I just finished watching Cowboys & Aliens with the kids. Apart from the numerous plot holes, absurd bravado and testosterone-fuelled ego-fest, it’s not bad as far as mindless entertainment goes on a Saturday night. Watching the movie, though, I couldn’t help but see the shortcoming of movies in general.
Visually, this movie is astounding. It has mind-bending special effects, with molten gold being sucked up in thin strands in defiance of gravity. The aliens are like ugly on an ape and look particularly barbaric/primitive for a race that has achieved interstellar travel, but the blue laser-like blasts and flying scout ships were a visual feast. And yet, there in lies the problem, movies excite with their action, but they fail to achieve the depth of a book because the imagination is never engaged.
Read a book, and your imagination is guided, but ultimately the view you have is your own, any imagery or special effects are entirely yours. Reading is active, engaging, whereas watching a movie is passive, directed.
Reading is a remarkably versatile act. Get the right book, and you can be lost in orbit around a star light years from Earth for days on end.
Although the bulk of our communication is in words, there are subtleties that reach beyond language. We speak volumes with our gestures, facial expressions & posture. In life, touch and smell also come into play when you shake hands, or meet someone wearing perfume, or talk to someone having just finished up at the gym. Movies, at least, capture some of this non-verbal communication, but books don’t, not unless the author deliberately brings these elements into the text. Novels, it seems, are far more limited than movies, or are they?
Ultimately, fiction is about the suspension of disbelief, the willingness of a reader/viewer to ignore reality and inhabit an alternate world, one sculptured by another. The strength of novels comes from their limitation. Being restricted to just words, they can evoke every sense, even taste. Whereas a movie is dependent on camera angles and an actor’s versatility, a novel needs only the imagination of the reader.
Have you ever read a book and been excited about the release of the movie version, only to be disappointed when it finally comes out? Inevitably, you watch the movie and, regardless of the acting, regardless of the cinematography and special effects, you come away with the feeling something was missing. Why? There are three reasons.
Lack of imagination
Movies are passive, they replace rather than stimulate our imagination. The arts department and screenwriters have plenty of imagination. Their imagination arouses our thinking, but fails to stimulate our intellect as much as a book. We are astonishingly intelligent creatures. We need to have our minds exercised, excited. Movies do that to a degree, but no where near as well as a good novel.
Inability to internalise the character
The best movies, like Forrest Gump, allow you to internalise the main character, to identify with them, but this is extremely rare when it comes to science fiction movies. To be fair, science fiction novels generally fall short in this regard as well, but novels are written from a personal point of view. Novels allow you to see through another’s eyes, to hear their thoughts, to experience this pseudo-life in a way a movie cannot duplicate.
Lack of immersion
Ultimately, both of these lead to a lack of immersion. As engrossing as movies are they fail to sustain any depth beyond more than a few hours. A good novel, however, will capture the imagination for an extended period of time, over days or even weeks, allowing you to escape to another world.
Growing up in New Zealand, I remember listening to the radio as a child. For several years, there was only one TV on our block, and it wasn’t in our living room. All we had was a wall-mounted radio. I remember my mother and I sitting up to listen to War of the Worlds serialised for radio. Sitting there, my imagination was set alight by what was essentially an audio-book. To this day, when writing, I use a program called SpeakPad to listen to what I’ve written, to hear sections read back to me so as to engage my imagination. And so I’ve made sure Text-To-Speech is enabled on each of my novels because it is a variation I enjoy.
Sitting there as an eight year old, the thought of an alien creature emerging from a strange, shiny cylinder, its tentacles snaking over the edge of a muddy crater, thrilled my imagination. As enjoyable as the Tom Cruise rendition was, it pales in comparison to the imagery built up in my mind all those years ago. Orson Wells, it seems, had a 70 year jump on the likes of The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield for realism in entertainment, scaring thousands in the pre-World War II 1930s.
Will I go and watch Prometheus when it comes out at the movies? Absolutely.
Will it have me on the edge of my seat? Undoubtedly.
Will I find the effects and storyline dazzling? Sure.
But it will be formulaic, it has to be, that’s just the nature of movies. It will be bound and limited, with stilted dialogue, limited character build up and probably no character immersion at all, but I’m sure the action will be heart-stopping. In writing the sequel to Trixie & Me my goal is to engage readers in a manner that will thrill them every bit as much as Prometheus, with some depth of characterization you just can’t find in the movies (ambitious goal, I know, but you’ve got to shoot for the moon).
Keep your eyes peeled for War coming in May/June 2012.
PS. The Orson Wells broadcast of War of the Worlds is well worth listening to. The second half, in particular, is absolutely brilliant.