Movies & Books

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.


6 thoughts on “Movies & Books

  1. Thanks for articulating my feelings regarding novels vs. movies.

    When I was in my twenties, a college friend asked me if I had seen the movie “The Time Machine” made in 1960. I enthusiastically endorsed the film even though it had been over a decade since I had seen it. We rented the VHS (yes, I was in college a long time ago) and watched the film.

    Imagine my surprise when the film that unfolded before me was nothing like what I remembered watching when I was ten years old. Major details were completely different. Scenes I remembered watching weren’t in the film we rented, and scenes I’m sure weren’t in the film struck me as out of place.

    Don’t misunderstand: it was a great film. It just wasn’t the one I remembered watching when I was young.

    I did some research. Had more than one film version of this story been produced? No, that wasn’t it. With nowhere else to turn, I went to the library and read the book by H.G. Wells.

    That was it. As I read the book, the scenes I thought I had seen on the movie screen came alive once again in my imagination. The fact is, I had never seen the movie. The movie I thought I had seen, with all its magnificent detail, was just my imagination creating vivid images as I first read the book when I was ten years old.

    Now here’s the interesting part: I had shrugged it off at first, but the movie I had constructed in my head as a result of reading the book starred Cliff Robertson instead of Rod Taylor. What’s up with that?

    • Yeah, it’s fascinating to observe that… we just watched the Hunger Games after reading the book aloud with our girls. The movie was better at world building, giving you a dystopian setting in just a few, ragged shots, and there were elements where the script writers brought more detailed logic into the premise than is found in the book, but, ultimately, it fell short. SPOILERS! In the book, Katness is struggling more against hunger and thirst than she is against any of the other tributes, but you never really get that feeling in the movie. In the book, she destroys their cache of food to level the playing field, perhaps even tilt it in her favour, by forcing the rich kids to live off the land. In the movie, you’re never really sure why she destroys their food, although it looks spectacular. And the list goes on… As much as I love watching movies, they are forced to trade off on content for time. Hunger Games was 2hr 22min, which is a decent length for a movie, but for those that have read the book, it feels rushed.

      Have you read Time Ships by Stephen Baxter, it’s the sequel to Time Machine by H. G. Wells. What an audacious project, but Baxter pulls it off with aplomb. I read the two books back to back and found they flowed seamlessly together.


  2. I keep thinking that I need to rent CvA solely based on the actors, then I end up hearing about how shallow it is….hmmmmmm I actually liked the Transformers films depite them being like that, so maybe I’d enjoy it based on it just being a popcorn movie.

    • If you watch CvA with low expectations and suspend your disbelief, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. It’s not a bad movie. I really enjoyed it and jumped in a few parts. But it does highlight the difference between movies and books, as the characters are paper thin.

      I just watched Hunger Games after reading the book. It’s a brilliant movie, but there are parts of it that make no sense if you haven’t read the book (SPOILERS). Like when Katness destroys the supplies of the rich kids. In the movie, it happens so quickly you lose sight of the fact she’s levelling the field, wanting them to have to fend for themselves like she has.

      • My wife has just finished those books as well, I need to eventually check them out. I may end up getting a kindle or something one of these days, maybe that will help me get more motivated to slog through my backlist! That way I can eventually try some of the E-books I’ve been running across including those you have done. If I do, I’ll let you know what I think 😛

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