Everyone has a tiny theatre in their mind. It is in this cinema mens that we enact our own private life plays, rehearsing acts and lines in an effort to perfect our performances in the broader world we live in. This mental theatre is also where most imaginative people first breathe life into their creative pursuits. Statues and paintings first take brilliant form, symphonies and concertos soar inside before notes are ever put to sheet music and authors play out chapters in their imagination long before coherent sentences and paragraphs ever form on paper. It’s where we construct our objects of admiration and attraction, where we craft villainy and heroism and build the world our hearts can pour themselves into.
In a perfect world for an author, their books work like a screenplay for the mind. If the characters are developed properly, the settings immaculately detailed and the plot exquisitely described, the reader should stop seeing words and start seeing worlds. It is the perfect expression of a writer’s craft when a book opens up vistas for the reader in their minds: Frodo fleeing the Nazgul, Harry catching the Golden Snitch, Dexter taunting his victims, Muad’Dib riding his first sandworm. We see these things and -hopefully- feel them as well, the terror, the exhilaration, the joy of the tale. For the reader, there can be no greater thrill and for the writer, no greater compliment.
So, what happens when words are no longer the medium for the expression of this imagery and instead the images are put on screen, carefully reproduced -or crudely ripped- from the page? What happens when books are turned into movies, when the cinema of the mind because the movie of the week? This has been a conversation and a debate I’ve had in my mind -and with many others outside my mind- several times in my lifetime and it’s an argument I’ve never found an easy answer for. Given that our world is rapidly -and woefully- moving away from the written word as a primary means of communication and movies (and television) have become the medium of choice, how would a would-be writer look at that world and try to find some place within it?
The translation of book to screen is -at best- an uneven endeavor. In some cases, it can be brilliant, nearly the ultimate expression of a writer’s vision. The Lord of the Rings trilogy came very, very close to being a perfect adaptation of the books; even in the areas where they diverge from the written word, such as the explicit depiction of Aragon and Arwen’s romance, something that was not clearly described in the Lord of the Ring novels proper. Even with the exclusion of Tom Bombadill and the epilogue of Saruman the White and his depredations of the Shire, the movies are an homage to the books.
On the flip side of this would be the Harry Potter movies. Whereas many people have taken exception to the cast, I personally rather enjoyed them. Beyond the problems of having movies that take years to make apiece reconciling with pre-teen actors who will obviously be too old for their parts, none of the cast was a disappointment. Some -like Alan Rickman, Richard Harris and Maggie Smith- were perfect representations of Snape, Dumbledore and McGonagall. No, my problem is the one all deeply intricate books face when converted to the screen: something always gets left out.
Unlike with LotR, where the missing bits were not essential to the story, the Harry Potter books have begun to increasingly omit often essential components of the plot. For instance, in Half-Blood Prince, we have two diluted Pensieve scenes detailing the early life of Voldemort and his introduction to the concept of Horcruxes, but none of the other flashbacks into his past which build into the very premise of Harry, Ron and Hermione’s quest for the Horcruxes and where to find them in Deathly Hallows. Throughout the movies, other such important scenes are missing so that the sum of the tale is far, far less than the whole. This is sad since Rowling’s Harry Potter is a genre-defining series and the books could have been done far greater justice if just given a different medium than a movie to be expressed in.
Another book (or series of books) that both failed and succeeded in this same regard is Frank Herbert’s Dune. The movie of Dune is a interesting interpretation by David Lynch and has some truly impressive moments, but diverges so far from the source material as to almost be a different story. As with the Harry Potter movies, it also omits much of the material, which -given the intense political and social details Herbert puts into his stories- is a travesty. Fast-forward two decades and we have the incredibly faithful and entertaining Dune mini-series on Sci-Fi. While lacking the verve and star recognition of Lynch’s movie, it is tenfold more true to the story and thus far superior.
Then we have an oddity amongst these in the form of the Showtime Originals series of Dexter, based loosely on the Dexter series by writer Jeff Lindsay. It’s hard to compare Dexter the show versus Dexter the book. In my mind, the television show is a more enjoyable experience, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing in the end. Dexter in the TV show is depicted as more of a vigilante and less as a sociopath. I don’t think it works better as a story; it is just more enjoyable and less disturbing. Dexter in the books is barely human and I think it’s hard for a reader to truly like him, because he is so very alien and horrific.
So, by necessity, authors have a tempestuous relationship with cinema. In some cases it’s a natural progression of one’s work and a testament to one’s imagination. In other cases it has been a violation of that work and what was once a fully-formed dream has been turned into a disjointed and uneven nightmare. In other cases, it is a complete divergence, something both related yet alien and different, neither a compliment nor an insult. So, considering all this, how would I enter the world of novels without also taking these things into consideration? Aren’t we all hoping our work will be as successful as the examples I’ve quoted, since perhaps my work might intersect with this medium at some point in the future?
Well, cinema and television are the entertainment medium du jour and they are a constant competitor to books. There’s no denying that and there’s little point bemoaning it. I’m not going to wax philosophic about the rueful decline of the book or try and build a case for the continued existence of my chosen craft. I’m at heart a pragmatic and of the mind that if a idea or an activity has merit, then it will ultimately be rewarded. For me, books are essential for us as a civilization, both as universal mediums of expression and remembrance, but also as tool for enlightenment.
So, as I begin to write, I think the best advice I can give myself is to focus on those things that books can do that movies will never be able to do. I’ll seek to craft dreams, to populate my worlds with creatures that the best CGI could hardly depict and emotions and action that would tax even the most illustrious of actors to express. I will challenge a movie or film to tell my story better than me.
But there is something more important than any of this: books let us live ‘in’ our dreams. No matter how defined a character might be, we will always see a bit of ourselves in the character while they draw breath within our own minds. It’s the greatest gift books can give us.