Gulf Coast Online Editor

Dec 01, 2011

Each year, I teach classes about both fiction and film, and my students, on the first day of either type of class, always say the same thing: The book is always better than the movie. That's a subjective call to be sure, but I think that the reason behind it provides some insight into the way that reading and viewing affect the human mind. First, however, it's important to note that it's not always true that the book is better. I've got to be subjective myself here, but it seems unlikely that many audiences would prefer Cornell Woolrich's short story "Rear Window" over Alfred Hitchcock's masterful filmed version. (The proof may be that hardly anyone knows about the Woolrich story these days.) The same might be said about George Langelaan's story "The Fly," remade on film in 1958 and again in 1986 by Kurt Neumann and David Cronenberg, respectively, or about the story "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell, Jr., remade into John Carpenter's The Thing. In fact, in cases where the film version outshines the book, the book often slides into obscurity, having been eclipsed by its cinematic counterpart. Still, in many cases, it does seem true that the written version of a story outshines the film in the eyes of most fans, and I think I know the reason for this - it's because reading is an act of creation, of imagination, as much as one of being guided by an artist. I'm sure the above is true in any language, but in English, writers have only twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks with which to convey the entirety of the human experience. While reading, we often feel as though we're losing any sense of the outside world, but really, we're just looking at a series of limited codes, inked squiggles across a page. All of that scenery, that tension, those characters, all of that is made up by our brains. The author has us by the literary hand, of course, but there's only so much detail that he or she can provide. We fill in the rest. Thus, when a film is made of one of our favorite books, we come face to face with a vision borne of the directors', producers', and actors' imaginations rather than a vision from our own. Theirs just looks different, and because we were the ones to conjure the experience while reading, their vision can be jarring (and often dissatisfying). This might be bad news for those out there waiting for their favorite books to be turned into films, but it really says something profound about the process of reading, too. It means that reading is an art. Like writing and filmmaking, reading requires a creative endeavor from the audience. The product - the experience of the story - is then a combination of the imagined realities of both the author and the reader. It is, as Stephen King once wrote, "a meeting of the minds."