The Book is Better

by Jinryu

…well, it might be, to you. But there’s a difference between a “statement of fact” and a “statement of opinion.”

 

Hunger Games.  Game of Thrones.  Twilight.  Lord of the Rings. Narnia. Harry Potter.  You hear it all the time– people who “read the book” have some need to insist on how the book was better.  Sometimes I get into discussions with people about this because I want to know why the book is better, but usually, there isn’t much of way to explain it.

 

Yes, sometimes they were really great books– but most of the time, it’s a conversation wedge to give that person some sort of street cred, because they found the thing before it was popular.

 

Mind you, reasons such as “I don’t like Robert Pattinson” are valid reasons why you didn’t enjoy the movie version of something.

Regardless, there are some people who insist that I must read the book version because it is better.   I’m usually quite doubtful.  I’m not actually the type of person to say that a movie is better than a book or vice versa– I just don’t think you can really compare apples and oranges like that.

 

Fundamentally, there may be similarities between the two media– but saying one thing is better than the other is more or less just a statement about your preferred media.  It’s like one person arguing to another that jazz ballet is better than contemporary, or that classical music is better than baroque.  To jar it a bit more, it’s like trying to have two people compare oil on canvas to a video game.

All mediums have a skill set involved in producing the thing of art.  I remember in undergrad, one of the major fundamental questions that recurred was “what is art?”  One person might show you a urinal, and another might sculpt paint the ceiling of a church.  Is one “more” art than the other?

 

Well, debates of intrinsic artistic quality aside, a lot of this all ignores the capacity of the audience to appreciate or understand the art.  So sometimes, when someone says that a book is better than a movie, it’s because they’re looking for certain qualities in the writing that they don’t find in the screen version.  That doesn’t mean that these qualities don’t exist (although it’s possible). It might just be that the screen version has qualities that the person doesn’t know how to interpret.

 

When I watch a movie, there are a lot of things that I look at.  Use of camera angles, pacing, costumes, location, lighting, mood, music, etc.  Acting is a huge thing too.

Obviously, there are a lot of things that one can go wrong in a movie. One thing that too many movies do wrong is they try to keep their actors’ too pretty.  Another common problem is with action whose actors who only know how to act “badass,” which is really tiresome.

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In a book, it’s about choice of words.  How do the metaphors work to create the image?  Do the words get in the way of the pace of the book?  How much or how little thought was given into the surrounding world– because books often focus on character development, they often neglect things that one might pay attention to in the crafting of a movie scene– like the cracks on a wooden kitchen table, or the different sounds that different shoes make on different floors.  Period pieces like Elizabeth, or historic fiction like Pirates of the Carribean? You know that there’s some special stuff going on that just doesn’t show up in books.  And that includes Terry Pratchett books. 

If you wanted to argue technical stuff, the potential for a movie to really give you something interesting comes from the fact that a book is authored by a single person’s interpretation of the story– wheras a movie is a simultaneous creation of many, including the directors, actors, musicians, costume designers, set designers, editors, etc.  

Fundamentally, a book is an exercise in description, wheras as movie is an exercise in emulation.  A book has very tight control over exactly what you look at.  A movie on the other hand is a different thing altogether– the costume designer’s choices for instance, or the muscial score attached to a scene, changes the feel of a situation completely, even though these things are minimally provided for by the script.  The fact that real actors are putting on real clothes and interacting in real space means that there are subtleties that you can learn to appreciate if the movie as a whole is well crafted.

The question is, which of these things are important to you? You can’t blame a game of chess for not being “physical” enough any more than you can blame Queen for not producing R&B or rap style narratives.

 

 

 I am not saying that movies are better than books.  But what I am saying is that most people who like books better don’t actually take the time to learn to appreciate other mediums.  There is all that social upbringing that makes reading seem like an intelligent thing and watching television the source of stupidity.  But there is a lot that the screen has to offer, if you only know how to look for it.

 

Ultimately, I think that the statement of “the book is better” should always be followed up by you asking the question “why is it better?”  or perhaps, more approrpiately, “what is it about the book that is more important to me?”

 

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I won’t deny that there are a lot of bad movies out there.  Even worse, there is a hella lot of daytime and evening television that is downright painful to watch.  But the medium has nothing to do with it. It has to do with our comparmentalist behaviour towards entertainment– if we keep on treating television as cheap, quick, metered entertainment for instance, it will go in the direction of cheesy cookie-cutter reality television with no real substance or innovation.

Historic literacy/education considerations aside, there is no reason why the screen medium should continue to be any less respectable than the text medium.  Each really has its strengths and weaknesses.  A good book isn’t just a good story– it’s something that takes advantage of the book medium to give a full entertainment experience.  Ditto for a anything that goes on screen.

 

 

 

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