Reading, Watching: Movies and Books
ask me, “How is writing a novel different from writing a screenplay?” To
which I reply, “How are movies different from books?”
days, influenced by computer science, we think of sights, sounds, smells, and
thoughts as "information." In this sense, movies are more
information-rich than books. Every minute, the movie-viewer is presented with
auditory information (music, sound effects, the tone of an actor's voice),
visual information, and verbal information (dialog). The reader of a book
is given only verbal information. However, novels are much longer than
movies, and contain far more verbal information.
words that migrate from the screenplay to the movie screen are the words of
dialog. All the other words are merely road signs for the director. Any
screenwriter worth his or her salt therefore takes dialog very seriously as
a way of revealing character and moving the story forward. A novelist, however,
must take every word seriously, whether it be description, exposition, or dialog.
the basic concepts of storytelling remain the same across all media, movies
and novels tell different stories, in different ways, for different reasons.
What Charlie Chaplin, Akira Kurosawa, and Tim Burton have done on film cannot
be reproduced in a book. What Marcel Proust, William Faulkner, Thomas Pynchon,
and David Foster Wallace have done in books cannot successfully be emulated
usually make underwhelming novelists because they fail to take full advantage
of the tools available to the novelist – rhetorical devices, the connotative
aspects of language, deliberate semantic ambiguity, the sounds of words
(alliteration, cadence, asymmetrical sentence structures, etc.) Nor are
screenwriters necessarily trained to convey characters’ behavior and
psychology in as nuanced and thorough a manner as novelists. The screenwriter
provides the character’s voice, attitude, demeanor. Good actors do the rest, bringing
the characters to life. Think how different “Rick” and Casablanca would
have been if Ronald Reagan rather than Humphrey Bogart had accepted the part.
novelists hired to write screenplays usually don’t do too good a job of it. Novelists
are used to telling stories in words, rather than allowing images and sounds
to tell as much of the story as possible. The pace of a good novel differs
from the pace of a good screenplay. Good novelists may or may not be skilled
at crafting great dialog.
the economics of film-making and distribution, most movies are about ninety
minutes long. As a result, they constitute a spare, disciplined medium for
storytelling. Each scene must lead logically to other scenes. I believe
movies have influenced books in this respect.
unit of narrative today, in both movies and novels, is the scene. This was
not the case in the time of Dickens, let alone in the time of Fielding,
Sterne, or Richardson. In A Tale of Two Cities, some chapters are
scenes, or sequences of scenes; others summarize events or discuss France’s
(or Lucy Manette’s) changing mood. This kind of writing seems old-fashioned
to the contemporary reader. Exposure to tightly knit film narratives, which
do not attempt to bridge gaps between scenes, has created an expectation of
taut, lean storytelling.
novelist owns the words on the page. Most screenwriters have little or no say
in what happens to their words. The screenwriter is a member of the
film-industry proletariat, mining raw material. After he or she sells a
script, directors, producers, studio executives, film editors and others all
have a say in the way the script is translated into film. Other writers are
hired to remold the script so that it matches the sensibility of the director
or producer. The end result may be utterly unlike what the original writer
intended. For example, I have seen one of my own screenplays transformed from
a romantic fantasy into a comedy. The male lead was changed from a
thoughtful, depressed professional in Charleston, South
Carolina to a crass restaurant worker in New
Jersey. (Similarly, I
have been hired to “page-one rewrite” other screenwriters’ work, retaining
little more than the underlying concept. One sometimes feels like a mercenary when doing this kind of thing.)
culture of film-making is utterly unlike the culture of novel-making. The
people who make movies include those who manage production schedules, drive
trucks, handle equipment (cameras, lights, microphones, editing software) or
negotiate deals with writers, actors, and crew members. Books are made, for the
most part, by people who are passionate about one thing: working with words.
are much more dependent on technology than novels. Indeed, the emergence of
new film technologies helps drive audiences to theaters. Novels are more or
less technology-neutral. (Many in the book publishing world see the Internet
and portable e-readers as threats to the survival of the book, but I
respectfully disagree. Whether the words are on a page or on an e-reader,
they are words. Publishers perform so many useful functions besides
physically placing ink on paper - from selecting good novels to editing and
marketing them. Their services will continue to be highly valued by writers
read a book, we recreate in our minds a story that previously existed in the
mind of the author. When I read Anna Karenina, my mind enters into an
indirect relationship with the mind of Leo Tolstoy, even though he is dead. A
book is a private, intimate bridge between two minds.
film-making is a social endeavor, the end-product is a social experience. The
tree in a movie is not the tree in the writer's mind, nor is it the tree in
the viewer's mind. It is a tree that the director (or, more likely, the
location scout or set designer) found or placed on a sound stage. The writer,
director, and viewer are all looking at the same tree. The moviegoer is not
drawn into an intimate, private relationship with the writer. A movie is not
so much a connection between minds as a shared act of watching.
be silly to say books constitute a “better” medium for storytelling than
movies, or vice-versa. Plenty of schlock is peddled in both media;
occasionally, one discovers a gem. But a given writer’s (or reader’s)
sensibility may be more aligned with the possibilities of expression in one
medium rather than the other.