Well, the show is great but the books are more so
– George R. R. Martin, re. the Game of Thrones.
Once I saw a movie that was a true tragedy. As it happened, it was based on the life of a real person, and it was so sad. It moved so many in the theater to tears that you could hear sniffles coming from all around.
The movie had such a powerful impact on me that I decided to read the book. What a disappointment! I couldn’t believe what a let down it was. Apparently all the good parts of the movie were embellishments by the scriptwriter who wasn’t constrained by reality.
From that point on, though, I started noticing that books by and large trumped movies. TV wasn’t even in the running because the stories were too short to have any great impact.
Ah, but things have changed. TV now serializes stories, and in some ways serves as periodicals once did, doling out the equivalent of a novel or a novel series in bits week after week. In addition, technology has freed movies to create what we once thought could exist only in our imagination.
And yet, as much as I loved the Lord of the Rings movies, with orcs come to life and a Gollum who was eerily as Tolkien described him, I think they come in a distant second behind the books. The Hobbit isn’t so different, but for other reasons.
We don’t need to think twice about the Narnia movies (though I still rebel at the idea that NOT having them made is a better option). I’d have to say the Harry Potter movies are wonderful–inventive, consistent with the direction of the books–and yet they, too, come up short in a comparison.
Years ago I read a book made from a movie, and in that instance, I gave the movie the top rating, but the vast majority of the best stories, it still seems to me, are within the pages of books, not on the little or big screen.
Of course others are free to disagree, and I look forward to your thoughts, but here are the reasons why I think books are better:
1) The characters in books are more engaging. That’s because the reader can get into their heads and know what they’re thinking and feeling. Few movies or TV programs can pull that off. (There was a TV program called Veronica Mars that had the main character narrate the beginning of each show and places of particular importance. The 80s show Magnum PI used that same deice with great success. MOST shows, however, leave the viewer in the comfy chair as an observer, rather than a participant with the character.)
2) Books allow readers to imagine. Stories on the screen allow TV producers to imagine and directors to imagine and actors to imagine. Viewers, however, are primarily driven by what we see, not by what we imagine.
3) As a result, movies seem content to infuse the viewer with a shot of endorphins, adrenaline, or testosterone, as if inducing a chemical response is the ultimate in storytelling.
4) Books, in contrast, can make you think and give you time to do so. Yes, they also make you feel, but it has a greater impact, not lesser, because you’re more invested in the character (see point 1)
5) Books, the good ones, seldom seem outdated, whereas movies need to be remade with some frequency–except the good ones no one is willing to touch (Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind–which desperately needs a remake, if you ask me).
If I took the time, I’m certain I could think of other advantages books have over visual storytelling, but these jumped out at me.
Do stories told with visual images have advantages over books? Certainly. Surprisingly, the first one that came to my mind was sound.
Movies and TV programs utilize music in a way that enhances a story. It can build tension or diffuse it, induce romance, suggest danger, create peace or . . . well, if you can feel it, music can enhance it.
Visual storytelling makes full use of that capacity, but also of sound effects.
The visual also brings to life the images which the words on a page have suggested. There’s something magic about seeing a hobbit house after reading about one and imagining what it might look like.
There are undoubtedly other advantages, and I hope you’ll point out the ones I’ve neglected.
However, I can’t help but wonder if we wouldn’t be losing something vital if visual storytelling crowded out books. Do you think that’s possible? Will the next generation prefer the visual so much they stop reading for pleasure?
Can movies or TV do as good a job telling stories as books can? Why do you think so? Or why not?
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And speaking of books, don’t forget to pick the books that look most interesting to you from the list of Clive Staples Award nominees, and read, read, read. We want YOU to be an eligible voter.