The End of The Tour: The Loneliness of the Long-Form Writer

A  scene that is far less exciting to most audiences than a car chase or battle sequence.
A scene that is far less exciting to most audiences than a car chase or battle sequence.

Films About Writing: Can They Appeal to Audiences?

Literary adaptations are as prevalent in contemporary cinema as remakes of hallowed film classics, but movies about literature are far more sporadic. One notable recent example is the Beat Generation drama Kill Your Darlings, and there are several classic films about writers, such as Henry & June and Barton Fink. However, the act of sitting down and unleashing one’s inner thoughts into a keyboard for hours at a time is far from inherently cinematic. Often, filmmakers will compensate for this fact by integrating audience-friendly elements such as a murder mystery and a sensual romance into an otherwise static story-line. This may detract from the purity of filming a movie about the writing process, but it makes this niche subject matter appeal to even the most casual fans of literature.

The talented independent filmmaker James Ponsoldt (Smashed, The Spectacular Now) faced a difficult decision when he decided to film David Lipsky’s 2010 account of his interview with the late, acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace. Not only is Wallace a cult figure who is likely to be unknown to a large segment of the film’s potential audience, but the screenplay is structured as a series of penetrating conversations, rather than an action-heavy plot. Refreshingly, Ponsoldt refuses to pander to the whims of popcorn-movie audiences, and holds steadfast to the integrity of his unique and haunting film. By centering on the insightful reflections of the visionary Wallace, as told to the budding writer Lipsky, Ponsoldt’s film achieves an intimacy far greater than most films about writing and literature. By the end of the 100-minute running time, the alienation and rewards of being a writer are laid bare. No murder sub-plots or romantic interests are needed, and in the film’s narrow focus, the true subject of The End of The Tour is revealed.

Above all, the film conveys the innate loneliness and isolation that the writing profession perpetually entails. After all, in order to be a writer, one must have significant extra time in order to perfect one’s craft. It takes a particular type of personality to eschew experiencing life and instead sit in an empty room and write about it. The solitary existence of a writer is perfectly sensible when considering a book’s potential audience. Readers, especially those who would take the time to read a 1000-page behemoth such as Wallace’s magnum opus Infinite Jest, are often as content to be alone as the writers themselves.

David Foster Wallace as Cinematic Protagonist

We're not in The Muppets anymore.
We’re not in The Muppets anymore.

The End of The Tour introduces the audience to the struggling novelist and promising journalist Lipsky (played by the reliably sincere and neurotic Jesse Eisenberg), but it truly kicks into gear with the introduction of Wallace himself. It may be expected of most prominent writers to live and work in thriving cultural centers such as Manhattan or San Francisco, but tellingly, Wallace spent most of his time in the sheltered municipality of Bloomington, Illinois. The film is set in 1996, the year Infinite Jest propelled Wallace into the literary stratosphere, yet the writer was more than happy to live in a small farm town with only loyal dogs as companions.

In Ponsoldt’s most inspired decision, the comedic actor Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, How I Met Your Mother) is cast as Wallace. This choice may seem perplexing, but Segel’s gentle giant persona and sincere, aching vulnerability make him an ideal fit for this challenging role. The sloppy clothes, bandana, and thick glasses Segel dons throughout the film may initially appear to be a contrivance, or even a “David Foster Wallace Halloween costume,” as one review in The Guardian put it. Luckily, Segel’s soulful, lived-in performance embodies the cult writer far more than just aesthetically. Wallace was a writer prone to privacy, and as he freely admits in the film, he preferred living with pets than facing the inevitable heartbreak associated with romantic relationships. This makes it completely unsurprising that at first he is suspicious of Lipsky’s motives, and is cryptic and reticent.

As the film rolls along, however, Wallace begins unspooling layer and layer of his soul and mind, making for a fascinating and intriguing character study. As Wallace remarks to Lipsky, he refuses to engage with literary groupies, realizing that these women are fans of his reputation rather than his authentic personality. Lipsky pointedly responds, “Don’t they feel that they know you through your work?” The concept of literature being a window into an author’s psyche is a tired one, and Wallace was always a novelist who defied easy categorization as an “autobiographical writer.” The post-modern complexity, esoteric references, and intense experimentation with form exhibited in his novels would lead most to assume that Wallace’s interests were simply too narrow to relate to the masses. His loneliness, as shared by countless other writers, would simply appear to be the result of his intellectual sophistication and inability to connect with mainstream viewpoints.

The Surprising Mass Appeal of Apparent Insularity

David Foster Wallace's drink of choice.
David Foster Wallace’s drink of choice.

Yet, as revealed often in The End of The Tour, Wallace’s personality often dovetailed with “simple” middle-American values in surprising ways. As the son of two English literature professors, one could imagine Wallace spending most of his time reading Proust, drinking Pellegrino, and watching films by Tarkovksy and Fellini. In contrast to expectations, Wallace’s palette was drawn to diet Pepsi, Pop Tarts, and Die Hard.

In one humorous and telling scene, Lipsky and Wallace take two “hipsters” (Mamie Gummer and Mickey Sumner) out to see the B-action picture Broken Arrow. While the two noted writers are enthralled with the film’s mindless motion, their companions scoff at the apparent lack of intellectual weight. In the popular consciousness, novelists are often considered effete snobs who cannot (or will not) fathom that which is held dear by the majority of society. That Wallace was able to enmesh himself in Midwestern culture beyond his own academic upbringing is a testament to the inherent ability of literature to reach the masses.

Akin to Wallace’s down-to-earth personality, the challenging Infinite Jest can easily engage a wide range of readers. Wallace’s landmark novel is a notoriously dense and disjointed work, but its vision of a brave new world is universal in its scope. In its portrayal of a near future where calendar years are sponsored by corporate products (e.g. “the year of the Whopper”, “the year of the Depend adult undergarment”), Infinite Jest speaks to the common fear that faceless corporations are slowly taking over humanity. In Wallace’s juxtaposition of an elite tennis academy and a halfway house for recovering addicts, the novelist unflinchingly depicts the thin line between limitless ambition and substance-addled defeat.

In the novel’s most fanciful conceit, that of an “Entertainment” that transfixes and eventually kills any individual who watches it, Wallace satirically dissects a collective culture that prizes television over authentic human interaction. As Wallace notes in the film, he refused to own a television, as it is his “greatest addiction.” Wallace further reveals the spell cast by popular culture in his obsession with then-superstar Alanis Morissette, and bemoans a society that would rather masturbate to unknown celebrities than embark on a meaningful relationship. Wallace’s status as a professor and writer clashes with the approachable humanity showcased in Segel’s subtly powerful performance.

Writer and Reader, Together in Seclusion

An ideal summer beach read.
An ideal summer beach read.

What Ponsoldt’s film is perhaps most adept at is its uncanny ability to replicate the experience of reading a great writer’s work. Although Lipsky asks pointed questions and engages with Wallace, his primary role in the interview (and film) is that of a passive but deeply engaged listener. This parallels the act of closely reading an author’s text, and the profound illusion of intimacy that ensues. When reading a novel, essay, or poem, the reader may start to feel a deep connection to the writer. This connection is often far greater than one felt between a moviegoer and a filmmaker. As Wallace notes in the film, his fanbase is largely “lonely and nerdy,” as one would “have to be” to read a novel clocking in at 1000+ pages, plus a plethora of end-notes.

As evidenced by Infinite Jest, excessive television consumption is an easy target. Frequent watchers of TV programs are often labeled “social misfits.” However, avid readers are frequently praised for spending hours at a time curled up in a book. Despite the fact that it has long been documented that reading has a far more positive impact on the brain than television, this activity is similarly a solitary, obsessive experience. As Lipsky sits, listens, and takes notes, it is clear that he is deeply involved in Wallace’s conversation, as much as he would a novel by Fitzgerald or Pynchon. The viewer may share in this close reading, and it is likely that the film’s seemingly limited focus on conversation will instead come across as intimate and engrossing.

When one becomes transfixed by literature, it may appear that the author is communicating directly to the reader. The writer may be pouring their individual quirks and experiences into their work, but the intimate relationship between writers and readers across the world speaks to the universality of most great works of literature.

The talky and overtly literary subject matter found in The End of The Tour may alienate viewers, but like a great work of fiction, its pleasures are more accessible than they initially appear. The extended, free-flowing conversation between Lipsky and Wallace encompasses the desire for human connection, the complexity of interpersonal relationships, the struggle to make a name for one’s self in an intensely competitive world, and the addictions that all humans harbor. It is likely that viewers, no matter how interested they are in the film’s ostensible subject, will find much to relate to. Akin to the surprising elements of accessibility found in Infinite Jest, Ponsoldt’s film has the potential to transcend the apparently narrow audience drawn to character-driven films about literature.

At the close of The End of The Tour, the viewer is left with the gleeful image of Wallace joyfully dancing with “ordinary” middle-Americans at a local baptist church. For once, the isolated and depression-prone writer can be seen interacting with fellow humans and letting go of all fears and neuroses. For all moviegoers who attempt to find belonging and solace in an often disheartening world, The End of the Tour is a refreshing dose of humanity.

Works Cited

Anderson, Porter. “Are You Lonesome Tonight? The Dreaded Solitude of Writing.” Writer Unboxed, 2013.

Hoffman, Jordan. “The End of The Tour-Review,” The Guardian, 2015.

Lipsky, David. Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. Broadway, 2010.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. I actually hadn’t heard of the film until I read this article and now I am definitely looking forward to watching it. The truth of writing is rarely portrayed in film as it is often such an unglamorous and “behind the scenes” type of profession. There are countless movies profiling tragic stars in other aspects of the entertainment industry but as you’ve stated – I’ve yet to see one about a writer without the extra “frills.”
    Wallace himself is such a complex character, I’m intrigued to see his film portrayal. I’m curious to see if the film addresses this trope of “madness as genius” since unfortunately Wallace’s personal story has followed the same tragic ending that many writers have before him. I know there was some controversy about whether or not a film about him would’ve been going against his wishes as well, but based on your analysis and how the film has resonated with you, it seems as though this is exactly what Wallace would have wanted – a platform to connect and engage a crowd of marginalized people.

  2. I’m glad I read the book.

  3. Jason Segal as David Foster Wallace brings to mind the tutu wearing dancing hippos from the old Disney movies…no thanks.

  4. Saldana

    If this movie leads more people to read his books, that would be a great accomplishment.

  5. It’s nice to know that this focuses on the writer himself rather than the mere act of writing the novel itself. Like the article points out, often the authors are somehow connected to the novels that they write. To see that this is far from the case and that writing is an art form just like anything else rather than just describing your feelings is something that film has yet to truly emphasize.

  6. Fennell

    I want to read infinite jest.

  7. I liked hearing David Foster Wallace’s voice, liked hearing him interact with his dogs (Drone and Jeeves). I’m not sure how much I really took from it. I like to hear that he worked really hard and went through lots of drafts to come up with his stuff. Some of his fears and insecurities seemed familiar to me; I think if I would have read it some years ago, I would have tried harder to find more of myself in him. But maybe now – or maybe at this moment – I’m more honest with myself about myself, and I realize that I’m not him and won’t be and that there are similarities and differences.

  8. All any writer is thinking with Segel as David Foster Wallace is ‘please don’t let this movie suck.

  9. Rea Leslie

    I could see Oscar buzz for Segel’s performance.

  10. It looks like it has a good script. Touches on a lot of what many experience out there, even famous and rich folks. Similar feelings of isolation, not belonging, ill fits, outcasts and so forth.

  11. YsabelGo

    I think adapting books into films is challenging when the book focuses heavily on internal dialogue or is narrated in first person. It’s easy for the reader to connect with the character because they can read the thoughts, but in films, we have to see the characters act it out instead. It feels less intimate in my opinion, which is why I prefer the book over films.

    I enjoyed your analysis in this article, as well as your writing style. Keep up the good work!

  12. I haven’t read Infinte Jest or any of David Foster Wallace’s other work, but this article has definitely piqued my interest. I’m looking forward to seeing this film. Paradoxically, loneliness and isolation seem to be among the most universally relatable themes in film and literature.

  13. I never thought about the difference between book and film as being about intimacy before . I only ever considered it as being the film as a condensed version – a sleeve. Thanks for the new perspective!

  14. protector

    I love DFW, so a grain of salt.

  15. I saw this movie at the Sundance film festival. The lead character was cast right but given a very inadequate script. The Rolling Stone guy was so utterly unlikeable. Reading the book this was based on, he wasn’t like that. Anyway, I blame it on the director not wanting to get “intellectual,” which kinda goes against DF Wallace’s essence.

  16. Looking forward to watching it.

  17. Lapointe

    Having seen the movie tonight, what Jason Segel does is INCREDIBLE. There’s never a moment where you never feel he hasn’t embodied David Foster Wallace to the T (and I say this as a person who usually yawns at biopics, but what James Ponsoldt does with the material is so naturalistic).

    • doorman

      Hopefully, this is a film that catches on with audiences and gives Segel and the film a fighting chance.

  18. According to the reviews, this is a really good movie with good performances.

  19. IRBurnett

    Really engaging article; enjoyed the combination of review and exploration of topic. I’ll admit I’d never heard of David Foster Wallace before now – think I’ll have to add Infinite Jest to my reading list.

  20. Attempted to read Infinite Jest. And failed. Read The Pale King though and absolutely adored it. There’s a handful of chapters in that book that ranks among the most genuinely heartbreaking stuff I’ve ever read. Probably wasn’t a good choice to kill time on a crowded Greyhound.

  21. I have read both Infinite Jest and The Pale King. Struggles at times, but there are passages that are better than anything I’ve read or think I’ll ever read. Both have powerful, deeply intense sections that clearly show what Foster Wallace thought and went through on a daily basis.

  22. Excellent film. I was surprised by Segel in this one. The book gives a much more detailed account of the conversations only hinted at in the film, but it was very well done. Any fan of the film should go out and get the book.

  23. You do have a film about a writer with As Good As It Gets.

  24. Infinite Jest is the most challenging/rewarding book anyone can ever attempt to read. You’ll love to hate it and hate to love it.

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