Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Movies Versus Books

I know I blog a lot about movies and television shows.  I think it works better than discussing books since most people have seen the movies I’ve seen, and a lot less have read the books that I have read.  And while I enjoy story-telling in any media, I have to say, I do prefer books.

Yeah the chairs look comfortable, but......

Movies and TV have an advantage.  They can set the scene immediately.  What takes a page or two in a novel takes two seconds on film.   Watching a movie is easy and takes considerably less brain cells than reading  (there is nothing like watching TV and zoning out).  Although there are definitely some movies that are complex and require some serious concentration to follow like Inception and Memento (two movies that I think are awesome).  Even then, just presenting the visuals does a lot of the work for the audience.  Because of this, everyone (or nearly everyone) watches movies or TV, but not everyone reads books.


...wouldn't you prefer this.
But books offer something that movies and TV can’t.  You may have to piece the images together from a string of words, but you can also delve deeper into the POV characters.  A good book draws you in and lets you feel what the characters feel and experience what they experience, not just see it.  And to me that is the power of books that you just can’t get from watching a movie.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that movies can’t be emotional or moving.  Many movies have brought me to tears, but it isn’t the same way that books move me.  Books can (not all do) go deeper into the thoughts of the characters.  Make me relate more to them, understand them better and feel more for them.  That is something that can’t be translated to film (although it has been tried through cheesy voice over narration--like in the Twilight movie).

Example-Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows

We have all seen our beloved books turned into movies and even when it is done really, really well, there is something lost in the translation.  Rarely are the movies as good as the books, and even rarer are they better.

Spoilers:  If you haven’t read or seen Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows yet, do not read on.

I thought the movie Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was well-done, but it could not compare to the emotion in the book.  Especially in the scene when Harry realizes that he has to die, and he walks willingly towards his death.  When I read this scene in the book, I was sobbing.  I had to stop every few pages and wipe my eyes because the tears were so thick the words were all blurry.  I had spent seven books with Harry, and I loved him.  I felt for him and empathized with him, and seeing and feeling him accept his death was emotionally draining.  Of course the movie didn’t have as big of an impact on me.  Sure there were tears, it’s not really that hard to make me cry, but nothing like it was when I read this scene in the book.  I did read the book first, but I still don’t think the movie had the emotional impact that the book did.

To further illustrate my point, here is a brief excerpt from Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows (the beginning of chapter thirty-four right after Harry realizes that he has to die in order to kill Voldemort).

“Finally, the truth.  Lying with his face pressed into the dusty carpet of the office where he had once thought he was learning the secrets of victory, Harry understood at last that he was not supposed to survive.  His job was to walk calmly into Death’s welcoming arms.  Along the way, he was to dispose of Voldemort’s remaining links to life, so that when at last he flung himself across Voldemort’s path, and did not raise a wand to defend himself, the end would be clean, and the job that ought to have been done in Godric’s Hollow would be finished:  Neither would live, neither could survive.

He felt his heart pounding fiercely in his chest.  How strange that in his dread of death, it pumped all the harder, valiantly keeping him alive.  But it would have to stop, and soon.  Its beats were numbered.  How many would there be time for, as he rose and walked through the castle for the last time, out into the grounds and into the forest?”

Honestly, how do you capture this in a movie?  Actors can show emotion through body language and facial expressions, but the thoughts going through the character’s mind cannot be captured, and that is what pulls the reader in deeper so that we can really understand what the character is thinking and feeling.   Only books can do this.

Show don't Tell

I think that this is the real meaning of show don’t tell, to delve deeply into the thoughts and feelings of the POV character that the reader is almost experiencing them as well.  It’s not about adding more details, but the right details, the ones that the POV character would notice and described reflecting the character’s personality and mood. 

Reading (and writing) an entire book with this deep of a POV would be exhausting (not to mention the pacing would be so slow), and that is why there are times when telling is okay, when it is best to pull back from the POV and/or summarize.  But those big moments like when the hero is knowingly facing certain death but going on anyway without hesitation, you need to delve deeper and make the reader feel it too.

I know this isn’t easy.  I struggle to keep going deeper and deeper at those big moments.  It is easy to describe what a character is doing, but it is much harder to describe exactly what a character is thinking.  And in trying to achieve those moments of deep penetration I can’t help think of the quote.  “Writing is easy; you just open up a vein and bleed.”

So tell me what do you think are the differences between movies and books?



  1. I always agree with you. Books are more powerful. I will waste a few hours of my life on a lame movie, but don't want to with a lame book. Books get more inside of my head then movies usually do. I think it is a little bit, because I stop reading for a while but still thinking about the book and where it is going to go.

    I never read any Harry Potter books and I liked the movies, but through all the movies except the first two. I couldn't keep track of charactors or remember plot points. I spent a lot of time wondering why they weren't at school how the school principal died. Finally I was wondering who is Nevel, but then remember that he was the fat kids in the first book. I probably should read the books.

    1. Books get into my head too. Every book I read tends to stay with my for at least a few days, sometimes longer if it was really amazing.

      You should read the Harry Potter books. I think you'll enjoy them. Your comment here makes me wonder if the movies really were done well. I could follow them, but then I read the books. Maybe the movies cut out too much if they are hard to follow for someone who didn't read the books.

  2. This.

    "I think that this is the real meaning of show don’t tell, to delve deeply into the thoughts and feelings of the POV character that reader is almost experiencing them as well. It’s not about adding more details, but the right details, the ones that the POV character would notice and described reflecting who the character’s personality and mood."

    This is one of the most important things to me that sets a great book apart from a good one, imho.

    1. I agree, and thanks for quoting me so I could see a few grammar mistakes. I fixed them. :)

      Must do a better job proofreading next time.

  3. I saw a movie once that giving the audience thoughts of characters in a ventriloquist sort of way and it failed completely. I did not expect such a naked way of revealing thoughts while the actor on screen simply stared in the distance. Movies derive from drama and drama is not the same as books where you can have pages of character's monologue. Yes, you do have monologues in plays but not without body language and emotions audible through the character's voice. Drama is never without emotion while you have to piece together yourself in books.

    By the way, that movie was "Dune" from 1984.

    As for powerful endings, the end of the last Sherlock Holmes movie comes to mind. Yes, it was Doyle's idea that the only way for Holmes to defeat Moriarty was to take out both of them but the movie did produce this in a very emotive way. Doyle's was simply: "Oh, look, he left a note."

    Another similar ending comes to mind though it sadly misses the possibility of an emotional punch. This is from the ending of the Last Airbender series (cartoon, of course; pretend the movie never happened). When Katara realizes she can't defeat Azula, she envelopes both of them in water and freezes it. The cartoon being made for younger audience, Katara floats through the frozen water while Azula remains imprisoned, giving Katara time to bind her foe in chains. It would be something else entirely if Katara would hold that water in place until both of them drowned, knowing the only way to defeat Azula is to sacrifice herself. That would bring me to tears. Sadly, in the end, everyone of the "Good Team" lives. Yes, I know it sounds weird but I'm not a YA anymore. I want catharsis, damn it! ;)

    “Writing is easy; you just open up a vein and bleed.”
    You might find yourself quoted on that, madame.

    1. I remember that Dune movie, and I agree, cheesy voice over narration rarely works in movies. There are some exceptions. I liked it in Stand by Me, but usually it falls flat.

      I love the cartoon series Avatar, the Last Airbender (I'm with you on pretending that movie never happened). No characters good or bad died in that series. It started pretty dark with the genocide of the airbender race, but after that, I don't remember anyone dying. The series was awesome, but I would have enjoyed the story more if it wasn't written for a younger audience, with higher stakes and tougher choices.

      I didn't come up with that quote about writing and bleeding. I tried to find out who originally said it, but I think it was paraphrased from Red Smith (sports writer). So feel free to use the quote just don't give me credit for it. :)

    2. Actually, a few people did die in that cartoon. The general who invades the Northern Water Tribe is sucked under water and drowned. Kitara's mother dies in flashback. And Jet dies, though he does so off screen. Death is also frequently mentioned, with characters such as Uncle Iroh's son. One episode shows Avatar Roku being left to die by Fire Lord Sozen, though that death is mitigated by the next scene, which shows Aang being born.

    3. Thanks Alan. I forgot about the general and Jet. I wasn't counting the characters who died before the story started although you are right that their deaths did have a strong impact on the story.

  4. I'm a little late to this commenting party, but I think that television shows (like The Last Airbender) can come closer to the power of books than movies ever can, because they rely on character growth at a snail's pace. This is another way of achieving the bond we feel with characters in books. However, I can get very obsessed with television shows, but usually after its over, I forget most of the characters. Only a few stay with me. Not so with book characters.

    1. I agree with what you said about television shows. They do have a lot more time to build characters and relationships. I get really obsessed with TV shows too (as you all know). :)

      Actually the series The Last Airbender has stayed with me like books do. I think the character arc of Prince Zuko may be the best character arc ever.

  5. My family just watched Brave, and I loved it, but I left the theater thinking, "I bet that would have made a better book." Movies have the advantage over books at visual clues, and setting. Books have the advantage of being....awesome.

    I think it depends on the story. Some stories are better suited for a visual medium, and other stories are better suited for an emotional cerebral medium.

    But books are just better.


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