Reading vs. watching

I recently read The Constant Gardener by John Le Carre, after having watched the movie adaptation (starring Ralph Fiennes) some time ago. It’s true that once you’ve watched the movie, you aren’t really reading the book anymore; you’re just reliving the movie in your head. So at every turn I had to see Fiennes’s elegantly poised grief instead of picturing Justin Quayle’s mourning for myself. The creative direction, so to speak, had been taken away from me. At each turn I was anticipating what I already knew was going to happen and comparing the text to the movie, if I did remember it. It took a while for me to recall the scene where Quayle is hooded and beaten up by hired thugs when he returns to his hotel room, while traveling in search of his late wife’s informants. So there was a queer moment when I was already reading with my eyes a paragraph or two into that particular scene before the mental image of it formed (or was recalled) in my head. Only at that point did the plot line and the description of violence make an impression on me. The experience wasn’t very satisfying, and so I’ve decided to forbear from watching other movie adaptations of books that I might want to read: the Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example.

The dominance of the movie image is not so strong for those books that are constantly being re-adapted. The best example would be the Sherlock Holmes. In the past year or two we’ve seen a new movie starring Robert Downey Jr as Holmes, and more episodes of the BBC TV series starring Benedict Cumberbatch, both based loosely on the Conan Doyle characters but taking significant liberties with plot and plausibility. That such different adaptations of the same character could come out at the same time and not steal each others’ thunder speaks to the protean malleability of the Holmes character, and also his wide appeal. There’s more Holmes adaptations (some faithful, some definitely not) than probably any other fictional character out there. While one might have a “favorite Holmes”, it’s unlikely that his dramatic interpretation would so forcefully shape one’s reading of the original stories, if one has watched more than one adaptation.

The experience however has left me with a greater appreciation for the arts of writing a screenplay, especially in adapting one from a novel or book. One can’t include everything, and so some scenes have to go. But which ones do you cut? I don’t think that I can fully articulate my understanding of how this choice is made, but I think I can glimpse some of the artifice that goes into cutting a 400 page novel down to 1 hr 45 min of fast-paced action and suspense. The writer can do many things that a filmmaker can’t: evoke emotions, senses other than sight and hearing, blur reality and recollection. One of the most significant is the filling-in of backstory. Sure, a film can use flashbacks to tell how a certain character came to be there, his or her previous interactions with the other principals, but it’s not quite the same. Flashbacks are disruptive to the narrative, and used too often become tedious. A novelist, however, can use a few deft words to set the mood or allude to some murky past. In this, watching a movie is more realistic: we’re suddenly introduced to all these new people and have to figure out for ourselves with the limited information available what to think about them. It’s not to say that the novel or prose story can’t accomplish this as well: sleight-of-hand is the calling-card of the American short story (think O Henry), but I think the artistic potential of surprise is especially high for movies. The Usual Suspects is an entertaining example, fittingly encased in the cops-and-robbers genre, but it’s also possible to see a character-driven film like Twelve Angry Men in the same light. Here the surprise is not one of hidden information being unveiled; it’s instead an emotional surprise that leaves us wondering about how, if at all, argument and consensus work.

The more I travel, the more pleasure I also get from recognizing places that I’ve been to in the books I read and the movies I watch. The Italian island of Elba plays an important part in Constant Gardener – it’s the ancestral home of Quayle’s martyred wife Tessa, it’s where he finds refuge while researching her murder, and symbolically, it is associated with the first exile of Napoleon, whose personal emblem of bees was appropriated as the corporate logo of the sinister multinational responsible for her death. I happened to be on Elba this past summer for field work relating to my research, and I could recognize the ferry ride from Piombino on the mainland to Portoferraio, and the descriptions of roads that run along sheer rocky cliffs that dip dramatically on one side into the clear blue Mediterranean. It’s as beautiful as Le Carre says it is. In the movie, most of the Elba parts were left out, which is a pity.

The thrill of recognition is even stronger in a movie. In a novel the writer has more control over the opinion that a reader is supposed to have of a place: if he says that London is corrupt and broken beneath the imposing masonry of the Mall and the carefully painted gates of the Palace, then at least for the duration of one’s reading you have to go along with it. It is harder to impose opinions of this sort through the visual image. Anyhow, it’s always fun to point at the screen and say “I’ve been there!” I recognized many familiar places around Boston in The Departed, Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of the Hong Kong cop movie Infernal Affairs (I liked the original more than the remake), down to particular restaurants in Chinatown where I’ve been out to dinner. My old roommate Daniel did one better: he was watching a movie in the Harvard Square Theater (since closed) that featured an external shot of the Harvard Square Theater. 

So do I like the movie or novel better? Should I, like a cultural snob, condemn those who watch the movies instead of reading the books? I think the answer is very much dependent on the books/movies in question and one’s personal taste. I don’t always care for the books, and there is potential for a great movie to be made from a mediocre book. No example springs immediately to mind, but one thinks of the opera, where mediocre and even absolutely ludicrous stories become transformed to great art when set to the right music. But I would go as far as to avoid watching the movie adaptation of a book that I particularly want to read, simply because there’s no way to un-watch a movie and erase its dominance on one’s visual imagination.


One comment on “Reading vs. watching

  1. K says:

    I like what you said about sleight of hand in American short stories!
    you’re so clever 🙂

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