Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Books: Still Better Than Movies (Also: Chocolate-Covered Almonds Evil; Nougatine Still More Evil)

The dominant storytelling mode of our era, film, is not one to which you graduate only after you've read a lot of books. You will watch movies, for certain; you will go to musicals, if you have the money; but you may or may not read "The Vicar of Wakefield" or, say, "Little Men." And something huge has been lost--a sense of childhood as a time to read books with more in them than can fit into any adaptation.
--Mary Jo Salter, in a NYT Book Review review of a Louisa May Alcott collection, 5/15/05

I hadn't thought of it this way before, but I realize that Salter is exactly right, and it saddens me, too. As I've almost certainly mentioned here before, Joan Didion said that "we tell ourselves stories in order to live," and that has always seemed to me to be true. That is, we construct narratives to make sense out of, and give order to, the things happening around, to, with, inside, ourselves; the very nature of language is exactly that. It's one of the things about Wittgenstein's work I found so compelling, the notion that language and practice are deeply intertwined, a package deal, such that one completely without the other really has no meaning. Wittgenstein also noted that the complexity of one's life or experience and of one's language were directly correlated--we can't imagine how one could understand oneself as having a deeply complex life without a similarly complex language for describing that complexity, and the reverse is true as well, though, of course, the fractalization of life makes it possible for a life that looks simple to one person be very complex to the liver of that life. (Complex language would nevertheless be necessary to communicate that complexity, however, which has its own implications.)

As I'm sure is obvious from my musings here, I read many books before I saw many movies; the Kid's experience is pretty much exactly the opposite, in part because he's been seeing lots of movies since he was five or so--i.e., for three years--and in part because there's a whole world of television and video directed at him that wasn't available when I was his age. Captain Kangaroo and Pixanne and Gene London (the latter two being local) being about it (I'm too old to have watched "Sesame Street"). Plus, my mother limited our television viewing. Thus, many of my strongest memories of storytelling are either stories I made up myself (I liked to make up stories while I put jigsaw puzzles together), "stories" my sister and I invented and peopled with Barbie dolls (we used the dolls as three-dimensional characters, basically), and many books from the library. I found "young adult" fiction insipid (that's another whole blog post, really), but I discovered the adult fiction shelves before I got to high school and I went to the library with my dad frequently. And the thing about going to a library is that you can browse the shelves and find all kinds of stuff buried there--read a couple of pages of this, or that, or wander around an aisle or two away, whatever, in ways that I don't think the internet approaches. (Yes, even a websurfer such as myself thinks libraries are superior in an assortment of ways.)

The point is, I learned about storytelling, about narratives and points of view and the like, from reading, and I think Sander is right when she says more fits into books than into any adaptation into another medium. Add to that that much (but my no means all) of the movies and TV shows out there have almost no complexity or depth to them, and the contrast is even stronger. If you can't figure out the plot and moral of most media directed at kids within five minutes, you're not paying attention, and the characters are rarely two-, much less three-dimensional--and, I'd argue, that's true of much of the visual media directed at adults, as well.

I went to see "The Constant Gardener" last night with S, and my take on the movie was completely structured by my having read (and very much liked) the book. I still liked the movie a lot--I thought it did a really good job with the layered narrative that LeCarre provided, and I thought the acting was quite good. I missed some of the minor characters who were given only a brief time on screen (as is always the case with adaptations), but, as noted, the story held up well without them. But still. As I tried to explain to the Kid, when he wanted to know why I liked to read books (the Lord of the Rings trilogy, to be precise) when movies were available, I like the subtleties of narrative and character that just cannot be compressed into a couple of hours--even the 12 or so hours that the trilogy now occupies on screen. And, really, there isn't all that much depth to the characters in the trilogy, so it's a different lack there. Basically, a commitment to read a book is a much longer, and, in some ways, deeper and more intimate commitment than a commitment to watch a movie. But I still do like movies, mind you.

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