Of Movies and Novels


Often in our discussions here at MW, I resort to making points by citing not only books, but also movies. All of us do it, really. Look at any of our recent threads and you’ll see movie and book titles thrown together in examples as if the two are interchangeable. And there is a reason for this. In talking about certain elements of storytelling, movies and books can be equally instructive in helping us understand the creative process.

But as one who spent the better part of the winter writing and rewriting a movie novelization, I can say with certainty that movies and books are distinct and at times incompatible media. What works in a movie won’t always work in a novel, and vice versa. (I should add here that I wrote this post before noticing Angela’s comment and A.J.’s response from A.J.’s Friday post.)  Faith touched upon this issue not too long ago in a post on screenwriting and playwrighting, and I would recommend that you go back and read her post if you haven’t already. A quick for instance: As I mentioned at the end of my recent post about Robin Hood, the studio asked me to cut a few scenes from the book because the movie was now handling the scenes in a montage. The discreet scenes no longer existed and since my book was supposed to follow the movie, the studio reasoned, the scenes should be cut from the novelization, too. Books, of course, have no montages, and so my editor and I eventually convinced the studio to let the scenes remain. But the episode illustrates my point.

How many times do we hear it said that the movie version of an existing book doesn’t do justice to the original work? I have enjoyed the Harry Potter movies, and my kids have loved them, but I think that they pale beside the complexity of the books. The first Dune movie was laughably bad. Even the LOTR movies, which I enjoyed immensely, could not capture fully the flavor of Tolkien’s novels. And, to be fair, this holds true in the other direction. My Robin Hood novel is derived from the movie; I anticipate that some will see the Robin Hood movie, and then read my book and find my version of the story lacking in some ways. To oversimplify, books and movies are different; translating from one medium to the other is bound to be an imperfect art. And so in recent weeks, as the movie-book examples have continued to crop up in our discussions here, I have found myself questioning the degree to which movies can be used to illustrate storytelling points aimed at writers.

As I said at the outset, in certain ways movies can be incredibly illustrative of good storytelling technique, particularly when it comes to pacing and rhythm, tone and ambiance. I would argue (and I welcome differing opinions) that movies are far less helpful to writers when it comes to effective description, narrative flow and cohesion. And I believe that movies are almost useless when it comes to teaching authors about characterization.

Let’s start with description. We think of movie watching as an intensely sensual (in the truest sense of the word) experience. It’s not. It is an intensely visual experience; when done well an intensely aural experience. But it leaves the other senses untapped. In a murder mystery or thriller, when a character encounters the foul odor of decaying flesh, or the bitter taste of a poison, we only know it through the character’s reaction — the wrinkling of her nose, or the reflexive spitting out of some offending liquid. Remember many years ago when some movie studio tried to introduce “sensurround” to make earthquakes and battle sequences seem more realistic. Seems to me they tried that with smells, too. I may be remembering that wrong. But the point is, even the simple act of making moviegoers’ seats shake was an abject failure. If it couldn’t be accomplished visually and with sound, it couldn’t be accomplished at all.

What about narrative? Surely movies can handle that as well as books.

I don’t think so. Most movies have difficulty maintaining the narrative coherence of a single plot line; few can handle several threads that are woven together into a storytelling tapestry. Maybe the best movies do — Godfather and Godfather II, Elizabeth, A River Runs Through It, Chinatown, The Sting, Casablanca, and a few others. But these are the exceptions. Unlike even the simplest of novels, most movies are so focused on the visual that they fail to capture the essence of a story arc.

In part this is because transitions in movies happen at a different pace. Writers speak of using transitions to smooth out the narrative flow from one scene to the next. An abrupt transition can be jarring, even unsettling to a reader. Movie transitions are different; not better or worse, but different. Often the abrupt transition works in a movie for the same reason it doesn’t in a novel. A director might want that jarring, unsettling effect. From a writing perspective it’s not “good storytelling”, but within the medium it works. The other factor in comparing movie narrative to that of a novel is sheer length. A movie runs about two hours. That works out to about 140 pages of dialogue, scene description, and stage direction in script form. That might be 30,000 words; it’s probably less. Compare that with even a short novel, which comes in at 80,000-90,000 words. Of course there is going to be more narrative complexity and development in the book.

Ultimately, though, the differences in novel writing and movie creation come down to character and point of view. I have said before that point of view is the nexus of character and narrative. It is where descriptions, emotions, and perceptions intersect with plot. In a novel, we view the world through the eyes of one character or several. These characters tell us their stories, but they also share their fears, their passions, their thought processes. This is why books are more sensual (again in the most basic sense of the word) than even the most visually stunning movie. We experience not only sight and sound, but also taste and smell and touch through the perceptions of our point of view characters. We live the experiences with them. The movie camera, on the other hand, distances us from character, from emotion, from the senses, even from the perception of time’s true passage. Ultimately, in my opinion, this is why “the movie wasn’t as good as the book” has become a stock phrase in our culture. We are social creatures; we want to be close to people, we want to feel what they feel. And even the finest director can only do so much to bridge the gap created by the movie camera.

Please don’t get me wrong. I love movies. I have shelves and shelves of DVDs and old VHS tapes. I quote movies all the time (“Don’t rush me, Sonny. You rush a miracle man you get rotten miracles…”) But as much as I myself am prone to using movies to illustrate points about writing, I think the comparison is imperfect at best and deeply flawed more often than not. Movies can be wondrous, awe-inspiring, and deeply moving. But when it comes to narrative and character, to conveying emotion and appealing to the senses, books and movies operate under different sets of rules. And ultimately, as I writer of novels, I find the written form far more satisfying than cinema.

David B. Coe

25 comments to Of Movies and Novels

  • David, agreed. I think I use movie examples because I assume more people will know what I’m referencing, but you’re right (and a comment on my last post called me out, rightly, for this). And I absolutely concede that books and movies are apples and oranges and we compare them at our peril. For me the use value of film as illustration is generally in big structural stuff that is finally about a root notion of story telling which is, if not universal, then central to a western narrative tradition. Films are still largely Aristotelean in structure and (albeit simplistically) in character (esp. re conflict and plot resolution). Combine that with the driving force of character analysis from Stanislavski (goads/needs, obstacles etc.) and you have some broad brush strokes about character developement that I think are really useful for writers (partly because they didn’t originate in film at all). The detail and complexity with which they play out in a novel is, as you say, an entirely different ball of wax, and writers have perhaps become too reliant on other media in their thinking about fiction. How many of us have been approached by a young writer who starts telling you about his novel-in-progress but who can’t reference a single writer in the genre? No one whould dream of making a movie who didn’t constantly study them, but the world is full of would be “novelists” who don’t read.

  • AJ has hit the sad nail on the depressing head. The fact is that when I reference books, most don’t know what I’m referring to, and of those that do, only a small portion have read the book. Part of the problem comes from the fact that each year far more books are made than movies. Therefore, even among well-read people, the likelihood that they will have read all the same books is slim. Also, as I’ve pointed out in the past, a movie can be digested in a short time period, but a book takes far longer. If I watch just one movie a night and read about 50 page a night, I’ll have seen 7 movies in a week and, maybe, have finished one novel. It’s all in the math!

  • The first Dune movie was laughably bad.

    But it had oiled-up nearly-naked Sting! What movie isn’t made better with that??


  • Hepseba ALHH

    Sorry to just jump in suddenly. I’ve recently been reading and very much enjoying the MW discussions.

    This post relates directly to an experience I just had re-reading a fantasy novel that I think actually would have worked better on film (though probably as a long mini-series rather than a movie). (Sadly, because of the content, I rather doubt it ever would get made into a film.) I was re-reading this book in large part because the authors (two) created a very compelling world in the sort of mythology structure I seem to be drawn to with interesting characters (with confusing names, unfortunately) and plot. But, there is so much plot, and the book is just barely over 300 pages. So I think the other reason I was re-reading it was because I was searching for the rest of it, the extra descriptive substance and yummy little details of the world that books are so well suited to providing. When I had originally read the book I had had the (strange for me) urge to re-read it as soon as I finished, and I think that it was for this second reason. But, this highlights some of the things film is really good at that can actually be difficult to provide in a book.

    If a lot of characters are important, but often in groups or as sort of scenery flavor, film allows us to attach a visual image to those characters that is tied to scene and is often easier to remember than a lot of names. In this book I read, some characters that were quite important only had one or two scenes relating to them before their important moments came. Also, this book was all from a single POV. The character’s thoughts/themes were pretty consistent throughout, but others’ reactions to him were important. So it would have been nice to have a strong, external visual tied to the POV character and his interactions in a way that is difficult to provide from that POV.

    Also, because this book had so much plot, a lot of important things happened in a paragraph or two but, as David mentioned with montages, film can do those sorts of things and allow them to be both qucik and tangible. Sometimes a single, quick visual can deliver much of the same ambiance and emotional impact it would take a book pages to describe. In that way I think a film version of this story would have provided a lot more description than the book did, just through the use of set and costuming.

    Sorry that’s such a long jumble. Hope it made some sense. I guess my big question attached to all this is: How do you, in writing, provide good external characterization and description of the POV character(s)?

  • A.J., this post was absolutely NOT aimed at you or anything you said. I do it all the time, too. Because, as you say, movies can tell us much about narrative and storytelling at a meta level. I’m not intellectually equipped to throw around Stanislavski in any conversation, but I will concede that I may have been too harsh in my assessment of what movies can tell us about character development. Ultimately though, you’re right: For reasons beyond comprehension, some people seem to think that they can write a novel without bothering to familiarize themselves with the form. Mind boggling.

    Stuart, you raise a great point. There is something far more universal about movies. That’s probably the reason I rely on them to illustrate one point or another as much as I do. The chances of finding a room full of people at a con who have read a certain book are minuscule. The chances are far greater that those same people have all seen PHANTOM MENACE or the new Star Trek movie. The chances of drawing on common experience are far greater with movies.

    Misty, I really have nothing to say at all. “Oiled-up nearly-naked Sting” is one of those phrases I was hoping I’d never have to read much less comment on….

  • Hep (Can I call you Hep?) I’m sorry I didn’t respond in my last comment. We must have posted around the same time; your comment wasn’t up yet when I began writing. First of all, welcome to MW. No need to apologize for jumping in. I very much appreciate your comments. You raise a couple of great points, things I overlooked in my post. Yes, there are ways in which film can give us information and content that novels can’t. While I focused on other senses that film can’t satisfy, I neglected to say that visual stimuli can be incredibly powerful. People are highly visual creatures, which is part of the appeal of movies. Certainly showing characters — giving us those visual clues to identity — helps to overcome the confusion you mention with fantasy names and the the constant flow of people in and out of written narrative. Movies can provide clarity that books sometimes lack. And yes, there are times when I wish there was a way to write a montage; it would make our jobs easier occasionally, just as it would be great to be able to show stuff — really show it — rather than having to describe it all.

    As to your question, this is particularly a problem with single person POV. If I’m writing a book with multiple POV characters, then eventually I can see to it that every one of them is described for the reader, both in terms of physical appearance and characterization. It’s harder with a single POV character, as I recently learned with the first book of a new series, which is written entirely from my protagonist’s POV. In part I handle this through internal monologue. My character knows his own faults and shortcomings; he deals with his sister and can comment on the fact that he and she look alike; he can mention a scar that itches at the memory of an old fight, or a falling out with an old friend that resulted from his own selfishness or stubbornness. In other words, a somewhat self-aware narrator can tell readers a lot about him or herself, with being too heavy-handed. But we can also accomplish these things through interactions with other characters. Just as we — as real people — can tell a lot about ourselves based on how those around us respond to our appearance, our words, our actions, so can characters (and, thus, readers). I could go on at length about this, and perhaps I’ll work this into a future post. But did I answer your question clearly?

    Thanks again for contributing to our discussion. Glad to have you here at MW.

  • D, didn’t think you were targeting me (and would have been OK with it if you were: you’re point was fair). 🙂

  • Hepseba ALHH

    David, thank you for your response. Everything you say about describing the POV character(s) makes sense, though I get the impression that it takes a fine and practiced hand to pull it off well. Always more to work on. 😀

    (And when you have a dance instructor with a strong Swiss-Argentine accent you get used to people calling you whatever they want.)

  • kmcelhinny

    David, I think that this is a great post. But I’d also like to add that no movie can take the place of a person’s imagination as well.

    With a movie that is one person’s perception of telling how they saw it when they read the book. They tell us what to see, think, smell, feel… just by adding a certain amount of music to a certain scene.

    as opposed to a book where we, the reader’s, get to make the story anything in our mind. A truly visceral experience. 100% what we see, yes a writer’s words fuel the story and our imagination, I’m not denying that. I’m just trying to state why no movie will ever be simply as good as the book.

    I liked this post very much! Take care!!

  • Thanks, A.J.

    Hep, glad the response helped. Yes, it does take some time to perfect POV techniques, just as it takes time to master other elements of writing, or visual arts, or dance. But as I’m sure you know, the journey is half the fun, and the rewards of all that work far outweigh the burdens of working it through.

    Hinny, thanks. I agree with you entirely. The novel is a far more interactive form than the movie. It engages the audience, compelling readers to blend their own imaginations with that of the writer. That’s what makes reading such a personal experience, and it’s why a book is never quite the same from one reader to the next.

  • David said
    >>>Hinny, thanks. I agree with you entirely. The novel is a far more interactive form than the movie.

    Sorry I haven’t repsonded until now. But I completly agree, David. And this is why I so seldom watch a movie any more. They simply lack what I want from entertainment. Yes, that leaves me out of much current culture, which is a bad thing for a writer. But I just can’t make myself care. I love the novel. Movies, despite the visual offering of technology and special effects, don’t *involve me*. Books do. And I thank you for offering me the reason why I don’t care for movies.

  • kmcelhinny

    My husband and I were actually having this conversation a couple of days ago. I never like to see a movie unless I’ve read the book first, I’m trying to ingrain that habit onto my children as well.

    We’ve both just read THE SHINING and we were speaking of how we didn’t see Jack Nicholson as “Jack” (neither of us has seen the movie, but it’s been around long enough to where we know whose in it. :D) that didn’t stop either he or I comparing “Jack” to the movie character, trying to see what characteristics of the story would come out and so on… we are planning on watching the movie, just because it is a classic.

    I’m very curious to see where/how everything is changed and similar.

    Also, you’ve mentioned POV, normally with movies that contain multiple POV’s don’t they try to focus on the “lead” because it gives someone to relate to? We don’t get to pick who our favorites are, bc they do it for us.

    I’m sure I’m heading off from your post onto a terrible tangent David, sorry!

  • Thanks for the comment, Faith. I still love movies, but what I get from them is very different from what I get reading a book. It’s not better or worse; just different. Personally, I wouldn’t want to do without either, but I can certainly understand where you’re coming from.

    Hinny, I think that’s an interesting point about the POVs — not a tangent at all. Many of the decisions in movie watching are made for us. As I said before, there is something far more interactive about book reading and far more passive about watching a film. Now sometimes I embrace that more passive role in the process. But I prefer the interaction between book and reader.

  • David, you make a really good point here. The two media can’t be compared perfectly, but these days, people in general spend more time watching movies, TV, and videos on the Internet.

    Sometimes I wonder if we’re becoming a more visually-dependent people. I honestly worry about my ability to describe things. It’s something I’d like to get better at, because *I* feel like I’m lacking in that department. Yet I’ve been told by published authors to avoid long, descriptive passages because most kids these days don’t have much of an attention span. I personally find that I think visually, and the description I’m good at is visual. (It doesn’t hurt that one aspect of my day job involves describing diagrams and illustrations for blind students, but still.) On one hand, I enjoy watching TV and movies, but on the other, I feel a bit crippled by the descriptive shorthand visual media presents. Sure, I’m not bad at dialogue, but that’s just one facet of a good story.

    What’s worse, I feel this way despite the fact that I read as much as I watch TV/movies.

  • David> Cool post. I find myself using a lot of movie references when I teach (well, movie and tv) because lots of my student will have seen the movies/shows, but not read the books.

    That being said, I love book and movies, and I loved them differently. I’ve seen Misery, and it made me cringe, but when I read it when I was a teenager, I actually *hurt* when she whacked him in the foot. I think that was the first time that happened to me.

    I have to say, I saw Dune (David Lynch version) long before I read it. I read it decades after I saw it. I like the film better. The Syfy (back when it was SciFi) mini-series was interesting. But I just didn’t take to Dune’s style written. And, ahem, an oiled down Sting did make the movie better.

    When I first started writing, I wrote lots of dialogue and little narration, and one reader told me, “I like dialogue, I LOVE dialogue. I’ve been known to skip description to get to more dialogue when I read. BUT you need to write some description.” So, I was clearly writing from a “seen a lot of movies” place. Now, I like the narration and description, too.

  • …but…I liked the original Dune film. 🙁

    I’ll come back when I’m more coherent. Haven’t been feeling too hot today and couldn’t focus on what I wanted to say.

  • Moira, I do believe that today’s kids have a different way of processing information than we do, or than we did at their age. But I also know that whatever your opinion of the Harry Potter books (I enjoyed them) they did not skimp on descriptive passages, and kids ate them up. I think that good writing still works. I love to read dialogue in a book, but I love good description, too. I think, as a writer, it’s something you practice and perfect over time. The key for me is finding new ways of describing mundane things, and focusing on the small details that make descriptions interesting. It’s not easy, but it will come. Keep at it.

    Emily, thanks. Like you, I love both mediums, but I get more out of a book, I think, than I do out of a movie. As for Dune, I LOVE the book. In fact I love the first three in the series. I love the politics, the worldbuilding, the characters. One of my favorite works. I hadn’t read it, though, when I first saw the Lynch version. Still, I hated the movie, and later, when I read the books, was appalled by what I saw as a desecration of a brilliant text. On the other hand, I loved the mini-series. But the oiled Sting thing didn’t do as much for me…..

    Daniel, I hope you’re feeling better soon.

  • I appreciated the scantly clad Sting in that 1984 version of Dune. I even bought all the action figures and the Spice Scout for them to ride. I had read Dune several years before seeing the movie (yes I am that old, but I did read the books in middle school). I did reread them when the movie came out and I think the action figures in particular influenced how I viewed the characters in the books. I love action figures and dolls based on books, as they really help me visualize the characters in a way even a movie does not.

    Sometimes I even make my own by dressing a doll who I thinks looks like the book character. Now hubby has 3-D figure software which he can use to make me a version of anyone I want. Both of us are very visual I think for writers because we both have art training and sometimes this has puzzled other writers whom we have met at conventions. If you look at our website, you will see all the visualization we have done for characters in our science fiction universe. For both of us, if we can’t picture exactly what the character looks like, then we can’t get them to speak. Guess it’s good we are both that way or working together would be impossible.

    Visuals can do great things for a text, whether it be illustrations, an art or RPG book, or a movie. I agree I like to read the book first before seeing the movie, but sometimes the visuals will enhance the experience a great deal. Books enhanced for me this way include Starship Troopers (the Roughnecks animated series), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Bladerunner), The Last Unicorn (movie)and Where the Wild Things Are (stuffed toys and then the film).

    If the book is a bit too convoluted then many times the movie kind of straightens the plot out and gets rid of some extra baggage from the text which I probably would have edited out. We recently saw How to Train Your Dragon and really enjoyed the movie. We had bought the book and listened to the unabridged audio book in the car (I know that is not reading but David Tennant reads it and neither of us could resist listening to his Scottish voice tell us about Vikings). The book wanders off into philosophy towards the end and we both thought the movie fixed many of the first volume’s problems. Gerald just got the other audiobook versions for his birthday but we haven’t heard them yet, so I’m not sure if all the volumes have ending issues. Hopefully they will make more movies of other volumes and tighten their stories up in the process.

    I think today’s young people are used to animated TV and manga volumes as their first experiences of multi-volume story telling and the visuals are key to getting their interest. Many of these stories are both animated and printed as manga, but some also have novels associated with them. The visuals get people interested, but the novels get them to read. I think more visual content on the web and via download is also going to be coming for most writers eventually and could certainly be a way to enhance your reader contact.

  • By the way, David, I got your Robin Hood book at B&N after a bit of trouble. They couldn’t find the book even though the computer said they had copies. It was not in SF/Fantasy where I would expect either your books or Robin Hood books to be located. Nor was it on new releases or historicals. It was shelved in fiction. It’s spine says tie-in not fantasy so someone at B&N data entry put it in fiction. You might check on that, kind of difficult for people to buy it if they don’t see it.

  • David, I completely agree. I may be on the cusp, but I do sort of fall into that age group, which is probably why I notice it (I’m not quite 28). I was confused when I was told that I didn’t need to worry too much about description. I enjoyed the Harry Potter books, too, and good description helps to anchor the scene. I will keep trying. 🙂

    Now I have to know what you’re all talking about, so excuse me while I do a Google image search of “Sting Dune” … oh. Oh, my.

  • Thanks for the comments, Angela. It’s interesting that you find movie visuals helpful when you read the books from which the films were made. I often find just the opposite to be true. I get an image of a character in my head, and after seeing the movie often resent the intrusion of a known actor on my imagined faces. Does that make any sense? For years, I’ve had an idea of what Aragorn looked like. Now I find it hard to see him as anything but Viggo Mortensen. Same with Legolas and Orlando Bloom. But clearly we all approach these media with different needs and different expectations. Also, thanks for the heads up about B&N. For my readers, finding the book is more difficult if it’s not in fantasy, but actually both the studio and Tor Books want the book in fiction and NOT in fantasy, the reason being that they hlpe to market this book to a much, much broader readership. So, if it means more sales, I’m fine with it being anywhere they want to put it… 🙂

    Moira, I would warn writers away from long (and I mean LONG) descriptive passages that stall the momentum of the narrative. But anything that enhances the ambiance, the worldbuilding, the establishment of tone and mood and character — all of that I believe makes a book more effective. And yeah, Sting. Whatever….

  • “I will kill him!”

    “Even my name is a killing word.”

    “Usul no longer needs the Wierding Module!”

    “The Spice must flow.”

    Yeah, it’s a guilty pleasure movie for me, I guess. Seen it dozens of times and I own the Director’s Cut version, which I did like better. It was the movie that made me read the book and I enjoyed it too, though I couldn’t get into the second book in the series (I should give it another try eventually). I even tried to write some of it up in Unisystem in the hopes of running a Dune game setting, but I never finished it. And hey, Patrick Stewart, bonus! And Sting was indeed cool, however, I’m not in the oiled Sting camp. Though I was surprised that he could actually act. It was like seeing David Bowie in Labyrinth. Now, the Dune mini-series…it was pretty and all, but kind of bored me. Ah well, everybody has differing tastes. On to my thoughts, with a newly reordered and focused lump of gray matter.

    I think part of my problem with movies today is that they are slipping farther and farther away from good story telling and dropping into either the same ol’ same ol’, by that I mean the glut of remakes, or they’re opting for what I would dub “pretty colors” at the expense of good story telling. Violence, explosions, death, murder, madness, mayhem, stunning CGI sets and computer generated special effects, and ignoring the actual telling of the tale.

    There are plenty of movies out there that make you feel–that elicit emotions. These are also the ones, IMO, that are most memorable as our favorites. Even as recent as The Princess Bride, they wrote to make you feel for the characters. Now, I know that’s based on a book and the characters were already there, but making a viewer/reader care for your characters is tantamount in good story telling, and should be even more so for film.

    My biggest irritation lately has been the mass amounts of horror films that take a “crunch all you want, we’ll make more” mentality to the meat grinder that is their story. They have a killer that kills victims in droves and never is there any thought given to who these people are they’re killing off. I never get a sense of whether I should care at all whether these people should live or die. One big movie I always cite here is Alien Vs Predator. There’s aliens, there’s predators, there’s scientists, the aliens and predators fight, the scientists die…wait…there were scientists? Who were they? Oh, yeah, I do remember some screaming here and there. There was never any real character development to make me care one way or the other whether the characters lived or died. And really, what’s more scary or saddening, seeing a chainsaw wielding maniac chop up a faceless victim or a victim you’ve come to like and have grown fond of?

    (And I’ll say one word here that hits every browncoat out there…Wash. I still have a hard time watching that scene…)

    Now I’ll cite something fairly recent. It’s a TV series, but the same thing applies to film, as to series’, as to books, as to shorts, as to…well. We watched a couple episodes of Stargate Universe last night and it demonstrated exactly what I was thinking about. They took two characters that you love to hate on the show and they humanized them. You didn’t want to feel sorry for them, but you started to understand their issues and feel for their plight.

    (Hm…a thought, maybe TV series’ would be a better comparison to novel writing than film. More time to develop the plot and characters in a TV series.)

    IMO, good storytelling, whether movies or the written word, starts with good characterization. Even if your plot is sound and your action’s there and you have an ending that shakes the pillars of Heaven, if your characters are two-dimensional, no one’s going to really care what happens to them and the reader/viewer is going to latch onto that. I’ve seen many a review that started out saying how wooden or two-dimensional the characters in a story or film were. When you care about the welfare of the hero or heroine, when you suddenly find yourself understanding the motivations of the villain and get a little bitter-sweet emotion at their death or undoing, when you suddenly feel anger and sadness at the loss of one of the invested characters and feel the need for vengeance boiling up within you just as the protagonist does, that’s when you know the writer has done their job.

    And it can be done in film just as in novels, though it is a little trickier because you only have around 90-120 pages to do it in (though movies have become a little longer lately as film makers realize that if a film is actually good an audience will sit through a longer movie). I think some film makers have lost sight of that over more action, as if poor characterization can be hidden behind more blood and a serial-killer’s mask. There have been a number of times where my wife and I will be watching a film and I’ll lean over and say “you know what I woulda done here?” talking about character development. One of the fun challenges I find in screenplay writing is trying to write good characterization into the film. A recent film I thought did a good job with characterization was Avatar. I was invested in those characters. Even the pilot. Even Tsu’tey.

    I think, if there’s anything we as writers can take from both media, it’s the need for good characterization. Screenplay writers should strive more to add those little quirks and foibles into their screenplays, the emotional reactions and bits of dropped back story, the things that make a character more than just a two dimensional stick figure and actually draws the audience in. Likewise, when we see a film where the characters just pop, when they’re fully fleshed out and make us sad or angry or elicit any other strong emotion, we should analyze what made those characters work (though, granted, some of this is acting, but the acting should be analyzed as well, as one part of the whole), because the writer there had a lot less time to make that happen than novel writers do and that might possibly make for tighter prose in the end.

    And as far as being visual, I’m a very visual person as well and I’ve said before that when I write I’m watching it play out as a full color “movie” in my head. And I agree with David. Sometimes a film adaptation will get the character look right and sometimes I wonder why in Gondor’s name they picked who they did to play the role.

    Then again, I could just be rambling. 😉

  • See? It’s not just me! Everything is made better with the addition of Sting!

    Seriously, if I had to choose, I’d say I loved the novel far more than the movie. I read it in high school, in an attempt to impress a senior boy whose attentions I desired. My ploy didn’t really work as I wanted it to, but the book utterly captivated me.

    Daniel said, (And I’ll say one word here that hits every browncoat out there…Wash. I still have a hard time watching that scene…)

    Waaaaaahhh! Joss Whedon is vicious and cruel.

  • Daniel, great comments. Worth waiting for. Thanks. I’ll choose just a couple of things to which to respond: I certainly agree that movies CAN do a good job with character. One of my favorite movies of all time is HIGH FIDELITY, based on the Nick Hornby novel. I’ve read the book and I’ve seen the movie. Both are great. And the movie works because the director and actors took the time to work on character. I mean really work on it. L.A. CONFIDENTIAL is another movie that I thought wove character and plot and action brilliantly. But I have to work hard to think of movies like these. I enjoyed the remake of THE ITALIAN JOB, but I have to admit that I liked it because it was fun and visually effective. I remember almost nothing about the characters. I absolutely agree that a good TV series (West Wing, Buffy, House to name just three) can do a far better job with character than a movie, and is, in many ways, far more analogous to a novel. Again, Daniel, thanks for the great comment.

    Misty, yeah, I just love that book. I like Dune Messiah, the second in the series, nearly as much, though it’s just a novella really. I enjoyed Children of Dune, but after that he lost me.

  • I don’t mind the odd reference to a popular movie when it’s applicable, mainly because there’s a better chance I’ve seen it and will understand the example. Especially since I read a lot of heroic fantasy and it’s a sub-genre seldom read or cited by others.

    That said, I understand the dangers described above and won’t mind one bit if the trend swings toward more book examples.