Or, to be more accurate, why books are better than the movies which get made from them.
Okay, before we start, let’s not get all defensive. There are lots of great movies out there, and some of them are based on books. Some of those movies might even be better than the book they are based on. Happy?
But I’m thinking of something very specific, and it comes out of the various school visits I’m doing at the moment, because someone always asks when my book (Darwen Akwright, in this case) is going to be made into a movie. This is, the assumption seems to suggest, the ultimate accolade for a book, that the greatest thing that can happen (after getting an agent, a publishing deal, a bestseller ranking etc.) is Hollywood’s golden coronation. The book is dead! Long live the film!
Of course we all know that books don’t become movies without more than eggs being broken (hearts, I suspect, are up there a lot of the time). Darwen is 400 pages long. The average screen play is about a quarter of that. Double spaced. There’s lots that a movie can show in seconds, but you can’t pack the plot of a ten hour read into a two hour film. Stuff gets left out, trimmed back, recalibrated for a visual medium and, in the process, the book turns into something different entirely.
Which is fine and dandy because it’s the nature of the beast. Books and films are different. They work in different ways, communicate in different ways, and as such some stories that work well in books fail completely on the big screen and vice versa.
So far, so predictable.
We’ve talked about some of this before. David has a particularly shrewd post on the subject from a couple of years ago, which also links to previous debate on the subject. What I want to target here is that sense that the natural evolution of really great story is from book to film, and I want to focus on the way meaning is created in these two different media.
Let me emphasize that little throwaway point again: books and movies are different media. Their form and the system by which they generate meaning is fundamentally different even, in some senses, opposite. All conversions of books to films are necessarily instances of adaptation, and there can therefore be no “straight” filmic version of a book because the two are generically different.
But here’s the thing. When someone reads one of my books, meaning (by which I mean all kinds of semantic effect be it intellectual, emotional, visceral or whatever) is the product of my words acting upon their imagination. That reader is unique–the end result of an infinite number of variables concerning their background and experience—and the way they thus make sense of the words on the page is consequently also unique. Certain words will trigger specific and idiosyncratic associations, memories, feelings which I, as the author, never intended or imagined.
But that is how it should be, how—in fact—it has to be. Books generate meaning in an essentially collaborative fashion, the words on the pages triggering a process in the mind of the reader which is not merely interpretive, but is also essentially constructive, the effect of the book being shaped and at least partially built from the mind of the reader. The reader is active: a formative and creative participant in the generation of the book’s meaning. Books are thus democratic.
By contrast, movies do most of the creative work for the viewer, replacing the hypothetical potential of words on the page with specific images and sounds. There is still an interpretive factor from the position of the viewer, but it is—by comparison with reading books—massively reduced. The work of imagining is done by an extensive team of actors, director, designers, cinematographers and so forth in ways insisting upon a single look, a single perspective on the action (the viewer’s eye guided by the camera) which makes the audience essentially passive. Where a reader might be given only a few phrases from which to build his or her impression of a character’s appearance, for instance, the movie presents that character in precise and fully realized detail. It does so, moreover, in such a way that it becomes almost impossible for the viewer to conceive of the character differently without somehow resisting the cinematic experience entirely. Whatever its strengths as a medium, film largely deprives those who watch it of the opportunity to be active collaborators in the art object’s generation of meaning.
This is why I resist so strongly that model of a book’s success which views its being adapted for film as a progression to a higher plane of success. However great a filmic adaptation of a book might be, it represents not the apotheosis of the book but something which is fundamentally unbookish, something which uses entirely different systems of signification to create entirely different meanings, and largely deprives the end-user of any share in the generation of meaning
So here’s to sharing creative power with your readers, to collaboration, and the ambiguous wiggle room which permits constructive interpretation. Here’s to books.