New Orleans Inspiration: Books and Movies

A Streetcar Named Desire

No literary figure embodies mid-20th-century New Orleans quite like Tennessee Williams, who set many of his works in his adopted home city. Every spring, the city dedicates a festival to the playwright—days of music, film, and literature, culminating each year with a “Stella!” shouting contest, from this play’s classic scene. Read A Streetcar Named Desire to prepare for your trip, or watch the film version starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. Seedy, steamy, and emotionally charged, this is a quintessential New Orleans work.

Interview with the Vampire

Anne Rice is great at capturing the gothic charm and gloom of New Orleans, and her 1976 breakout novel, about an antebellum vampire living in the 20th century, takes on the best of her hometown setting. Lafayette Cemetery #1, near Rice’s former Garden District home, was a source of inspiration for moments in the book and the rest of her haunting, spirit-filled work. The 1994 movie version stars Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise.

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts

Spike Lee’s filmmaking and journalistic talent shine in this in-depth 2006 documentary about Hurricane Katrina, the factors leading up to it, and the horrific aftermath, embracing issues like classism, racism, and government incompetence (just to name a few). This film is essential viewing to understand Hurricane Katrina’s myriad dimensions and the city it left behind.

American Horror Story: Coven

The third season of the anthology series American Horror Story from 2013 is set in New Orleans and plays on inspiration from more haunting aspects of the Crescent City. Kathy Bates especially shines as a terrifying version of the infamous Madame LaLaurie, a real-life villian whose former home is one of the most haunted spots in the city. Angela Bassett also has a role as famed voodoo queen Marie Laveau. Garden District mansions, French Quarter landmarks, bars, restaurants, and other New Orleans icons all make their way into the show.

Treme

Aside from highlighting New Orleans music and culture, what this HBO television series does best is show the diverse mix of people and experiences that made up contemporary New Orleans in the years after Hurricane Katrina. The show delivers great scenes of the city—and of eating, drinking, and playing music—but mostly broaches issues of displacement, confusion, and trauma in the difficult years following the storm.

Beyonce's Lemonade visual album and "Formation" music video

While it’s her sister Solange who calls New Orleans home full-time, Beyonce’s love of the city’s culture and its sounds, dances, and iconic images inspired much of her 2015 album Lemonade. The music video for the song "Formation" heavily features the city, including controversial images of New Orleans after a colossal flood and sound bytes from local bounce artist Big Freedia and the late rapper Messy Mya. Other shots from the Lemonade visual album were filmed at the ruins of Fort Macomb, east of the city on I–10.

Girls Trip

This fun comedy highlights what many, many people have been coming to New Orleans to do for years: party. The 2017 film stars Regina Hall, Tiffany Haddish, Queen Latifah, and Jada Pinkett Smith as a group of friends gathering for a reunion during Essence Festival at the Hotel Monteleone. Their adventurous, often dramatic jaunts through Bourbon Street and the French Quarter will have you excited about the city’s boisterous side.

The Princess and the Frog

Disney’s first black princess made her debut in 2009 in this twisty rendition of a classic fairytale. The film also stars the animated streets of New Orleans, the bayou, and the swampland, along with plenty of Creole and Cajun food, music, and culture.

Top Chef: New Orleans

Location really mattered on the 11th season of Top Chef, when contestants met legends like Leah Chase, hauled shrimp straight from boats, and became familiar with the unique flavors that make the city great. New Orleans even inspired fan-favorite contestant Nina Compton to return to New Orleans permanently, where she now runs the acclaimed restaurants Compère Lapin and Bywater American Bistro. With specials on seafood and classic dishes, this show is a great way to get a taste of New Orleans before you go.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Essential reading for any visitor, John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces is a New Orleans classic. Ignatius J. Reilly, the book's bumbling protagonist, is as quirky as the city itself.

City of Refuge and Why New Orleans Matters by Tom Piazza

For more contemporary fare, look for Tom Piazza's City of Refuge, which looks at two fictional families—one black, one white—in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. (His nonfiction Why New Orleans Matters, written right after the hurricane, is a short but moving book about what makes the city unique and why it was so important to rebuild.)

The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom

In 2019, Sarah Broom became the first native-born New Orleanian to win the National Book Award, and she achieved this by taking on a part of New Orleans that is seldom given enough attention. Broom grew up the youngest of twelve siblings in New Orleans East, the once-wild expanse of land that has undergone various stages of development and destruction many times over since the mid-20th century. Broom’s memoir manages to be both a vulnerable personal story about her childhood and a fascinating account of a New Orleans far from the tourist areas.

Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas by Rebecca Solnit

Author and historian Rebecca Solnit maps the city both literally and through the essays of expert local historians, geographers, musicians, activists, and more. Aside from essays, the book contains 22 pages of maps that dig in to the city’s main attractions, features, and moments–-and all the real stories behind them.

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink

Started as a Pulitzer Prize-winning article in the New York Times Magazine, this book is a chilling–-and informative–investigation on tragedy and things gone wrong. The work of nonfiction is based mostly on firsthand accounts of what happened at Memorial Hospital during Hurricane Katrina, when many patients and staff were trapped inside the hospital.

The Baby Dolls by Kim Marie Vaz

This is the story of the Million Dollar Baby Dolls, one of the first female Mardi Gras krewes, whose origins can be traced back to the 1910s and the working ladies of the Storyville Red Light district. Kim Marie Vaz follows the group from their inception, all the way to their post-Katrina return, and explores how they broke down the social and racial barriers surrounding Mardi Gras traditions.

We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

American racism (both the nightmarishly surreal and the all-too recognizable) is at the center of this dystopian novel starring a father and son, set in an unnamed future Southern city (that just happens to look a lot like Ruffin’s lifelong home of New Orleans). Full of biting satire, this is both a heavy thought-piece and an enjoyable read.

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Tulane creative writing professor Jesmyn Ward calls coastal Mississippi home, and it's where she based her 2011 National Book Award–winning novel. Told through the perspective of a young girl, the story is a vivid and intimate portrait of a working class African American family living in the coastal area just outside of New Orleans, in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina.

All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg

Attenberg sets this energetic and funny family drama in her adopted home of New Orleans, where a complicated cast of family members gather after the death of their patriarch. The characters are well drawn and entertaining, and the New Orleans backdrop adds extra personality and richness to the novel.

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