Thursday, May 22, 2008

Books and Films

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Suggested by: Superfastreader:

Books and films both tell stories, but what we want from a book can be different from what we want from a movie. Is this true for you? If so, what’s the difference between a book and a movie?

Books and films are both not limited to telling stories, there are some of each medium that are distinctly non-narrative and mean to be, but both can. Certainly these media, though I prize both, are not interchangeable; either I want one or I want the other.
Movies are externalized, someone has had to chose what Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca or Margaret Schlegel in Howard's End looked liked and has eliminated all other possible choices with the appearance and behavior of a single actor. Yet at the same time, I find most films a more passive experience - usually I am asked to sit back and let it happen. Reading is private, interior - I create it as I go. I may sit still to do both, but reading requires me to act, movies do the acting for me.

That is not to say that film is not involving, I can get quite caught up. Cary Grant replaces a bottle in the wine cellar during the party scene in Notorious, the suspense Hitchcock creates as he replaces the bottle on the shelf and on the other end of the shelf another bottle is misplaced and seems to take forever to fall was so engrossing the first time that I saw it in the theater I actually got half out of my seat to try to prevent the bottle from crashing to the ground.

Reading asks that I interplay my own ideas and experiences internally with that of the narrative as I read - sometimes as an intellectual discussion other times as more of a day dream, sometimes it is directly of the world of the book but other times it is my personal fantasy interacting with that of the book - whereas film generally is showing me the one and only story I am supposed to pay attention to. I don't think a film director is hoping that I will day dream during the film, if I am caught up it should be in the film's world exclusively.

I find films more agitating. Usually I cannot watch a film and go to sleep. I write about it first, or talk about it, or I read a book. I habitually read and fall or go to sleep after reading. I think the difference between a book and a film is often most visible when a film adapts a book. My single requirement is that the adaptation has something to add. If the book has already done it well, and the new medium does not actually create something that stands on its own as a film - why bother? I don't need a film so that when the book is assigned in a class and I haven't bothered to read it I can get the movie the night before the exam. Take Midnight Cowboy - one of my favorite films ever. It's a great adaptation. You can taste the grit
and I felt like somehow film brought out the atmosphere even more palpably than the book, while the book excelled at the characters and their relationship with each other more satisfyingly. I love adaptations that dare to take their original form to the next place - like Clueless - which sets Austen's Emma in a 1990s Hollywood high school. It's a mediocre movie if appreciated simply for its teeny-bopper angst and scenes in the mall, but when layered with the knowledge of the book it adapts it's really kind of brilliant. But they can fail too - take the Great Expectations with Ethan Hawke and Ann Bancroft - oh dear. "Faithful" adaptations can fail miserably as well. Take the film of E. M. Forster's Where Angels Fear to Tread, I should say - take it, please! It tries desperately to tread in Merchant and Ivory's footsteps and ends up as a bad imitation. Whereas A Room With A View seems gets the closest of any film I know of transferring a book to the screen. It is perfect. I have to watch that film once a year. I don't know whether I like Maggie Smith as Charlotte Bartlett (a chaperone) or the magnificent Denholm Elliott as Mr. Emerson (an English tourist) better. Merchant, Ivory, and Jhabvala make a powerful and beautiful work of art that stands on its own, capturing the characters and tone of the narrative perfectly and perhaps even one-upping it as far as the experience of the settings are concerned.


Anonymous said...

Great examples here. Many a movies are involving as you mention here. But a book is my private world. I can interpret it as I see it in my mind's eye. With no outside influence.

Here is my BTT post!

Sheila O'Malley said...

Didn't we see Notorious together at the Film Forum? I still remember the whole audience gasping out loud when that damn bottle dropped. Unbearable suspense!!

Ted said...

Sheila - Didn't we see "To Catch a Thief?" I seem to remember Grace Kelly. Though it's possible we saw Notorious too - one of my favorites!

Ted said...

Gautami - Yes, exactly.

Anonymous said...

As you say films are a passive experience, but I'd forgotten until I read your remarks about Maggie Smith how much I enjoyed her in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - she captured the character perfectly! And I saw it after I read and enjoyed the book.

I can fall asleep both when reading and when watching a film - sad!

Sheila O'Malley said...

Oh yes, To Catch a Thief - that was so fun!!

I thought we saw Notorious together, too ... I know I wrote about it on my blog. Hold please, as I go cross-reference my own life.

Sheila O'Malley said...

This is the good thing about having a blog where you blab about your own life.

We went to 'ino and then went to Notorious! I had never seen it on the big screen before and it was so fun - infinitely more suspenseful than just watching it in the privacy of my apartment.

I think on the To Catch a Thief night the Ragazzo was with us, if I am remembering correctly.

Ted said...

S - That's right - I'm remembering now, seeing it again with you after talking about seeing it that first time. I'm not sure if that first time was at one of New York's no longer existing vintage houses like Carnegie Hall Cinema, The Regency, or the Thalia - it could have also been at Harvard Square Cinema in college. To Catch a Thief was with the Ragazzo - yes! We always used to do that with my grandmother's diaries too. She kept them from her youth pretty much until she died and she had them all (brought them with her from Germany). When we would wonder about some birthday dinner in 1975 or a play they saw in the 1950s, my grandmother would just look it up and then tell us - yes and it was raining that day, and.... You chroniclers - so useful!

Eva said...

Notorious is one my favourite movies ever!! And that scene is so great. :)

I like modern twists on classics too; Clueless was so much fun. :)