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November 12th, 2007
04:42 am
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Books vs. films
A peaceful Saturday filled with roleplaying; and a lazy Sunday filled with ... well, basically, laying in bed until sunset. Nice to have a down day once in a while.

I had intended to do a fair amount of fiction writing. Didn't get around to any of it. But I did respond to everyone who asked for an inner-animal guess in my previous thread, which is a good feeling; and I read through the novel The Prestige, on which last year's movie was based.

It was a good reminder of why movies will never be able to fully replace books.

Prestige: The Movie and Prestige: The Book diverge fairly radically from each other. I didn't understand why until I was more than halfway through. Because Prestige: The Book is in itself two separate stories. The actions of the two magicians are told twice, and exactly twice -- once from the point of view of each rival.

It's a book that you cannot read in a linear fashion. Once you reach the second half, you have to read it in parallel -- constantly flipping back and forth to contrast the two retellings of the same scene. You begin to notice that even the dialogue differs when the two characters interacted directly; and it's strongly hinted that, through editing or omission, not one but both of the characters are unreliable narrators, twisting the truth to paint themselves in a better light.

There is no objective or omniscient view of the characters' conflict. You only have their words against each other; and it's that tension that gives the book its impact.

I don't think you can do that in a movie.

There's something about a visual image that forces a certain omniscience. The camera is itself a character in the scene; it observes impartially, it records accurately. To do otherwise -- to have what's on screen be an inaccurate representation of the film's events -- would break cinematic expectation so badly that no major studio would touch such a film with an eleven-foot pole.

The counterexamples are probably few enough to be listed by name; and the only one that comes immediately to mind is Hero, in which certain scenes are later revealed in a plot-important way to be complete fabrications of their narrator. But to have a clearly demarcated wavy-lined flashback be overturned is one thing; to have the central events of the film later called into question is a recipe for audience confusion.*

(Edited to add: "Rashomon" and "The Usual Suspects" have also been cited in multiple comments. It's interesting to note that, so far, every one of these movies is about character(s) telling a story. That extra layer of abstraction is necessary to hew away the instinctive rules of cinema.)

The implicit rules are different in a novel. There is no camera to provide a single, omniscient vision of the plot; there is only a narrator (omniscient or internal) retelling it. There is more freedom to play meta-games.

There's an extra investment to taking stories from the written word, but there's also a richer payoff.

--
* This isn't to say the dramatic reveal can't be done well; cf. The Sixth Sense. But that's not seen events being redefined; that's context being added to chilling effect.

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From:dancinglights
Date:November 12th, 2007 01:29 pm (UTC)
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I'd never heard of the book before, but you've totally just sold me on it. Yay xmas plane trip reading list!
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From:firestrike
Date:November 12th, 2007 04:16 pm (UTC)
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There are those films that twist at the end to cast doubt on what you've seen as reality. (Who was Keyser Soze?) But very few films break the accurate visual record rule without some form of appropriate warning (hallucination, crazy narrative character, etc.).
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From:necama
Date:November 12th, 2007 04:55 pm (UTC)
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It has been done in movies, by Kurosawa back in the 50s when he made Rashomon. This movie compares the testimonies of four characters about a rape and murder.

And another more modern example is The Usual Suspects, where the narrator deliberately mis-tells the story.
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From:baxil
Date:November 12th, 2007 05:14 pm (UTC)
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Haven't seen either, but will probably now have to.
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From:kadyg
Date:November 13th, 2007 02:06 am (UTC)
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The Usual Suspects is currently sitting on the DVD rack in the living room, as it's a favorite of mine. Rashomon is somewhere on my Netflix que, I think. If not, I can add it and bump it to the top if you're interested.

(Can we watch Usual Suspects together? I haven"t seen it in a bit.)
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From:krinndnz
Date:November 13th, 2007 07:15 am (UTC)
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I request permission to be there in spirit, because Usual Suspects is a pretty great movie.
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From:baxil
Date:November 13th, 2007 08:51 am (UTC)
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Oh, what the heck -- come visit! We live in the same state; you can't possibly be more than a 16-hour drive away ...
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From:necama
Date:November 13th, 2007 06:37 pm (UTC)
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I think we live as far as possible away from you while still being in CA, and the drive from our place is no more than 10 hours. ;-)
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From:baxil
Date:November 14th, 2007 06:41 am (UTC)
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Well, yes, but if the only given piece of information was that both parties lived in California, there would exist the possibility that they lived at opposite vertical ends of the state. ;-)
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From:kevynjacobs
Date:November 14th, 2007 02:38 pm (UTC)
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YAY! I *knew* you liked the movie; I seem to remember you talking about it once.

Definitely watch Rashomon together, because the conversation afterwards will be interesting.
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From:childe_dirk
Date:November 12th, 2007 04:56 pm (UTC)
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I picked up the novel after seeing the movie and greatly enjoyed both for different reasons. It would have been difficult to pull off the novels style in the movie but it would have been one heck of a try.

As far as films fabricating the truth, don't forget "The Usual Suspects."
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From:hafoc
Date:November 12th, 2007 05:37 pm (UTC)
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In movies, there are RULES. I remember being furious (for about ten minutes) when I found out that the statement at the beginning of _Fargo,_ that it was based on real events, was as much a fabrication as the rest of the film. You just don't do that. But when the whole story is manifest fiction, why not?
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From:kevynjacobs
Date:November 12th, 2007 07:04 pm (UTC)

Films with Unreliable Narrators

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I haven't seen or read The Prestige, but it sounds to me like the filmmakers were being lazy in not tackling the "unreliable narrator" genre, because it emphatically can be done in film, if you're careful about it. When you pull it off successfully, it's very powerful.

As some commenters mentioned above, the granddaddy of the unreliable narrator genre in film is the magnificent 1950 Japanese film by Kurosawa, Rashomon, where the entire film is told in flashbacks by multiple characters -- each having a different perspective. The film was so influential that in the field of psychology, the subjective differences in perspectives has been called "The Rashomon Effect." Rashomon is a fantastic movie, and I can't recommend it to you and Kady highly enough. Watch it together sometime, and see how your perceptions differ.

As was also mentioned by someone above, the 1995 film The Usual Suspects also pulls this technique off brilliantly, and it's also well worth a watching (I'd be surprised if Kady hasn't seen this one.)

And, because I am a geek, I have to mention that this genre was even pulled off successfully in Star Trek: The Next Generation, in a third season episode titled A Matter of Perspective, where Riker is accused of causing the destruction of a space station, and the death of a scientist onboard. In the episode, the Rashomon Effect is played out as different characters recount their perception of events on the holodeck, in substantially different recreations each time. Fascinating stuff.

So, sorry for the long reply, but I know that unreliable narrators can be done well in the visual medium. Again, it sounds like the filmmakers of The Prestige were dumbing it down, or being lazy.

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From:baxil
Date:November 12th, 2007 10:51 pm (UTC)

Re: Films with Unreliable Narrators

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Glad you mentioned Star Trek, actually, because the holodeck is a really powerful narrative tool for exactly this sort of thing, and for all the right reasons.

It's a visual storytelling medium. It's a movie within a movie. The reality of the holodeck is already called into question, because it's a simulation controlled by its actors. So it doesn't suffer the same limitations as a movie we sit in a theater for -- which is only effective to the point that it maintains pretensions of its own reality.
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From:frameacloud
Date:November 12th, 2007 09:28 pm (UTC)
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Oddly enough, this was something that I was thinking about this morning, about how movies and books differ in what they can do. I'm of the opinion that there are some books that cannot and should not be made into movies.

One particular phenomenon doesn't translate well into film. Novels where a great deal of the action is psychic and abstract, or otherwise something inward and mental... since it's not something you can see, and doesn't translate well into visuals, a movie can't do it visually. The book accomplished it through constant narration, which wouldn't come off so well in a movie; it would end up feeling more like an audio-book if they treated it faithfully. Usually what happens is that a very detailed scene of this kind in a book translates into a scene in a movie that just has you looking at an actor's face, mugging in a desperate attempt to express a psychic battle or something.

Dragonsbane, for example, wouldn't work so well as a movie. The psychic battles and mental transfigurations in particular would fail to carry over, since they're abstract clashes of ideas and emotions. Maybe you could express the inward stuff with flashy special effects, but then it would just look like people throwing smoke and lightning around, the deeper significance lost. The poetry with which Morkeleb is described might never carry over as clearly in an actual picture of him, moving or otherwise, much as I would like to see one that did.

In movies, you can see people's faces, but you can't get inside their heads. I've seen some art films that manage it, such as Brother from Another Planet and The Piano, but being invited right inside the head of a character seems to be more typical of books.
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From:baxil
Date:November 12th, 2007 10:46 pm (UTC)
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Completely off-topic, but is your icon based on that dragon illustration I pulled out of a 1903 dictionary once upon a time?
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From:frameacloud
Date:November 17th, 2007 03:45 pm (UTC)
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I wouldn't know, since kategod drew it. I've always liked it since it looks so nice as a transparent .GIF icon. Sort of frilly on the edges. Dragons usually look more or less like this in heraldry, don't they? (Minus the sensory antennae and other personal affectations, and the extra-fancy knot-work tail.) I haven't seen the specific 1903 dictionary illustration.
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From:baxil
Date:November 19th, 2007 03:50 am (UTC)
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> Dragons usually look more or less like this in heraldry, don't they?

That's probably the base of it. The dictionary illustration was rather similar, but it's probably not the only one out there.

I can't find the original with my site temporarily down, but here's a picture from archive.org -- I used the illustration to watermark my old site.
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From:joysweeper
Date:November 13th, 2007 02:47 pm (UTC)
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Yeah...

On a rather less cerebral note, superhero comic books don't translate directly onto the screen, big or small, animated, CGI, or live-action. Oh, there'll be the fighting, the "Dude I have cool powers", there might be a close-enough version of the costume that doesn't look pathetic, there might even be some of the themes(power and responsibility, working together = good, etc).

But it's pretty much impossible to put quite as much dialogue per page. One panel with several sentences in a speech bubble as the hero throws a punch. That's hard to do anywhere else.

Aaaand I forgot what else I was going to say. I think it was supposed to be some kind of statement on the medium, but... yeah. *shakes head*
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From:arethinn
Date:November 14th, 2007 02:09 am (UTC)
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I love your icon.
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From:baxil
Date:November 14th, 2007 06:43 am (UTC)
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Credit to mightywombat; original somewhere at http://mightywombat.com/ . :)
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