Periscope Depth

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Why do people (I include myself here, for once) get so excited when hearing that their favorite book will be made into a movie?

Without drowning you in theory I barely understand myself: different forms of media come bundled with different expectations, both by the creator and the audience. A painting stands as a single frame and its contents; everything you want to say, you have to say there. A sculpture needs to be accessible from all viewable angles: you can’t just do the front portion and call it a day (or rather, if you do, you need to do so for good reasons). Commercial television shows fit a formula, a formula so ingrained and automatic that we the viewing public would feel vaguely unsettled if a show departed from it.

You would not expect a painting to pull off the same three-beat structure of Introduce Tension, Heighten Tension, Resolve Tension that a TV sitcom does – at least not without doing some multi-panel Roy Lichtenstein homage, and even then the painting would be more about this smuggling of forms than its actual content. You would not expect a TV show to stand up to the rigorous scrutiny that we can apply to a statue on a pedestal – despite the efforts of the Internet (9 pages on a half hour sitcom, people! vying with the episode’s actual script in word count).

So it goes with books and movies. I could do a line-by-line comparison of the difference between books and movies (and I did, in the first draft of this post). Really, though, it boils down to one key distinction: the audience controls the book; the author controls the movie.

When you’re reading a book, you can slow down or speed up the pace of reading as you desire. If you reach a particularly intense or scary portion, you can set the book aside for a while and regain your bearings. You can blitz through long expository paragraphs in search of the next chunk of dialogue (a habit of mine), or you can immerse yourself in description and detail. All the imagery must come from your own head, even if the page gives birth to it: if you have your own notions of what a “clanging din” or “breasts like champagne glasses” should be, the author cannot change them. To quote Fight Club without irony, you decide your own level of involvement.

None of that holds true for a movie. You can start and stop a movie if you’ve rented it at home, but that’s not how the director means you to view it and I think we all understand that. No one can mistake the person on screen for anything other than who she is: you might not buy Scarlett Johansson as an ambitious journalism student, but you can’t argue that she’s not Scarlett Johansson. The director can force your perspective in one direction with the camera; he can direct your mood with lighting and soundtrack. The movie dictates your experience of it, not the other way around.

(Neither of these work as absolutes. The book’s author, obviously, has some say in whether you think the protagonist is a blonde or a redhead. A bad director can not only fail to steer the audience; he can actually repel their efforts to engage. Still, we approach the media in these specific ways, and they work for us)

So: a book does one thing, a movie does another. Isn’t a project to turn one into the other innately weird? If I told you I wanted to adapt the “Mona Lisa” as a dance recital, where could I expect to exhibit it – other than maybe an art school mid-term recital, where such experiments thrive? We think that books and movies can naturally flow into each other because they both involve narratives. But paintings and sculptures both involve visual imagery. Dance and architecture both involve the choreography of light and space. I’m turning “Swan Lake” into an office building atrium; you’re invited to the opening.

When a book-to-movie adaptation works – The Godfather, Gone with the Wind, Jurassic Park, A Clockwork Orange, The Shawshank Redemption, Trainspotting – 99.9996% of the time it comes from one reason: nobody’s read the book. Nobody in the theater audience has a preconceived notion of what the world should look like. In the era of mass culture, I don’t have a hard time believing this. I don’t even really have a problem with it. Sure, functional adult illiteracy makes almost everything it touches worse – but not movies. A book does one thing; a movie another.

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