional series about history’s most interesting people who have been overlooked by Hollywood. See also our articles about artistsRenaissance womenMedieval women, 18th-century women, and pirate women who need movies made about them. We’ve also also nominated Rose Bertin and several of Henry VIII’s wives for specific screen treatment.

 

I’ve talked about overlooked books that would make great historical costume movies or TV series, but what about authors? ShakespeareJane Austen, Mary Shelley (always teamed with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron), Oscar Wilde, and the Bronte Sisters have all gotten multiple biopics. But there are scads more writers who led fascinating lives that would be good fodder for frock flicks.

 

Margery Kempe (1373? – 1438?)

Margery Kempe manuscript

This 15th-century Christian mystic dictated what is often considered to be the first autobiography in the English language, The Book of Margery Kempe. Completed in the 1430s, this book describes her marriage, a difficult pregnancy, sexual temptations, and her trials with running domestic business of brewing and grain. She tried to understand these ordinary aspects of life in context of her religious faith, which, in this era, was as all-consuming and omnipresent as the internet is today. Kempe described dramatic visions of demons and makes pilgrimages to the Holy Land and sites around Europe, in a life that was unique for a medieval woman and strangely relatable today. A film about her life could take the obvious Christian route, but a symbolic view could be just as interesting — rather like The Messenger (1999) questioned whether Joan of Arc’s visions were religious or mental illness or a person trying to understand something bigger than herself or a combination of all of these. Kempe’s story offers fertile ground for film storytelling.

 

Aphra Behn (1640? – 1689)

Aphra Behn, 1670, by Peter Lely

Playwright, poet, spy for Charles II — Aphra Behn is a fabulous Restoration-era frock flick just dying to happen! She’s said to be the first woman to earn a living by her pen, and it’s no doubt that she is an important 17th-century dramatist. Her plays, such as The Rover, are still in popular rotation, probably because many addressed gender, race, and class issues, so they’re relevant though the ages. Also, she was quite a wit and indulged in sex-romp comedies that the Restoration stage became known for. But Behn had another side to her, that of political spy. She traveled to Antwerp in 1666 to gain information on English exiles plotting against the king, but Charles II was slow to pay for her time and expenses. Other than her writing work and spy activities, little is known about her actual life — she doesn’t show up often in records and left no letters. That leaves some tantalizingly juicy gaps for a movie to fill.

 

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797)

Mary Wollstonecraft, 1790, by John Opie

Best known for writing the feminist manifesto, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, she also wrote a novel based on her youthful dream of a female utopian community. Wollstonecraft and a friend, Fanny Blood, plus Wollstonecraft’s sisters, Everina and Eliza, kept house together and set up a school for a short time in the 1780s. This didn’t succeed, and Blood sickened and died, which devastated Wollstonecraft. She moved to London to write, had an affair with a married artist, tried to make it polyamorous but that didn’t work out, and moved to Paris during the French Revolution. There, she fell in love with an American businessman and got pregnant. Of course, the guy ditched her, and she returned to London with the baby. Mary was still writing this whole time, but she was distraught and tried to commit suicide twice. Eventually, she met William Godwin, got pregnant again, they married, and Mary Shelley was born. But Wollstonecraft died of septicaemia shortly after the birth. If that doesn’t make for a wildly dramatic film or miniseries, I don’t know what does!

 

George Eliot (1819 – 1880)

George Eliot, 1864, by Frederick William Burton

Mary Ann Evans took the pen name of George Eliot so her writing wouldn’t be pre-judged — because, y’know, misogyny (it’s still a thing, btw). The author actually came out as a women after her first book, Adam Bede, was a huge success, but she continued to use the name Eliot until her final novel Daniel Deronda. Her father had been an estate manager and allowed Evans a decent education for a girl of the era, plus she had access to the estate’s library. However, this did cause family strife when she began to question her parents’ religion, and her father threatened to throw her out of the house. Eventually, she moved to London and secured a job editing a left-wing magazine, where she socialized with a liberal, intellectual crowd. That was how she hooked up with philosopher George Henry Lewes, and they decided to live together. He was married to another woman, had three children, and for complicated reasons, was unable to divorce her so they had an open relationship. Eliot began calling herself “Mary Ann Evans Lewes” or “Marian Evans Lewes,” which was kind of shocking for the era. She published her great novels between 1859-76, and then in 1878 Lewes died. Two years later, Eliot married a man 20 years younger than her, John Cross, who randomly attempted suicide during their honeymoon in Venice. He survived, but she died later that year at home. So much great movie material here!

 

Louisa May Alcott (1832 – 1888)

Louisa May Alcott

Behind Little Women and Little Men is a fiercely independent feminist and abolitionist who never married, and she worked and wrote to support herself, her sisters, and her parents. Alcott’s parents were transcendentalists, and the family lived in a utopian community for a time. Later, their house was part of the Underground Railroad, and they housed at least one fugitive slave. The real Alcott family was even poorer than the Marches in Little Women, so the four daughters and the mother were always scrimping to make ends meet. They took work as seamstresses, governesses, and domestic help, and Alcott briefly served as a nurse during the Civil War. At one point, when jobs were scarce, Alcott contemplated suicide, but reportedly she was inspired to go on by reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Bronte. Before the novels we’re familiar with, Alcott wrote fast and furiously, everything from potboiler novels, sweet children’s books, and realistic magazine articles, often under pseudonyms. Once she hit the big time, Alcott bought her family houses and cared for her parents until they died. There are parallels between her books and her life, but the differences are just as interesting.

 

What writers do you want to see a historical costume movie or TV series made about?

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. When she’s not dressing up in costumes, she can be found traveling the world with her sweetie and, occasionally, Kendra and Sarah. Her costuming and travel adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also maintains a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

48 Responses

  1. Susan Pola

    Julian of Norwich comes to mind. Also George Sand and Mrs Elizabeth Gaskell.

    Reply
  2. Lily

    Christine de Pisan (1365-1434) also had a fascinating life and earned her living by her pen. She was quite famous in her day ….

    Reply
    • LadySlippers

      Yes! I was coming to day this.

      She was extremely influential in her day. The Royal Court in England was familiar with her, and there’s hints that the Duchess of Lancaster and her famous brother-in-law Chaucer, read her works.

      We definitely need to get much more familiar with her.

      Reply
      • Lily

        Oh look, there she is! Dunno how I missed that. (But she did earn her living before Aphra Benn.)

        Reply
  3. Bronwyn Benson

    Ooh, I like the earlier suggestion of Gaskell.

    Lucy Maud Montgomery, Agatha Christie, Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford… There’s so many and we really do just see the same few over and over.

    Reply
  4. Saraquill

    I’d so love to see a movie or show about Alcott’s life in the Fruitlands.

    As for other female writers, Murasaki Shikibu hands down. Catherine Beecher, Margaret Fuller and Phyllis Wheatley as well.

    Reply
    • LadySlippers

      I’ll give a hearty third to having a movie, or even better, an entire series dedicated to Lady Murasaki. She had some contemporary women that wrote too… So it definitely needs to be a series. Lol (And the costuming, hopefully, would send me into orgasmic fits).

      Overall, I’d love to see some non-European female writers featured in series, TV shows, or short series.

      A girl can dream, can’t she? Or start writing. 💖

      Reply
      • Trystan L. Bass

        I fully admit this list was inspired by the latest Bronte sisters flick, so I fell back on my standard English literature canon. But that doesn’t mean I won’t have a part two. Just look at the preface to this article — we’ve had A LOT of articles about actual historical people that deserve movies, & we try to get around in time & geography :)

        Reply
    • Susan Pola

      Murasaki Shikibu, forgive my ignorance, but wasn’t she the writer of the Tale of Genji. I loved it.

      Reply
  5. Stephanie Dobler Cerra

    I second Elizabeth Gaskell, plus Margaret Oliphant. She was a prolific writer of popular fiction, more than 120 works, who supported herself and her children entirely by her writing. Like so many Victorians, she lived with much sorrow from the deaths of several children.

    Reply
  6. Liutgard

    Oh, Margery, Margery, Margery…

    I’ve spent more time wrestling with Margery Kempe than I care to think about. Read Margery. Written Margery. Taught Margery. Had a long interesting chat with Karma Lochrie about Margery…

    I admit, I’m of the camp that thinks that Margery was a bit of a crank. Narcissistic Personality Disorder.Attention-seeking. Religious expression was really her only outlet, and boy, did she use it! I knew women just like her in the religious tradition I grew up in- I recognized her quickly. She must have been… well, this is a woman so obnoxious, that once, on a pilgrimage, her traveling companions (i.e.tour group) got up and snuck off without her, abandoning her in the middle of nowhere. Imagine their ‘joy’ when she caught up with them again.

    Which is not to say that she wouldn’t make a terrific movie. The various threads of feminism and sex and womens’ lives and religion and mysticism would make for a fascinating narrative!

    Reply
    • Sarah Faltesek

      Agreed. I studied Kempe in college, and found her fascinating. I don’t think I would have enjoyed her company, but a protagonist doesn’t have to be likable to be interesting, informative, and powerful.

      Reply
    • LadySlippers

      I’ve not heard of her so these tidbits are wonderful!

      Men that have a whole plethora of flaws still get attention centuries later. Why shouldn’t women too? In fact, those flaws you describe make me more anxious to learn about her, not less.

      Although like Sarah, I’m not terribly interested in actually befriending someone like that. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, right?! 😂

      Reply
    • Trystan

      Yep, she’s super complicated – which just makes her all that much more interesting fodder for a film :-) There’s so many different ways the story could go & still have a reasonable basis in historical fact while also being relevant to today’s audience. That’s totally why she’s on my personal shortlist for if I ever have time to write my own screenplays!

      Reply
  7. Karen

    How about Heloise, the 12th Century young soman who had an affair with her handsome and renown philosopher-tutor Abelard. He is subsequently castrated by her furious Canon uncle/guardian. They both end up in religious orders and begin what is perhaps the most famous (and beautiful) series of love letters ever written. Heloise basically brings Abelard out of the depths of depression through her love and support, and they both go on to become leaders of their respective monastery and nunnery and respected and beloved throughout history, though tragically forever physically separated.

    Reply
    • brenna

      Stealing Heaven was a pretty decent biography of her, based on the Marion Meade novel. Though I haven’t seen the film in 20 years, long before I knew about production quality and historical accuracy, and it was made in the 1980s if I recall.

      Reply
      • Maria

        There’s also another book about Heloise that I read and enjoyed – The Sharp Hook of Love by Sherry Jones – it’s historical fiction but it’s pretty good

        Reply
  8. Charity

    It actually surprises me that there hasn’t been a miniseries or film about Alcott’s life yet. Seems like she’s a good candidate for one.

    Reply
  9. Mrs. D

    Kate Chopin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman would also both be really good candidates. If they’ve been covered already, I’m not aware of it.

    Reply
    • Marie McGowan Irving

      Charlotte Perins Gilman <3 yes, there should be a film about CPG :D

      Reply
  10. Janet Nickerson

    We definitely need an Aphra Behn film/series. She’s also credited with writing the first abolitionist novel. ‘Oroonoko.’ Karen Eterovich wrote and performs a one-woman play about Behn, ‘Love Armed’. http://www.lovearmd.com/karen.html If not a straight-up bio, there’s a mystery novel set in the Restoration era with Behn as crime-solver (with Nell Gwyn as a side-kick) ‘Invitation to a Funeral’ by Molly Brown that would be a good basis for a film.

    Reply
  11. janette

    Excellent suggestions all of them. Mary Wollstonecraft would top my wish list. Aphra Behn is crying out for a bio/pic. The lives of Mary Ann Evans or for that matter Elizabeth Gaskell are probably best suited to TV as the demands of the film industry would necessitate ramping up the drama of their lives far too much.
    I hope that at some time you will also do a list of women artists who deserve films/TV series made about them.

    Reply
  12. Jennie Gist

    There are quite a few pre-1900 Victorian women adventurers who are movie-ready. They could be a category all of their own, but many wrote and published extensively. Not a boring word to be had! I’d narrow it down to two: Isabella Bird, who traveled all over the Rocky Mountains in the 1870s, alone or in the company of a one-eyed desperado named Rocky Mountain Jim. All very proper, of course. She also traveled in Asia, mostly on her own. The other would be Mary Kingsley, who traveled Africa in the 1890s, paddled her own canoe and once whacked a crocodile in the nose to keep him from coming aboard. Trust me, wonderful movies could be made of their travels.

    Reply
    • Corrinne

      Our daughter’s middle name is Bird after Isabella! I’d love to see a movie about her.

      Reply
      • Jennie Gist

        Really … I’m happy to meet another Isabella fan! Cheers to you and your daughter.

        Reply
  13. Flora

    Jean Rhys! The costume range would be fantastic as her life spans from the early 20th to the 70s, plus she spent her adulthood in Paris during the Twenties working as a mannequin and artists’ model. She was forgotten for a longtime but in the 1960s she wrote a version of Jane Eyre but through the eyes of Bertha Mason. I think they made a film about that story, but not about its author!

    Reply
  14. decrepitelephone

    Mary Chesnut makes my list – even though her diary is one of the most familiar of the Civil War, her ability to show up at the important points of the war, and how she grappled with how it affected her life, and those in her social circle, could be interesting.

    Plus I love how bitchy she and Varina Davis get.

    And what about Edith Wharton?

    Reply
  15. LadySlippers

    I’d like to add a less known authoress (especially outside the Midwest) — Mari Sandoz.

    Her biography of Crazy Horse is absolutely amazing! Mari grew up on a farm in western Nebraska, very close to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. She knew and spoke with contemporaries of Crazy Horse (which is what places her biography head and shoulders above others). In addition, the Lakota and Cheyenne people feature prominently in her stories and her enormous respect for the First Nations really shines through her work. She wrote both fiction and non-fiction and her own story is both typical of the Midwest but not typical too. She really carved her own path out which is never easy.

    Willa Cather would be another I’d suggest. But I would really like people to see the amazing way Mari created a life for herself, became a writer, and how she used English in her stories. She really was something else.

    Reply
  16. Knitms

    I would love to see the life of Pauline Hopkins, an African American vocalist, editor, reporter, playwright, and novelist during the late 19th and early 20th century. I would also love to see her work adapted for screen, particularly Of One Blood (going back to the earlier conversation as to why historic dramas are so white, there were nonwhite fiction writers before the 1920’s, people).
    Read about her here: http://www.paulinehopkinssociety.org/biography/

    Reply
  17. Juile

    I’d watch any of these, and I love the many suggestions too. Add to that, Hildegarde of Bingen was a mystic, writer, composer (a little like Julian of Norwich in some respects) except she also ran an abbey – I think of her as an early prototype female CEO running a large business, who also happened to be amazingly creative. There’s a great story about her resisting the urge to write because she felt it wasn’t humble enough, until she actually became physically sick from the desire to do it. What did people think of the PL Travers biopic, Saving Mr Banks? I enjoyed many aspects of it, and thought the early life scenes were beautifully done, but the end was too Disneyfied. PL Travers hated that version of Mary Poppins to the end of her days, and I don’t blame her. I believe they’re making a new version now, with Emily Blunt as Mary. Could be interesting if they capture the mesmerizing edge of menace behind all the Mary Poppins stories; plus we should have some great Edwardian costuming coming up!

    Reply

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