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?

To E-Read or Not to E-Read

I’ve thought about getting an e-reader for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is all the space it would save, but then it occurred to me: how would I feel without books all over the place?

I’m a huge fan of HGTV. I love to peek into other people’s homes. And what never ceases to amaze me is how many homes have almost no books in them. We have more bookcases than we have walls for in our house and we still don’t have enough space for all of our books. My dream is to have custom bookshelves built in every available nook and cranny in our house.

It’s not just the books I own that pose a storage problem. It’s also all the books I get out of the library. It’s not unusual for me to have 100 books out of the library at one time. Yes, there’s a borrowing limit; I just go to two different library systems. It’s like having a library of my own, all stacked up under the window in my dining room.

Why don’t I just create a to-read list? Because lists are not my style. I misplace them or never look at them. I’d rather have a plethora of books here at home made up of books I’d like to read a) in the near future, or b) sometime before I die.

I can see where an e-reader would be handy for saving long-term projects like reading the classics. A lot of them are either free or really inexpensive on e-readers and they’d be handy for odd moments when I don’t have anything else to read.

[Who am I kidding? I always have something else to read. I make sure of that. The thought of being without something to read horrifies me. I don’t know what to do with my mind when I’m not using it to read something. That’s one reason why I don’t get the writing done I’d like to: I’m always reading. I never give my mind a chance to work on something else, like an essay, or even a novel. The only thing that saves me is that I also like to read the words I’ve written.]

To me, an e-reader would just give me the opportunity to create another library, one that I can carry around with me all the time. It would also cause me to be more selective, since I’d be paying for most of them.

UPDATE: I now have a Nook and an iPad, which I can also use to read e-books. I’ll write more later about what I think of the e-reader phenomenon now that I’ve had first hand experience with it.