Writing, Reading, Watching: Movies and Books

Writing, Reading, Watching: Movies and Books

People often ask me, “How is writing a novel different from writing a screenplay?” To which I reply, “How are movies different from books?”

These 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.

The only 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.

While 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 on film.

Screenwriters 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.

Similarly, 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.

Due to 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.

The basic 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.

The 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.)

The 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.

Movies 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 and readers.)

When we 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.

Just as 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.

It would 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.