I have a very dear friend I don't want to name because I care about him quite a bit and he got me through some very difficult travails. He was a movie fiend, even more so than me, which, if you know me, is saying something. And when I asked him about reading once, he said one of the cringeworthiest things I've heard in my life, and it still haunts me to this day (obviously.)
"Nah, I don't read. If a book's any good, they'll make a movie of it eventually. So I'll just watch the movie."
And you know something? At the time I didn't have a really good answer to that, because it's partially true. Good books do get made into movies all the time! Sometimes they're crummy movies, but what are you going to do?
But I was thinking about this again today and a couple of things occurred to me. Novels and movies are very different forms of media (duh.) But since there's so much interchange between them, we do not perhaps focus on their differences a whole lot anymore. Some authors write with the sole intent of being cinematic. And this isn't necessarily a bad thing. A novel could in theory do nothing differently from a movie and still be good. Just straightfoward descriptions of people, scenes, and actions.
But I started thinking about things that novels can do that movies quite simply can't. An obvious example is getting inside someone's head using first person. A movie can have some voiceover inner monologue, but a story with a quirky narrator is a whole other kettle of fish.
A brilliant turn of phrase is also something that a movie can't produce outside of dialogue. Consider the Douglas Adams line, “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't." It's piss yourself funny, and yet in a movie it could only be conveyed by the visual of a bunch of ships up in the sky. The whole beauty of that sentence is lost.
It also occurred to me that there are certain assumptions we, as readers, take into a novel. I've preyed on those more than a few times myself. For instance, in an as-yet unpublished piece, I never describe the main character because as an author surrogate I knew that readers would simply assume he's a white, Pennsylvanian male like me. Then, only at the pertinent moment, well more than midway through the book, I reveal the character's actual provenance. My goal was to perhaps surprise the reader, perhaps even make him reconsider his own subconscious prejudices. You quite simply can't do that with a movie. The audience can immediately see the main character.
Another great example (spoiler alert) came in my colleague Elizabeth Buhmann's wonderful LAY DEATH AT HER DOOR. (In fact, for a master class in examples of things novels can do which films can't, just read the entire book.) At the conclusion, Buhmann plays with the very fact that we as an audience are willing to accept a first person narrative at all. Many novels leave the exact nature of the first person narrative unexplained, and this is perfectly well accepted. Others make mention of the book being an epistolary, but otherwise don't bother much with deeper explanations. The final reveal in LDAHD is of a criminal, not writing her confession for publication, but in an e-mail program with the immediate plan to delete it. And thus our assumption throughout that she was brought to justice is exploded.
What about you, dear readers? What sorts of things do you find that novels can do which television and film can't? Let me know in the comments below!
"Manuscripts don't burn"
- Mikhail Bulgakov
Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."
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