Thursday, March 22, 2012

Lost In Translation

We've all heard the refrain, The movie was ok, but I liked the book better.  Why is that?  Why do you almost never hear the reverse claiming that the movie, a visual medium, was more enthralling than words on a page.

To me, there are several factors at work.  The first is that in books, we have to use our own imagination.  We aren't blindly following some Hollywood director's vision of what should be, but rather forming our own version.  There's usually a reason the best books are those in which someone says, "I can totally see this as a movie!"  Sure, not all the time, but the visualization that we come up with is better suited to our individual tastes.  Plus, it helps us picture ourselves in the show, possibly as the main character, possibly as merely an observer, but we feel that much closer to the action.

Second, we usually read the book before we see the movie.  Think about it - the most rabid fans of Lord of the Rings, Twilight, The Hunger Games, etc, are the ones who devoured the books and then demanded more.  Those are the folks who camp out in front of movie theaters and spend endless hours talking about who should play the lead. And then when it finally comes out, the film seems a bit...anticlimactic.  I think this is due, again, to our own imaginations.  We've already seen the film in our minds and know just how it should play out, so when our preconceived notions hit the reality of what's on the screen, it rarely, if ever, matches up.  It's kind of like that birthday party you looked forward to as a kid - the anticipation was always greater than the end result seemed to justify.

Third, Hollywood simply can't do justice to most books in the 2 hours they have to tell the story.  Key elements that we all knew from the novel had to be cut, or not filmed altogether, so they could meet budgetary and time constraints.  The Harry Potter films are a perfect example of this.  The first three books could be fit(just barely) into the allotted time, and even then they a.) were a bit long, and b.) still left out a few fun book things.  I would've liked to see the garden de-gnoming that Harry and the Weasleys had to do at the Burrow, but it never made it into the film.  And by the time Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire rolled around, the books were just too large to get in the given time.  The director recognized this for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and split it into two movies, but this could have easily been done for any of the previous three.

Worse sometimes is that Hollywood will change things that then make no sense given the context of the novel.  The Shining by Stanley Kubrick made Jack Torrance the focus of the Overlook's desire, but in the book, the only reason the hotel drove Jack insane was so that he'd kill Danny, thus allowing the hotel to absorb Danny's psychic abilities.  The Running Man by Paul Michael Glaser made it so that Richards was loose in a mostly contained disaster area and getting the girl instead of having the entire world at his fingertips and killing Killian in the end by crashing a plane into him, thereby ruining the hopeless elements of the story.  I think this kind of license is what infuriates most people, because it's not even close to the story they thought they'd be getting.

For these reasons, books, at least in some form, will never die. We can spin a yarn more easily and with greater focus on the story than we can through film.  Yes, we are visual creatures, but only to the extent our imaginations are invoked. When our imagination is insulted, as a lot of movies tend to do, we grow jaded.

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