Book & Movie Relationships

The movie of the book will never be ok for some

People will say (whatever) film leaves out plot devices, or characters, or the casting is wrong, or the location isn’t correct.

While such criticisms may or may not be accurate they do not reflect the essential source of the unease about the movie/book relationship.

Our complaints, (if any) aren’t really about these decisions but point to something more…emotional. We complain because we are in mourning for something that has died.

The text is not the story 

Although a novel is fixed text, the story you read and remember is unique to you. Only you know it the way you do, only you bring to it your particular experiences, culture and education including other reading. This is called intertextuality.

Furthermore, all this changes. Rereading changes interpretation. Especially if we first read as a child and read again as an adult.

For each of us, the book we read is the version we each of us, and only us, can imagine.

Shakespeare knew this, which is why he dicked around with other people’s stories as inspiration for his plays. To mess with his audience but also give them something familiar. Directors of his plays continue to know this. Each version differs in length, presentation, stage setting and interpretation and yet remain Shakespearean, and for those who appreciate Shakespeare, that’s ok. You can hate Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet but he was working within this tradition. It should be ok for film directors of other stories too.

Thought Experiment

Say 10 of us read the same book at the same time. Now 10 people have 10 versions of the same novel. Imagined the main characters, and the setting. There are 10 versions, all different, all private, all valid. Then the 10 of us get together to talk about what we think and the merest bits of how others imagined the main character and the set rub off on each other. Now each of us hold multiple visions in our minds about what this story is, and how it looks. Some of these coalesce and some conflict.

If it is a particularly memorable novel or one we read at an important time, it may stay with us and as we grow, or age, or read other things and experience life, so too, does our vision of what we think the story is. Maybe our conceptions of the characters change with the influence of people in our everyday environments, perhaps some of us day-dream about alternate endings or continuations of the story.

Because this multivariate and shimmering conception of a story in a book is buried deep in our brains they are us. We belong to them, are attached to them because we create them, or are co-creators of them with the text. These versions of a story belong to ourselves, and are essentially unknowable, except in the most simplistic of terms. Basically, because humans can’t get inside each other’s minds, not really, not fully.

After perhaps decades of having this story in our heads, sometimes reignited with a rereading or a memory, some other person comes along with the temerity, ability and budget to bring something close to his personal vision into the public sphere. Suddenly, where there was a multiples of a story, each stored in our brains, there is one narrative conjured from one person’s private imagination now spreading into the public domain, like a virus, or a computer virus that over-rides the unique data we each possessed. Because this director’s imagination is not yours or mine, how this world is imagined on the screen differs from each of our private imaginings. Sometimes in a big way.

If you think you are right about a story that ship has sailed my friend. There is only interpretation and invention.

If you think you are right about a story that ship has sailed my friend. There is only interpretation and invention.

We lost our prescioussssss?

With a film, the potential is there that not only has something been stolen from each of us, but it has been replaced by something that could be almost, but will never exactly be like, what was lost, because a director’s version of the story has stepped on and crushed each of the visions in our heads.

I have simplified. Because a film is not the work of one person but a crew, from the guy who ensures the beverages are the appropriate temperature to the leads, and the director, who works from a script, written, perhaps, by many hands.

Then, all the people who see the film posses their own unique experience of it, shaped again by culture and language and personal history and education, basically, everything.

Enter visual cortex

So, as you walk away from the film, even if you enjoyed it, it was not your version. Through the overwhelming power of the experience of the sights as they entered your visual cortex some of the memory of the magic of what you personally experienced and imagined when you read the story will be wiped from you, replaced with this film version. Meanwhile, the music and all the sounds of the film will do their work to shape the memory of what you experienced.

This is the risk of films. Sometimes they kill something private, delicate and often not even fully remembered in our imaginations with the strength of their own concreteness.

That is what we mourn.

And humans do what they always do when they suspect they’ve lost something. They complain. With films, they will rail at the CGI, or the script’s licence with the text, or the acting. Or whatever. It doesn’t matter. These people are mourning a very private loss and perhaps not even one they know exists.

Sometimes this loss doesn’t matter because there is no connection to the book. Harry Potter was like that for me. I read one book and wasn’t really impressed, but the films I appreciated much more.

Risk and reward

Because I like films, I accept the risk of losing my unique take on any book read.

I recognise too that books and films are different in their narrative requirements. Novels can easily trace inner monologues and switch between many different inner and outer perspectives. Generally films are about outer monologues and dialogues and put the primacy on doing rather than thinking, because they have to – humans like to watch humans doing things. Books can be about the thinking and the doing. It is thus that movies about writers never feature much writing, but are generally about blocked or distressed or distracted writers.

I work hard too, to retain my understanding of the book. I can mostly appreciate any particular movie and book version. Like Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham. Truly amazing book and the Bill Murray film version hit all the right notes for me too.

The same goes for all of Tolkien’s works on the screen and in book form. They don’t need to follow the book word for word, and actually can’t.

Exeunt, stage left, with alarums.

Exeunt, stage left, with alarums.


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