Movies Are Not The Ultimate Form Of Books
Want to have your heart broken? Do you love books? Great. You’re in the right place.
A bit back I sat down with a great author. A true legend. Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, sci-fi pillar Connie Willis. I got to interview her for a work project, and she couldn’t have been a better interview subject. So generous with her time, so smart.
Connie Willis works out of a Starbucks in my hometown. Regulars and townies know who she is, but if you were just a casual visitor, maybe passing through or a student who’s new in town, you’d just see some lady writing longhand on a huge stack of paper.
She described the typical conversation she has with people who don’t know her:
Person: You’re a writer?
Person: Ever written anything I’ve heard of?
Connie: Blackout? All Clear? To Say Nothing of the Dog? Doomsday Book?
Person: Anything they made into a movie?
And that’s it. That’s where your heart breaks.
Because this lovely person who has dedicated her life to writing some of the greatest stories ever told, working her hands to the bone writing out thick novels longhand, this legend who edits relentlessly and writes constantly, this person who has put so much into what she does — this person gets asked whether she’s successful in a completely different field, and this is a measure of her worth.
It’s enough to crack a book lover in two.
I want to stick up for books. Books as books.
Before you get all pissy about it, hey, if you wrote a book that’s being made into a movie, that’s awesome. I’m not trying to tear you down. I’m trying to build up someone else.
I don’t think movies are bad. I don’t think they’re worse than books. I even love a couple films. Most of them have Demolition Men in them, Beetlejuces, Armies of Darkness. But there are quite a few movies that I think are great.
The thing I don’t love, anymore it seems that a book being made into a movie is the ultimate measure of a book’s greatness, the pinnacle achievement for books. The novel seems to exist in popular culture as the springboard, the necessary, workmanlike step that leads to a movie.
And I say, “Enough!”
Books Are Work
Yeah, books are work.
My least favorite thing in a book? When a book tells you how to feel. I hate when a novel tells you what happened, then overtly explains how you should feel about what just happened. I hate it in books, yet movies get away with it all the time. Whether it’s through manipulative music cues, great actors finding ways to deliver bad dialog, or cuts and angles that explain who’s evil, when to be sad, or what’s going on — whatever it is, movies manipulate emotions in artificial ways that are glaringly obvious and shallow in books.
It’s up to you, the reader.
With a book, you have to “hear” the voices. Picture the characters. You work, and you work over a longer, sustained period of time. Rarely do you pick up a book and expect to read it in a 2-hour sitting. It’s usually a couple weeks for an average reader, dipping in and out of that world, living with it in the back of the mind the entire time.
More than anything, when you stop making the effort, the book stops, too. You can’t read and fold laundry. You can’t read and do paperwork. You CAN read drunk. It’s pretty great. I recommend it.
I don’t mean to say that movies are for lazy scumbags. I mean to say that some narratives benefit from the mutual effort, and that sometimes the extra work you put in changes your relationship with a story.
Let me put it like this: If you’ve ever trained for something like a marathon, you know it changes your outlook. I don’t mean that in some hippy-dippy way, I mean it changes how you look at things like sitting in a meeting for an hour. If you go for a 15-mile training run in the morning, you’re pretty happy to see a chair. Even if the meeting sucks, you’re thinking “At least I’m seated.” Hard work changes your relationship with something as simple as a chair, and you can bet it changes your relationship with something as complex as a story.
When a book becomes a movie, it loses its intimacy.
Books give you an intimate experience with a character in ways that movies have tried to replicate, mostly resulting in bad voiceover narration that doesn’t fit or ends up feeling unnecessary.
Books can get into the first-person in ways that movies have yet to succeed in doing. When we talk about reading encouraging empathy, this is what we’re talking about. We’re not watching someone else do things. We’re in their heads with them, their bodies with them, doing what they're doing.
Credit to Hardcore Henry for trying, but I wouldn’t say it was totally successful.
Your book experience is a lot closer to being a single person’s vision. There are editors and publicists involved, but for the most part, people who are good at those jobs make it possible for an author’s voice to sound as much like their voice as possible.
With movies, there’s a director. Actors. Cinematographers. A Key Grip (whatever the hell that is). There are a lot of cooks in that kitchen. Again, this can produce a good result. But it’s not the same intimate, get-in-the-head experience. It's not a one-on-one conversation.
I'm sure there are filmmaking methods that bring the viewer in closer. But I'm not concerned with that. Because I already have access to that experience through books, and so do you.
Great Books Are Great Books
Great books are exactly what they’re meant to be: great books.
People, we don’t have to look at great books and imagine what great movies they would make. That’s irrelevant. Great books are already great books, and they don’t have to be something else, too. We don’t need to watch a world class Judo champ and wonder how good he’d be at archery.
Books are not the larval stage of stories that then are completed when they become movies. Great books are exactly what they’re supposed to be, formatted they way they’re supposed to be, functioning the way they’re supposed to be. They are fully-formed stories.
All that to say: Can we cut down on asking authors about movies? That’s all I’m really asking here.
It's insulting, it's bizarre, and it implies that the book exists only as a feeder form of a story, the bag of crickets that sustains the apex predator that is the filmmaking industry.
Books exist because they need to. Because we need them to. Because they're the best way to tell some stories. Because anyone can sit down with paper and pen and bring a written story into the world. Because they provide human experiences that we still need, even if it seems like we crave them less and less. Books give us needed alternatives to film.
We need books. And they need us.
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