Movies and Television as Literature: Page vs Screen

In this Movies and Television as Literature series, I’ve been pointing out some of the ways books and movies do the same thing, but as with many things (including people), you can also gain an appreciation by exploring the differences.

Movies and television are literature, but there are big differences in how stories are told on the page verses the screen.

I’ve talked about how I spent many years declaring "Books are better", and also how and why I changed my mind, simply by learning more about what it takes to move a story from script to screen. I now think more in terms of "story" instead of "book" vs. "movie"—so this post will not be about the superiority of one over the other.  

Watching television is not exactly a respected pastime. We talk about ‘vegging out’ and being a ‘couch potato’. And maybe that attitude is correct to some extent; it's hard to be a lazy reader, but easy to be a lazy viewer. However, stories can challenge us intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, even if they are viewed instead of read.  

If we understand how these two story forms—books and TV/movies—are different, perhaps we can improve on our analysis and interpretation of stories, regardless of how they are presented.

Because reading and viewing experiences are different, we open books or turn on the television with very different expectations, which can affect our perception of the story and its meaning. Being aware of these expectations can help us be better readers and viewers.  

One of the most obvious differences between books and TV/movies is that film has limitations a book doesn't have. As a writer, I can create a visually elaborate, complex world in about an hour, while on screen it can take hundreds of people months to create, and cost millions of dollars. This accounts for the many changes that occur when a book is adapted for the screen. Although readers complain long and loud about these changes, many of them are unavoidable.

BOOKS

With books, the reader depends on their imagination to ‘see’ the story, and to some degree is in control of the story. Engaging the brain is the great strength of reading, and readers are often motivated by the anticipation of learning something new.

Each person brings their background, life experiences, and knowledge to a book—it’s why readers can have completely difference reactions to the same story. How we picture the characters and setting come from the familiar or fantasy. Our past can influences how we interpret themes, which will have a significant affect on how we react to the story. 

Books can be expansive, taking place over hundreds of years and hundreds of pages with a huge cast of characters coming and going throughout the text. 

A book can put you right inside the character's heads. You can be up-close-and-personal with a first person narrative, or see and know everything with a third person omniscient point of view.

Reading can act as a direct communication between the author and the reader. We can feel like we are getting to know more than just the characters when reading a novel. 

The author exerts control over the setting and characters, showing you what they want you to see, and what the characters are thinking and feeling. The author paces the story to build to its climax and keep you turning the pages. However, the reader can still control the pace by picking a book up and putting it down, or by re-reading certain passages before moving forward with the story. 

Reading and writing are solitary activities. Writers may have the input of editors and a publisher, and readers may join a book club or watch BookTube so they can discuss books—but the act of bringing a story to the page and the act of reading are not typically group activities. 

Books continue to impact our culture. It may seems as though that impact has diminished over the years because our vocabulary now comes primarily from television and movies where it once came solely from books. But let’s not forget how many movies are adapted from books, both fiction and nonfiction.

FILM

Film offers a completely different sensory experience than books. It's the ultimate in show, don't tell. We see and hear the story playing out, complete with sound effects, visual effects, a music soundtrack. . . the characters come to life before our eyes, and often without description or dialogue, we can perceive what is happening and what characters are thinking and feeling. 

Stories on screen are limited by a budget, which limits the number of characters and the nature of the setting. A shooting script is seldom more than 120 pages. A movie must have a sharper focus because the story must be told in two hours or less.

For television, writers may have the luxury of telling a story over many episodes, and successful shows can be renewed for years. However, each episode must tell a compelling story if they want watchers to come back week after week—or binge watch on Netflix. 

On the screen, most of the imagining has been done for you, from what the characters look and sound like to how they react. Everyone in the audience sees the same thing, although they may still have different interpretations and reactions.   

TV and movie watching are often group activities with friends and family, so it's a more social experience, particularly in a movie theater when you immediately see and feel the reactions of others. And what are most people talking about at school or work , while hanging out with friends? They are talking about favorite movies or the last episode of their favorite show . As I mentioned before, movies and television now guide popular culture the way books used to do. 

Film making itself is hugely collaborative—have you seen the length of closing credits, especially with a major blockbuster? It may take hundreds of people to get a film or show from script to screen, and it's possible for many of them to have a direct impact on the end result. You see the screenwriter's voice, the director's vision, the casting director's recommendations, the actor's appearance and portrayal, the editor's choices, the costume and set designers imagination, the impact of the soundtrack and sound effects. Cinematography and lighting can have a huge impact on the look, tone, and feel of a movie, which affects how we feel.  

You don’t have to become an expert in film making to be an active viewer, but a small dose of visual literacy is helpful. Understanding compositional elements, such as the use of camera angles and placement of people and objects within the frame can make you aware of the mood and meaning the director is going for.  

Stories on screen can be full of subtext; we must interpret meaning from facial expressions, pauses, and hints laid down like breadcrumbs through the movie. Because our senses are more engaged during a movie, we may miss subtleties during a first viewing if we are bombarded by special effects and fast-paced action scenes. 

Films without a narrator depend on subtle cues to convey the characters' emotions. If an actor can show us grief, or anger, or making a decision only with their eyes, we may be awed by their talent, or take it for granted—but if they are obvious, we know fake and 'hammy' when we see it.

All the ways we enjoy stories

Stories are powerful, regardless of whether they are on a page or on a screen. They are the result of imagination, talent, and hard work. No matter which story delivery method you prefer, I hope you appreciate all the ways we tell and share stories.

What do you think about the differences in the way stories are told and experienced?
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