Ask any writer what they are inspired by, and they’ll likely respond with the literary works of famous authors. They will rattle off great novels of the past, classic masterpieces of literature, or even inspiring books they read when they were younger.
While there are some good books out there, I’m far more inspired by other forms of media. One of these forms is movies.
To me, movies are one of the best and most effective forms of media. In just a couple hours, a movie can take you on an incredible emotional ride. You can explore ideas, light a fire under somebody, or communicate important truths about the world. But the limited format often forces movies to keep their messages punchy and communicate what they want to say more efficiently.
Or at least the good ones do.
Few things make me sadder than the state of the movie industry today. And I’m not just talking about how the pandemic affected movie theaters. Even before the world shut down, the movie-going experience just wasn’t the same anymore.
Movies are normally preachy messes, or they are just CGI-loaded superhero films. There are very few movies telling original stories, or communicating old stories in an original way, while also entertaining the audience.
As a writer, I often turn to movies and TV shows to inspire me. When I want to experience great fiction—or even, as in the list below, some non-fiction—I usually turn on the TV in my living room and immerse myself in a classic story told in movie form.
The list below is not an exhaustive one. There are great movies throughout the last 100 years that can inspire you. But these are the ones that I always go back to. These are the ones that leave me feeling as though I should run up to my office, sit down at my desk, and start working on the latest story in my book series.
You may have a different list. This is very personal for me. But it might inspire you to look at films and TV shows a little differently.
1. The Pursuit of Happyness
What it’s about
Chris Gardner can’t seem to get his career on track. Selling medical equipment, he can’t make ends meet and lives on the streets with his young son. He sees an opportunity to build a new career, so places a big bet on himself to change his life and achieve the success that he always believed that he could.
Why it inspires me
To be honest, this is the movie on the list that I relate to the most. I’ve been a writer full-time for almost 13 years. In that time, I’ve made lots and lots of money, and I’ve also had years where I barely made anything. Throughout it all, I’ve been told by many people to give up, move on, and get "a real job."
Watching this movie shows me big lessons about success that I often need to remind myself of. The first, and most obvious one, is the importance of betting on yourself. Throughout this movie, Gardner struggles with self-doubt. And when he’s at his very bottom, sleeping in the bathroom of a train station, holding the door closed with his foot while cradling his son, tears of shame streaming down his face, you can see the guilt in his eyes. He knows that the decisions he made brought him to that point, and he and his son are paying for it. That’s a very powerful emotion to cope with when you’re struggling, and I am familiar with it.
But he got out of that by believing in his ability to do so. He didn’t dwell on how unfair the world was. Instead, he found a way out.
The second lesson is the importance of pivoting away from your original plan. At the start of the movie, Gardner believes that he is going to be successful by selling medical equipment. By the end of the movie, he has a completely different career. He was willing to take a step away from his plans and adjust. That’s more important than you think. Especially as a writer, think about how you are generating an income, and understand when something isn’t working so you can pivot to something else.
2. The Greatest Showman
What it’s about
Stop me if you’ve heard this one already, but this is about a father who is not as successful as he believes he should be, so he changes careers and makes a big bet on himself.
Okay, this one is a little different. Hugh Jackman plays lead character P. T. Barnum. He believes he’s destined for great things, so he starts a circus. Nobody wants to see it at first, and he gradually builds up his acts, learning how to promote himself and his circus. Over time, he loses track of what really matters and why he was chasing this dream, and learns the importance of what life is really all about.
Why it inspires me
First off, this is a musical. And it’s a banger. If you like music at all, this is a good one to watch.
That point out of the way, it reduced me to tears the first time I saw it. I went to see it at the theater with my wife, and watching a man cry to his wife about what he’s put her through was very touching to me. Along with that, there is a brief window into the mindset of the wife who willingly supports her husband through his crazy schemes.
Now that’s a very personal reason to like this movie. But there is one that anybody can take away from this. The Greatest Showman was not supposed to be successful.
If you dig into the history of this movie, nothing about it makes sense. It’s a period film about an old circus, and it’s a musical. Not a Disney musical, but an original musical. It should not have been successful at all.
Except it was. This punchy little musical wound up staying very successful for months on end. When every other movie seemed to drift away, The Greatest Showman continued to be successful. It drew crowds. It went on to become one of the most successful musicals of all time.
The reason why is Hugh Jackman. He believed in this movie, and he took it on as a passion project. This was something he always wanted to do. When you watch the videos of the initial presentations of the songs, you see a man with tears in his eyes trying to bring this little dream to reality. And that’s not part of the movie, that’s real life!
Just because people don’t think you’ll be successful doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to fail. You may have an original idea, and if you focus on executing it properly, you can be successful.
Ours is an era where this is more important than ever. Thanks to self-publishing, writers don’t have to convince gatekeepers to take our ideas to the market. We can take our careers in our own hands, and place bets on ourselves.
Sometimes, those bets pay off.
3. Back to the Future, 4. The Bourne Identity, 5. The Truman Show
What they’re about
I’m lumping all three together because a lot of what I learned is the same from each of them.
Back to the Future is about a young man who goes back in time to make sure that his parents end up together in high school. He interacts with younger versions of many people in his life, and he discovers how the way he interacts with them affects how they turn out in the present day.
The Bourne Identity is about a man who wakes up on a boat with total amnesia. He has documents and inexplicable abilities to observe the world around him and to fight. Eventually, he unravels a vast government conspiracy revolving around his previous life.
The Truman Show is about a man who lives his life completely unaware that everything around him is part of a TV show. His entire world is fictional. Thanks to a light fixture that suddenly falls from the artificial sky, Truman questions everything and discovers just how artificial everything is.
These are really generic recaps, but trust me—they’re all great movies.
Why they inspire me
I love an original story. Sure, they may follow similar arcs. But these stories all start with very interesting premises that have a lot of meat that they can work with.
Where do they come up with this stuff? I’m fascinated by the execution of these stories. And ultimately, all of these stories are pretty simple to explain. Yes, there is more to each of them, but I can sum each movie up in a few sentences. And with those sentences, you can pack in a lot of intrigue and curiosity.
To me as a writer, watching these movies and others like them shows me you can find a lot of originality in a very simple premise. By taking the time to execute it properly, you can take an original idea and turn it into something really memorable.
What it’s about
Jerry Seinfeld was on top of the world as the ’90s came to a close. He had just wrapped up nine seasons of his landmark TV show. It was a pop culture phenomenon, and it still holds up to this day. With all the money in the world and any direction for him to take his career, Jerry Seinfeld did the unthinkable. He went back to stand-up comedy. The documentary looks at Jerry building his act again from scratch, going down to the comedy clubs in New York and jumping on stage to work out new material.
Why it inspires me
I’m fascinated by the world of stand-up comedy in the 20th century. And if you know nothing about it, understand that it was a very hard life. You worked late nights trying to get on stage so you could work out your act.
Comedians who hit it big were often pulled into movies, their own TV shows, or they just dominated the stand-up comedy scene. But it was a world full of amateurs looking for their big breaks.
This documentary illustrates that perfectly. Even though Jerry Seinfeld was a household name, he couldn’t just get on stage and say whatever he wanted. His material still had to be good. And after he ended his TV show, he did one last stand up comedy special retiring all of his old material. He started over completely from scratch.
Throughout this movie, you see Jerry sitting down with legal pads, writing out jokes every day. You see him getting on stage and forgetting what he was trying to say, referencing piles of papers in front of him. He looks like a complete amateur up there, struggling to get people to laugh at his jokes. It’s very raw and very revealing.
As a writer, it is really easy to look at people who are successful and think that they live on Easy Street. They can spit out successful stories repeatedly. But the truth is, the good ones with any kind of staying power don’t rely on their reputation to get them by in their careers. Those who do wind up petering out after a short period of time.
Jerry Seinfeld is still very successful to this day because he works hard. And any of the other most successful entertainers, writers, comedians, and so on are all successful because they still do the grunt work themselves.
Does it get easier? I’m not sure. But I know that the things I struggle with in my writing are the same things that successful writers struggle with in their writing too.
7. That Thing You Do!
What it’s about
A young group of teenagers play in a band in their garage. They work to get their big song on the local radio. Once they do so, a big record label picks them up and puts them on tour, producing a hit record. With their one-hit wonder under their belts, they embark on a whirlwind journey where they ultimately flame out and go their separate ways soon after their initial spike of success.
Why it inspires me
Tom Hanks made this movie in the late ’90s. And I’ll be honest with you, it’s not a cinematic masterpiece. I don’t believe it won very many awards at all, and it certainly didn’t win any Oscars.
But it was fun. And that was the point.
To this day, there are many people who still call That Thing You Do! one of their favorite movies. It’s certainly one of mine. When it comes on, it’s like wrapping yourself in a warm blanket. It’s comfortable, fun, and you know what to expect from it.
And in my opinion, the music is pretty good too.
How many people who decide to embark on a life of writing are always looking to build an epic masterpiece that they can point to as their own? When you learn about writing, you study great works of literature and want to emulate their influence.
But that’s not all that writers do. There are many writers who are comfortable and happy just pumping out entertaining works. They’re not looking to change the world with their literature. They just want to entertain people for a little while. They want to have fun.
That’s the kind of work that I do. I’m not expecting to have someone put down one of my books and believe that I am an intellectual giant with a brilliant mind. I just want them to put down my book and say to themselves, "Man, that was a fun read."
Often, many writers would really benefit by sticking to their strengths. You may not have the chops to write something brilliant. You might be able to put together a fun little story. And if you write enough of those, you can build a rabid readership of people who just want a little bit of an escape for a while.
That Thing You Do! is an escape. That’s all it is. And it’s a fun one. If I want a smile on my face, I can put that movie on anytime. It’s a movie that knows exactly what it’s supposed to be, and it doesn’t try to be anything more than that. It knows its limitations, and it plays into its strengths. More writers need to learn how to do that.
What about you? What movies are on your list?
Are there movies out there that restore your faith in your chances of success as a writer? Or are there any stories out there that light a fire under you to pick up the pen or grab your laptop and start working on your story?
Start looking at your favorite movies through this lens, and you might find more inspiration than you think.