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