you don’t know me, you just love me

Why do people (I include myself here, for once) get so excited when hearing that their favorite book will be made into a movie?

Without drowning you in theory I barely understand myself: different forms of media come bundled with different expectations, both by the creator and the audience. A painting stands as a single frame and its contents; everything you want to say, you have to say there. A sculpture needs to be accessible from all viewable angles: you can’t just do the front portion and call it a day (or rather, if you do, you need to do so for good reasons). Commercial television shows fit a formula, a formula so ingrained and automatic that we the viewing public would feel vaguely unsettled if a show departed from it.

You would not expect a painting to pull off the same three-beat structure of Introduce Tension, Heighten Tension, Resolve Tension that a TV sitcom does – at least not without doing some multi-panel Roy Lichtenstein homage, and even then the painting would be more about this smuggling of forms than its actual content. You would not expect a TV show to stand up to the rigorous scrutiny that we can apply to a statue on a pedestal – despite the efforts of the Internet (9 pages on a half hour sitcom, people! vying with the episode’s actual script in word count).

So it goes with books and movies. I could do a line-by-line comparison of the difference between books and movies (and I did, in the first draft of this post). Really, though, it boils down to one key distinction: the audience controls the book; the author controls the movie.

When you’re reading a book, you can slow down or speed up the pace of reading as you desire. If you reach a particularly intense or scary portion, you can set the book aside for a while and regain your bearings. You can blitz through long expository paragraphs in search of the next chunk of dialogue (a habit of mine), or you can immerse yourself in description and detail. All the imagery must come from your own head, even if the page gives birth to it: if you have your own notions of what a “clanging din” or “breasts like champagne glasses” should be, the author cannot change them. To quote Fight Club without irony, you decide your own level of involvement.

None of that holds true for a movie. You can start and stop a movie if you’ve rented it at home, but that’s not how the director means you to view it and I think we all understand that. No one can mistake the person on screen for anything other than who she is: you might not buy Scarlett Johansson as an ambitious journalism student, but you can’t argue that she’s not Scarlett Johansson. The director can force your perspective in one direction with the camera; he can direct your mood with lighting and soundtrack. The movie dictates your experience of it, not the other way around.

(Neither of these work as absolutes. The book’s author, obviously, has some say in whether you think the protagonist is a blonde or a redhead. A bad director can not only fail to steer the audience; he can actually repel their efforts to engage. Still, we approach the media in these specific ways, and they work for us)

So: a book does one thing, a movie does another. Isn’t a project to turn one into the other innately weird? If I told you I wanted to adapt the “Mona Lisa” as a dance recital, where could I expect to exhibit it – other than maybe an art school mid-term recital, where such experiments thrive? We think that books and movies can naturally flow into each other because they both involve narratives. But paintings and sculptures both involve visual imagery. Dance and architecture both involve the choreography of light and space. I’m turning “Swan Lake” into an office building atrium; you’re invited to the opening.

When a book-to-movie adaptation works – The Godfather, Gone with the Wind, Jurassic Park, A Clockwork Orange, The Shawshank Redemption, Trainspotting – 99.9996% of the time it comes from one reason: nobody’s read the book. Nobody in the theater audience has a preconceived notion of what the world should look like. In the era of mass culture, I don’t have a hard time believing this. I don’t even really have a problem with it. Sure, functional adult illiteracy makes almost everything it touches worse – but not movies. A book does one thing; a movie another.

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13 Responses

  1. With Gone With the Wind a LOT of people had read the book. It was like the Harry Potter of its time. Actually, I think the book is far superior, but what the film does is encapsulate the grandeur and spirit of the book. I’m not entirely disagreeing, just pointing it out.

  2. Don’t read the Television without Pity BSG Recaps. 20+ pages on a single episode. I suspect they’re written by a grad student in the middle of a nervous breakdown.

  3. I can’t help thinking that a large part of the excitement is validation; the feeling that other people like and appreciate something which you also find important/valuable/etc.

  4. My sister says that the Harry Potter series actually works better as movies than books.

  5. I would argue that it is not the author that controls the film, but the film’s creators. The author of the book, which I’m not sure if you meant but is certainly implied, usually has no control over the film at all.

    Otherwise, A+, as usual. 🙂

  6. RJ – the Wire recaps are longer still.

    Tom – you’re probably right.

    Flynn – yes, I meant the thing you think I meant (a film’s “author” is its director / cinematographer / etc).

  7. Your theory predicts that “Keanu Reeves in Freakonomics vs. The Tipping Point” is going to be a colossal failure. I’ll take the other side of that bet.

  8. Next summer … George Clooney … will FLATTEN. YOUR. WORLD.

    Clooney.

    Kilmer.

    Jolie.

    THE WORLD IS FLAT.

    July 2010

  9. Uh . . . at least three of those titles you mention were bestsellers. HUGE bestsellers. Gone With the Wind, Jurassic Park and The Godfather for sure. Don’t know about the others.

    But they also attracted a much wider audience than just the people who read the book, so I think they still worked as movies–that is, they could be enjoyed on their own merits without having access to the source material. And you’re right, that doesn’t happen very often.

  10. Meghan and Brian – the readership of Gone with the Wind, Jurassic Park and The Godfather falls short of the viewership of those same movies by AT LEAST a factor of 10. I’ll bet you an ice cream sundae.

  11. You could be right (I can’t imagine enough data exists to prove it one way or another, given the number of times those movies have appeared on TV, been rented, etc.), but Gone With the Wind alone has sold 30 million copies, and The Godfather set sales records when it was first published. I think you just overstate things a bit when you say “nobody’s read the book”. Still I agree with your basic point.

  12. […] surrenders his credence to a book, but a movie watcher has to have it coerced out of him (which is another difference between books and movies, now that I think of […]

  13. […] 3. I believe that every form of art has limitations and benefits inherent to its media. Novels can do things that film can’t; film can do things that comic books can’t; comic books can do things that symphonies can’t; etc. I spell this out in more detail in an earlier post on aesthetics of different media. […]

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