Book Versus Movie

I’ve seen this image floating around the interwebz lately and initially agreed with it. 

Book Versus Movie Iceberg

The obvious suggestion is that a book offers the reader more complexity and depth than a movie; that a movie is a passive activity without detailed narrative, skipping over the juiciest and meatiest parts of a novel.

However, the more I saw it popping up in my social media feeds the more I questioned it.

The image implies a superiority of the printed word over the celluloid film, that a novel trumps film for storytelling and attention to detail. It’s a simplistic interpretation; it’s elitist and fails to embrace the complexity of film as art.

I, for one, have been disappointed in book-to-film adaptations (The Hobbit) yet also greatly impressed by book-to-film adaptations (The Lord of the Rings). I read intently the hue and cry from LOTR fans who bemoaned the excising of large swathes of narrative e.g. Tom Bombadil for the movie adaptation. Peter Jackson’s reasoning was simple: does this section move Frodo closer to Mount Doom or take him away from it?

I tell my students that film narrative is different to book narrative; each has their own language and vocabulary required to tell the story. Great film making is an art requiring a control of language more than simply words: framing, movement, lighting, sound, music, symbolism, colour, allusions, editing. 

We learn to read the shorthand of film to understand the emotional depth conveyed (dialogue, camera angles, music, sound etc) whereas in the novel we rely on the author’s words to bring us into the interior world of the character or situation.

Auteurs are adept at constructing a narrative for the audience that doesn’t rely on words alone, building their narrative through their medium. This does not make it inferior to a novel. Nor is a novel superior to a film because it requires only the imagination to create a world for the reader.

There are great novels and great films. There are rubbish novels and rubbish films. There are flaws and weaknesses in each when it comes to the power of the narrative arc but we must learn to read them differently, with a different eye and ear, with a different vocabulary and language. We must be conversant with both.

We cannot be snobbish and declare, “The book was better” if we are not conversant with the language of the other medium. True communication comes through understanding and appreciation.

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3 responses to “Book Versus Movie

  1. I agree. This is only the point of view of those, who state, it’s one’s own imagination that counts. Using your example of The Lord of the Rings: many state the book was superior because it required the use of one’s imagination + has all the scenes.
    Regarding the scenes missing from the film I agree with you – it’s a different art with different rules. It cannot be translated 1-1, just like it cannot be translated 1-1 into another language. following that logic I have to warn everyone who hasn’t read LOTR in English: You haven’t read the LOTR.
    Regarding imagination: the movie shows so much more, than one’s imagination will ever show! Simply, because one’s imagination is limited to those characters, places, artifacts, that the author mentions in the scene. A filmmaker can’t leave half of the frame white, because the author hasn’t mentioned any things or characters there. It actually shows you much more, than the book.
    An example: the Fellowship wanders south in the wilderness: you don’t only see those 9 characters and a patch of road on either side, but you see the bushes, trees, hills and mountains, ruins on hilltops, sky and clouds. That is the rule of the film. All that magnificent landscape isn’t mentioned in the book. Was it there? Certainly, but it isn’t described. This is the rule of the book.

  2. One of my favourite examples of how both the movie and the book can be awesome is David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (adapted to the screen by the Wachowskis and Tom Twyker).

    They are essentially the same story but told in quite different ways and there are things the book can do that the movie cannot and visa versa. There is an incredibly powerful bit in the middle of the movie where a very short montage that cuts between the narrative lines tells the same story in 30 seconds (and its intimate connections) that would take 20/30 pages without the same power.

    I think what we’ve seen is far too many atrocious film adaptations, where the film makers have not been clear what the core narrative in the book is (or which of the core narratives they wanted to tell) and tried to interpret that narrative as a visual story. My favaourite book ‘The Time Travellers Wife’ was adapted as a sappy love story that cut out the darkness and the angst that plagued the main relationship. It was not a happy love story. Whereas my other favourite book, ‘The Book Thief’ was very carefully and beautifully transcribed to the screen (okay Rudy and Lisel were perhaps a little less on the starving looking side as they were in the book). But the movie amplified the power of the book.

    I could continue on – but I won’t.

    Perhaps rather than saying the book is always better – perhaps we delineate between book-to-film adaptations that get lots right and adaptations that get lots wrong.

    • I also think we need to approach film as a visual narrative (not including book-to-movie adaptations) and let the narrative unfold, coupled with an understanding of how a story can be told visually. It’s a different reading skill set, but we all know the power of a great scene, how it is told, music, lighting etc to tell the story.
      You’re right in saying that some adaptations or versions miss the core narrative; style (the eye-candy) is over emphasised, stripping away the substance (a dumbing down by studio executives). Execs don’t seem to give credit to the intelligence of the viewer.

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