Four writers. Four films that changed their lives…
Into the Wild (2007)
The final scene and credits of Sean Penn’s film Into the Wild will always stick with me. In a dark room late at night with a group of close friends, the only sound was a quiet collective sobbing. The film had an enormous impact on each of us. I would say that this film changed my life by showing me an antihero in the real life figure of Christopher McCandless, played excellently by Emile Hirsch, who did the unthinkable and gave up his life of privilege to get back to nature on a spiritual and philosophical level unlike any I had seen before.
What resonated with me even more was the fact that the story of McCandless, a talented sportsman who had just graduated from college in 1990, was completely true. His decision to abandon his previous life in favour of a simple nomadic existence (and eventually working towards an ‘Alaskan Odyssey’) is seen by many as reckless, naïve and plain stupid, and there are plenty of arguments to justify why this may have been the case, but to me it was also incredibly brave, especially at a time in my life when I was struggling with personal identity.
It might be typical to assume that the vitriolic condemnation of ‘society’ by Hirsch’s character spoke to me at this point in my life simply because every teenager is expected to experience a ‘fuck society’ phase before growing up and realising the ‘truth’. But, believe it or not, at the heart of the story is a message that many critics of the film seem to miss: happiness is only real when shared, and the fact that this agonising truth only becomes apparent to McCandless after it is too late is a tragedy that will always live on in my mind. Jay Stonestreet
Blade Runner (1982)
It took a few years for Blade Runner to really make an impact. I first saw it as a teenager (raised on action blockbusters) and was impressed with the visuals, but a bit ‘weirded-out’ and slightly bored by everything else. But in the following years, the more I watched it, the more I thought about it, I came to love it and regard it as one of the greatest films ever made (in case you wondered, The Empire Strikes Back takes the top spot).
Its vision of the future is probably the most believable of any film I’ve ever seen. There are no sweeping vistas of alien worlds, grand space-ships soaring among the stars, but extensions of the modern age we already live in. Every time I see a city-scape at night, or catch glimpses of factories in the distance, my brain can’t help but play back those opening moments: if I’m in the city and it’s even slightly raining, there’s a 90% chance I’m listening to Vangelis’ Blade Runner Blues. Even small things like billboard adverts or TV commercials bring to mind the skyscrapers wrapped in Coke ads or the enormous, smoke-belching infomercial barges spouting hollow promises of a better life.
But what has really struck me most about the movie – in the last few viewings – is what I believe the film to really be about: two people who somehow, battling monumental odds, defying death, and questioning their own existence, manage to find love in a world which appears to have none left. It gives me hope that despite the cynicism that we’re all guilty of in this day and age, the human spirit and (at the risk of sounding disgustingly sentimental) love will emerge unscathed. Chris Rogers
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
I will probably never be able to definitively choose my favourite film, answering everything from Dead Poets Society to The Princess Diaries over the years, but the film that changed my life is much easier to define. Every time I watch To Kill a Mockingbird, every time I hear Elmer Bernstein’s modestly resonant score, I am transported back to a vicarious, sepia-toned childhood in 1930s Alabama: I am Scout Finch tire-swinging through a world that makes no sense. But it’s not a romantic picture – I stand when my father, Atticus, passes, having steadfastly defended a black man, Tom Robinson, and then watched an all-white jury unjustly convict him – and the lessons I learn are invaluable.
The film is shot through a lens of childhood naïvety which makes it abundantly clear that intolerance is learned behaviour, and as a kid, weeping over this story first sparked my interest in civil rights. Children are not born hateful; we bring them up to be. When you’re a child, you cry at the injustice. When you’re an adult, you cry because the injustice still exists.
But To Kill a Mockingbird changed me again when I was old enough to acknowledge its imperfections. It prioritises the nobility of a white man over the full characterisation of Tom Robinson, and the black people of the story are relegated to the backbenches of the courtroom and their own oppression. The flaws of that time only further indicate the importance of fair representation now.
Whenever I start to judge another person, I think of Boo Radley and I hear Gregory Peck’s voice, too, saying “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus Finch isn’t a great cinematic hero for his ability to fly faster than a speeding bullet or shoot two guns at the same time: he shows us that compassion is the most heroic trait of all. Emma Holbrook
Withnail & I (1987)
It feels inadequate to name Bruce Robinson’s black comedy as ‘the film that changed my life’. For a start, it hasn’t and it seems a massive cliché, the fashionable answer of every student (although the one time I watched the film with students they all thought it was shit- the cliché is clearly utter rubbish). Yet as a student facing the terrifying precipice of adulthood, Withnail and I remains as meaningful as ever.
A plot synopsis of the film makes terrible reading: in 1969, two unemployed actors Withnail (Richard E Grant) and Marwood (Paul McGann, although you’d only know the character’s name if you’re like me and are sad enough to read the screenplay online) escape the squalor of their Camden Town flat and spend the weekend in the country cottage belonging to Withnail’s flamboyantly gay uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths). Yet the aimlessness, the nostalgia and of course the pungent dialogue of Withnail and I is part of its charm, with an array of quotable lines ranging from the brilliantly inane ramblings of Danny the dealer “Hairs are your aerials. They pick up signals from the cosmos, and transmit them directly into the brain. This is the reason bald-headed men are uptight” to some classically British swearing “Monty you terrible cunt!” and of course who hasn’t drunkenly stood up in a pub and demanded “the finest wines available to humanity?” (Just me. OK).
However, it is the ending that is most vivid for me. As Marwood departs in the rain, having secured a job, Withnail recites Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is a man” to the wolves, the only audience that will listen. It is an immensely moving portrayal by Grant, as Withnail finally faces the realisation that he will never play the Dane. When you’re young the possibilities seem endless. But reality sets in, people get cut adrift and we settle for mediocrity. Withnail deals with all of these things and our desperate attempts to keep the dream alive. Will Hunter