When I was young and energetic and inclined to sublimate surging hormonal overactivity into creative endeavour (I don't know which faded first, the hormones or the creativity), I used to write plays. Actually, that's not entirely true: I used to write and rewrite a single play. Because whatever the play was about (revolution; Shakespearean heroes; our old friend Sisyphus), there was always a moment where the central figure discovered a script that showed his life and death were predetermined, proving that he was nothing more than a (wait for it) character in a play. Alert readers will be able to deduce my slavish devotion to the works of Pirandello and Stoppard and Woody Allen; and I'm sure it's quite easy to trace a lineage from them to my play McB, which ended with Macduff telling Macbeth that he couldn't win, because the author wouldn't let him, although, to justify my existence, I had the Thane bumped off by the First Witch, who'd been having an affair with him behind Lady Macbeth's back, but then transferred her affections to Macduff after she'd read to the end of the script. Or was there a lesbian sub-plot with Lady M, who wasn't really dead? To be honest, it's all a bit hazy now. The play was performed on the Edinburgh Fringe in 1989, attracting the description "unbelievably atrocious" from Mario Relich of The Scotsman, thus immediately tripling our audiences, so that we very nearly broke even which, as anyone who's 'done' the Fringe will tell you, is some achievement, so thanks, Mario.
Yeah, anyway. Even in the 1980s, this was a theme that had been done to death in the theatre: what's surprising is that the cinema has usually been resistant to the idea. Of course, there's been metafiction - the technique of drawing attention to the artificiality of a narrative - in movies for decades: Tarantino didn't invent everything. Check out the sublimely daft Hellzapoppin' (1941) if you want to see a movie about the writing of itself. But in recent years it's been more a case of knowing nods and winks, from Ferris Bueller's post-credits appearance to tell the audience to go home, to the slew of horror and other genre spoofs that began in the mid-1990s and were never as good as Airplane! And then of course there's the permanently raised eyebrow of Quentin Tarantino. (Quick break here for a pocket Grindhouse review: the Tarantino half is better; the Rodriguez half is more enjoyable.)
Adaptation (2002) brought the writing process back to the centre of things, with a script by Charlie Kaufman that featured himself as the main character, alongside his twin brother Donald, who doesn't exist, although that didn't stop the Academy nominating him for an Oscar for co-writing the piece. The fact that the script was nominally based on a real book, the author of which appears as a character, adds to the fun.
More recently we've had The Number 23, in which Jim Carrey finds a book that seems to tell the story of his life; and Stranger Than Fiction, with Will Ferrell as a meek auditor who starts hearing his actions being narrated. These turn out to be the words of a novelist (Emma Thompson) with a reputation for always killing off her heroes, so the plot turns into a battle to save his life, made more poignant because he has at last found love with bohemian baker Maggie Gyllenhaal (and serenades her with a Wreckless Eric song). The love story is nicely done, but it distracts from the central conceit, rather blunting the challenge to the audience's sense of reality. Indeed, it combines two tried and tested Hollywood themes: the antisocial nerd redeemed by the love of a slightly uncoventional woman (Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby or Steve Carell and Catherine Keener in The 40 Year Old Virgin); and the man fighting unseen powers for his right to live (David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death).
Hollywood is finally tired of green-lighting genre spoofs, it appears, so they may be room for more of this literary self-awareness, albeit wrapped up in something like the easily digested romance of Stranger Than Fiction. But I doubt it, for two reasons. First, writing isn't cinematic. It's easy to make a film about making a film; much harder to create excitement from someone hammering at a keyboard and drinking coffee. And the other reason lies in Hollywood's politics. Somebody like Charlie Kaufman, a screenwriter who gets as much kudos for a finished film as the director, is an anomaly. Mainstream moviemaking is still in thrall to the 50-year-old auteur theory, that holds the director responsible for a film's artistic worth. Too many films about the creation of a story and the words that tell it, and they'll have to start giving the poor bloody writer a bit more credit.