15 Biographical Films Inspired by Women Authors’ Lives

Miss potter

Lots of films have been made from novels by the classic women authors on this site, as you’ll see by linking to this site’s Filmography. But there are also a number of biographical films about women authors themselves, the lives they led, and the stories they told.

What is it, do you supposed, that’s so fascinating about the life of a woman who writes? The films don’t focus on the act of writing for the most part — wouldn’t that be a yawner! Rather, they pay homage to the literary legacy they left behind in the form of their wonderful stories.

Some of these films take more literary license than others when it comes to the true facts of their subjects lives, but many, if not all, can at least be an introduction to the author, her life, and work.

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Julia (1977)

Julia 1977 film

Based on the experiences of playwright Lillian Hellman. As a friend of the titled Julia, she assists her with anti-Nazi resistance work in pre-WWII Germany and Austria. Serious doubt has been cast about the veracity of this story, yet it still makes for good filmmaking.

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Portrait of a Marriage (1992)
Portrait of a marriage miniseries

This BBC miniseries explores the unconventional marriage of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. Though devoted to one another, they were free to follow their passions. She preferred women; Nicolson preferred men. Famously, Vita and Virginia Woolf had what has long been accepted as at least an emotional affair.

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Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Cycle (1994)

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle

Set in the 1920’s this film follows Dorothy Parker and the members of the Algonquin Round Table — the young writers of the New York literary world at the time. Viewers are quite divided on this one — love it or hate it!

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Out of Africa (1985)

Out of Africa 1985 movie

A multi-award-winning film (including best picture) about Isak Dinesen’s African sojourn, based on her 1937 memoir Out of Africa, with Meryl Streep as the author and Robert Redford as her fickle love interest.

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The Hours (2002)

The Hours 2002 movie

A trio of interwoven stories based on the book of the same name by Michael Cunningham, one of which is about Virginia Woolf, portrayed by Nicole Kidman. Though the theme that ties the stories together is suicide, it is gripping and wonderfully acted.

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Iris (2002)

Iris - 2001 film starring Judi Dench and Kate Winslet

As described by the filmmakers, “Here’s the powerful true story based on John Bayley’s novels that earned Jim Broadbent an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and Academy Award Nominations for Best Actress Judi Dench and Best Supporting Actress Kate Winslet. Judi Dench and Kate Winslet bring to the screen one of the most extraordinary women of the 20th century, celebrated English author Iris Murdoch.”

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Sylvia (2004)

Sylvia Plath movie

Gwyneth Paltrow portrays poet Sylvia Plath, with Daniel Craig as her husband and fellow poet Ted Hughes. The film follows Plath through her life, showing her development as a writer, and the increasing depression that plagued her entire, albeit brief, adult life.

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Miss Potter (2007)

Miss Potter movie starring Renee Zellweger

A charming film biography of Beatrix Potter, starring Renee Zellweger as the author who wrote and illustrated Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddleduck, and many other memorable animal stories.

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Becoming Jane (2007)

Becoming Jane 2007 film

Starring Anne Hathaway, this film purportedly tells the untold story of a romance between Jane Austen and a young Irishman. It’s difficult to tell if the film is intended to be historically accurate or fanciful lark.

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Cross Creek (2009)

Cross Creek movie

The life of The Yearling author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings on her Florida orange grove, charmingly portrayed by Mary Steenburgen. One of the better author biopics, in this writer’s opinion.

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Beyond the Prairie (2010)

Beyond the Prairie - the true story of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Claiming to be “The true life story of Laura Ingalls Wilder,” this film, like other Hollywood-ized biopics, takes a great deal of license.  Purporting to be about the author and her beloved husband, Almanzo, this could be entertaining for fans of the Little House books who can view it with a big grain of salt. On the other hand, true fans might be upset by all the unnecessary liberty taken with Laura’s life, which was interesting as it was.

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Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks is the story of how Walt Disney lobbied Pamela (P.L.) Travers for film rights to Mary Poppins, and the challenges that ensued with the prickly author. Things didn’t tie up quite so neatly in real life as they did in this film. Still, it’s good entertainment, starring Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson.

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A Quiet Passion (2017)

A Quiet Passion — Emily Dickinson film scene

Image of Cynthia Nixon and Jennifer Ehle in Terence Davies’s A Quiet Passion, about Emily Dickinson, courtesy Double Dutch International. Film critics loved this one, but Emily Dickinson fans gave this biopic mixed reviews at best. A beautifully photographed film, one wonders how much “poetic license” was taken with the story of the brilliant poet who rarely strayed from her family’s Amherst home.

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To Walk Invisible (2017)

To walk invisible: the Brontë sisters

To Walk Invisible is a beautifully done Masterpiece Theater film about the Brontë sisters, their father, and troublesome brother Branwell. Perfectly cast, at times you’ll feel like you’re watching a documentary about this extraordinary literary family.

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Mary Shelley (2018)

Mary Shelley (2018) film

This biographical film dramatizing the story of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (née Godwin), the author of Frankenstein, stars Elle Fanning. Central to the story is her tempestuous affair with and eventual marriage to the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth). This film was generally panned by critics, though viewers gave it a higher rating in aggregate. According to Rotten Tomatoes:

“The pair are two outsiders constrained by polite society but bound together by a natural chemistry and progressive ideas that are beyond the boundaries of their age and time. Mary and Percy declare their love for each other and much to her family’s horror they run away together, joined by Mary’s half-sister Claire (Bel Powley).” 

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A Tree Grows In Brooklyn film 1945 film Poster

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8 Responses to “15 Biographical Films Inspired by Women Authors’ Lives”

  1. I, too, love “Miss Potter” for its very condensed but lovely look at Beatrix Potter’s achievements and artwork. She set the standard for children’s books at a time when women were not encouraged to work in publishing or marketing. She was very determined to do things her way despite the limits and rejections she faced with her botanical artwork and original stories for children. The Warne love story was true, but was, of course, overly dramatized and expanded from the brief time that they worked together. Her happy marriage to Willy Heelis was touched on, but he was not a childhood friend as portrayed in the movie. Her childhood trips included many summers in Scotland before she ever went to the Lake District. Beatrix Potter is still the largest, single-most donor of 4000+ acres of farmland to the National Trust. On the DVD, there is an extra bonus biography of the REAL Beatrix Potter. The film is certainly a sweet story, beautifully filmed in the Lake District, and has brought much more attention to Potter’s remarkable life.

  2. I was amused and torn when I saw featured on the list “Beyond the Prairie” purporting to be a biopic of Laura Ingalls Wilder. As most of these on the list, this particular TV mini-series was very LOOSELY based on the adult years of Laura following the last two books in the “Little House” series long before she authored them. It was followed by another TV series the next year. Sadly, Hollywood can never cast a brunette as Laura (child or adult) and can never stick to the true story of her remarkable life, overcoming poverty and farming disasters to humbly use her writing as a means for income and hope. There were imagined scenes that were ludicrous for the time period portrayed. By the way, if you had read the “Little House” books, you would know her husband’s name was ALMANZO. (It’s always butchered by the press – which I expected more from Literary Ladies.) The best recent biography is “Prairie Fires: the American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder” by Caroline Fraser, which just was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 2018. I hope another movie/TV series can be made to truthfully dramatize her very common but universally embraced life.

    • Thanks for this comment as well, Connie. The misspelled name was a sloppy typo, and it has been fixed. I also worded the description so that it’s clear that this biopic takes a lot of license. I recently saw a copy of Prairie Fires and would love to read it!

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