How Film Has Changed Literature

E. L. Doctorow wrote about the relationship between film and literature in a 1999 essay for The New York Times. (“Quick Cuts: The Novel Follows Film into a World of Fewer Words“) He made three distinct points about movies:

  1. They are nonliterate (some might say illiterate).
  2. They’ve changed the way readers read.
  3. They’ve changed the way writers write.

I thought the first point was the most provocative. I’m used to thinking of film and literature as being closely related. After all, they both tell stories, set scenes, introduce characters, are usually fictional and involve writing (the screenplay). But if you think about it, movies are mostly visual. As Doctorow puts it:

“In some of today’s film dramas, 95 percent of a scene’s meaning is conveyed before a word is uttered; 98 percent if you add music.”

Obviously this was true when movies were silent; so much information was supplied visually that the title cards were almost unnecessary. But if what Doctorow says is true, today’s movies might as well be silent. (Especially action movies which are full of shooting, explosions and car chases.)

The literate (that is, relying heavily on the verbal) movie is not being made today. It used to be popular to make stage plays into movies; now a common complaint about a movie with a lot of dialogue is that “it’s a stage play.”  (In other words, “Bring on the action!”)

The second point is a no-brainer. We’ve become a society that expects instant gratification. We have no patience for drawn-out soliloquies or conversations. We don’t want to have to think, make inferences, put together the story on our own; we want to see all before us, right now.

One reason why genre fiction is so popular is because it cuts to the chase. There’s little exposition or description; everything is in shorthand. Literary fiction is a harder sell because it usually takes a more circuitous route to get to the point (if there even is one). And the classics? Most people are introduced to them through film. (Except for required reading in school.) I wonder if Jane Austen would be as popular as she is today if there hadn’t been so many film adaptations of her work.

As for the third point, because readers read differently, so writers, who are also influenced by film, have to write differently. Before movies and television, readers had to rely on the writer to give them all the details, both external and internal. Description was vital. In a movie, a psychological state can be conveyed non-verbally, by a character’s facial expression or mannerisms. There is no need for description of scenery or appearance; the visuals take care of all that.

Have you thought about how film affects the way that you write? Do you think writers should buck this trend? Or do we need to adapt?