Thursday, June 11, 2015

Books versus TV/Movies

Some time ago now, during a riot in London, it was reported that in one area every shop had been picked clean by rioters except—the bookstore. That one had been left untouched. I can’t imagine the same to be true of the video store. 

It’s a familiar refrain and sometimes even I get tired of hearing it.  But it does often seem that our society’s values are a little skewed.  Sports often appear to be valued over education, infotainment over actual news, and—yes—movies and TV over books and literacy.  I generally find that when I’m reaching for an example to illustrate some important point about writing, that a reference to a “movie” often works best. The books I want to use as illustrations will work only for a subset of people.  The movie will work for nearly everyone. In fact, I sometimes feel as if I watch most TV and movies just so I’ll have something to talk about with other people and to use as examples in my classes.

Along a similar vein, I’ve had dozens of folks over the years find out that I’m a writer and immediately recommend that I 1) write for the movies, 2) read screenplays as a way to improve my writing,  3) read a book about screen writing, or 4) all of the above.  This is in spite of the fact that I, 1) don’t really find movies very interesting, 2) personally find screenplays the most boring thing to read outside of technical manuals, 3) don’t ever want my written prose to sound like it came from a movie, and 4) it just plain irritates me.

Now, I have nothing against folks who like movies. I like plenty of them myself. I also think that writers can learn something from studying every form of writing, including screenwriting, and there are movies that contain great dialogue, although I generally find them strongest at the “one liner” verbalizations.  But what irritates me about people making the “movie” suggestions to me is that these folks seem clearly to value movies more than books.  It almost seems they are saying, “well yes, write your little novels until you develop the professional skills to write for the important markets, TV and the movies.”  Frankly, most TV and movie writing isn’t very good, and that which is good generally comes originally from books, as with the Harry Potter movies and Game of Thrones.

I’ll admit that I probably sometimes overstate the case against movies, but that’s because hardly anyone else seems to question the “movies are just worth more than books” vibe that we live with in our society. I question it.  If my TV/video system was gone when I woke up tomorrow, my life would go on almost exactly as it did before.  When Lana is not home, our TV is off 99% of the time. But if I woke up and all my books were gone, I’d be devastated and would probably head for the nearest bookstore immediately to start replenishing my shelves. 

For me, and for always, books are where it's at.



pattinase (abbott) said...

I love movies-I just have to go to see one every week. But it functions for me in a very different way than a book. It's entertainment, something to do. Whereas a book takes over my brain and sometimes my heart. I can be very tired and still watch a movie. But to read effectively, I must feel alert.

BernardL said...

I agree with every single point you made. I wrote screenplays only to convert my novels if ever asked. The fact Hollywood remakes everything over and over reiterates your point on the writing. I have been so captivated by a book that I read it cover to cover, and started over again. The Stand comes to mind. I have never watched a movie, and immediately replayed it. :)

Anonymous said...

Books require readers' active involvement and imagination; films demand that the viewers passively abandon imagination and subordinate their creative POV to the film-makers' POV.

That is a simple-minded over-simplification.

However, my experience in literature classrooms convinces me that most students in the last two decades have allowed their imaginations to atrophy because these students have surrendered that critical and creative capacity to media-makers; books (and even short stories) too often bore and bother students -- all those words require too much attention and thought -- but media allows the short-attention span (shallow-thinking) students to dash madly from one thing to another without investing themselves in that horrible expenditure of time: creative and critical thinking.

Perhaps I am being too cynical. Hmmmm.

Charles Gramlich said...

Patti, that is true about watching movies. I can watch when I'm tired and that's often when I do most of it.

Bernard, I'm also curious about how books work and produce their effects so I study that. I've never really cared how movies were made.

R.T., I think that is definitely an element. It's why when certain movies come out it takes over the imaginations of some folks. Like Avatar did. It doesn't enhance but subsumes their imaginations.

Angie said...

I agree about some great dialogue, and characterization through dialogue. Movie:Tony Stark and TV:Rodney McKay are wonderful, memorable characters largely because of their dialogue, their speech patterns.

There are also a lot of good examples in TV/movies for general structure too, though, and how a story is put together. When explaining something to newer writers, using an example from a movie is often effective not only because the chances that everyone is familiar with it are much higher (which is certainly true), but also because movies are stripped down. We think of them as equivalent to novels, but they're actually more like novelettes, or long short stories. There's not as much there there, but the basic structure of a story still holds, so it's easier to examine the simpler structure to look for general principles.


sage said...

I had not heard that about the London riots, but I can't imagine rioters being bookworms! I do like some movies, but not much TV.

Cloudia said...

and that's what makes the world go round!

ALOHA from Honolulu,

the walking man said...

Given the age and condition of them doing the rioting in 2011 I would say they are much like the undereducated in this country, young (11yrs-24yrs) fully digitized and limited attention span for something that doesn't move as fast as a video game.

I have done a fair share of reading in my life in many genres, by many authors and though I find I like books, very much! Slowly failing eyesight in my good eye tires the orb out. I can't sit for hours on end and read anymore so rather than just sit on the porch with the shotgun across my knees, this past year or so I have watched dozens x dozens of movies. I can spend a couple of hours watching something analyze the script through the dialogue and setting and compare it to a book I have read and still be entertained (or at least kill some time). Then just close my eyes and rest them.

One movie in particular reminded me of your style of Western Charles. The Homesman, watch it and maybe you'll see the connection too. All in all there is nothing I can do about my eyesight but I am satisfied about the number and quality of books I have read, from the first to the last. The Babe Ruth Story -Anna Karenina.

Unknown said...

It makes me sort of happy that thugs prefer to not steal books. I guess if rioting were a disease, we would already have a cure. A book a day keeps the rioters at bay.

I love putting my own spin on characters and I cannot do that with movies. I am given a whole cast of someone else's imagination. So the most exciting thing I have to look forward to, is how much butter to put on my popcorn. When I read, the author allows me to hear the accents I want, see the images I want, and feel the emotions that I want.

Angie said...

Walking Man -- that's actually a great advantage of e-books. My husband has been legally blind since birth, and eye surgery a few years ago degraded his sight a bit farther. He hardly ever reads paper books anymore; he loves his e-reader, which lets him enlarge the font so it's comfortable for him to read. You might give it a try.


Charles Gramlich said...

Angie, I think the simpler or shorter structure is because so much can be easily told visually. No character descriptions are needed at all. No scene setting. That takes so much out of what would have to be there in a book.

Sage, yeah, not much TV fo rme either.

Cloudia, indeed.

Mark, I'll have to give the homesman I try. I did see previews for it that looked pretty good. I can't read for as long hours anymore either as I used to.

Carole, yes indeed. Books are far more "interactive." By the way, I have clicked on your link bu tit looks like you are on Google plus and I'm not on that site so it never lets me comment.

Angie 2 :) that's one thing I like about my kindle as well.

Angie said...

Charles -- sure, a pan shot can make up for a thousand words of description. But thinking back to books that've been made into movies, notice that they also cut out major characters and subplots and scenes. Movies just aren't novel length, story-wise.


Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Charles, I enjoy watching movies and find them merely entertaining though I don't learn as much from movies as I do from reading books, especially historical fiction and nonfiction. Even the best of true-life or historical movies have their limitations, but not so with books.

Randy Johnson said...

We grew up in a time when access to TV was just a few channels. No internet, no cell phones, no PCs. Books were our prime source of information and entertainment.

Just to easy for the young to avoid books these days for much more handy methods.

That said, I know folks from my generation who have uttered that phrase " I haven't read a book since school." more's the pity.

Charles Gramlich said...

Angie, that's true.

Prashant, absolutely.

Randy, I have heard some folks from our generation say that. I've always felt a surge of pity for them.

Oscar Case said...

We pay for the 400 or 600 channels of TV every month, but watch maybe five or six only. When I was single I never watched TV, except when I was "forced" to by social circumstances, but I have always been a reader of all kinds of books except the technical and non-understandable and of course I prefer books.

G. B. Miller said...


You. Don't. Write. Screenplays?

Oh. My. God!

On the bright side, you still got a healthy functioning brain, which is way more than what most movie studios have collectively in upper-management.

However, have no fear. There is at least one young person who still finds values in books. The other day, she had me reserve a book at the library for her.

Charles Gramlich said...

Oscar, For most of my adult life I've watched 2 to 3 hours of TV a week, mostly at times when I'm eating. If it were gone, I wouldn't miss it.

G. B., I'm glad to hear some of our youth still has the reading desire.

Riot Kitty said...

So...those of us who are readers are more polite? ;)

Charles Gramlich said...

Riot Kitty, I don't know about that.

jodi said...

Charles-Books. Hands down. Always!