The Visual Limitations of Novels

This week I read The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles first published in 1949, and then I watched the 1990 film version by Bernardo Bertolucci with Debra Winger and John Malkovich.  I found the novel a stunning example of writing, and the movie a stunning example of cinematography, which only made it obvious that novels are severely limited in evoking the visual world.  Reading the novel, the world of Port and Kit Moresby felt claustrophobic and small,  but seeing the same couple on screen, showed them living in a vast panoramic vista.


In mind, I knew Kit and Port were traveling across Algeria in the late 1940s, after WWII, so the sky should have been getting bigger and brighter as they got closer to the Sahara, but instead it got darker.  That’s because the story was getting psychologically darker.  In fact, their world as I imagined it, was often dark, with few people and buildings.  The book so reminded me of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, that I thought Bowles must have used it as a model.  In the film version of The Sheltering Sky, the streets were crowded with people, and the cities and villages were sprawling with buildings with narrow maze like streets, and everything was bright, colorful and beautiful.  The gorgeous visuals overwhelmed the dark brooding characters.

It was jarring to watch the film right after reading the book because it looked nothing like what I imagined, but obviously the film looked like the world Bowles wrote about and lived in.

Reading The Sheltering Sky and then watching its film version made me see the difference in the two art forms.  And it’s not because Bowles didn’t give me the information to visualize.

When she was hungry, she rose, picked up her bag, and walked among the rocks along a path of sorts, probably made by goats, which ran parallel to the walls of the town. The sun had risen; already she felt its heat on the back of her neck. She raised the hood of her haïk. In the distance were the sounds of the town: voices crying out and dogs barking. Presently she passed beneath one of the flat-arched gates and was again in the city. No one noticed her. The market was full of black women in white robes. She went up to one of the women and took a jar of buttermilk out of her hand. When she had drunk it, the woman stood waiting to be paid. Kit frowned and stooped to open her bag. A few other women, some carrying babies at their backs, stopped to watch. She pulled a thousand-franc note out of the pile and offered it. But the woman stared at the paper and made a gesture of refusal. Kit still held it forth. Once the other had understood that no different money was to be given her, she set up a great cry and began to call for the police. The laughing women crowded in eagerly, and some of them took the proffered note, examining it with curiosity, and finally handing it back to Kit. Their language was soft and unfamiliar. A white horse trotted past; astride it sat a tall Negro in a khaki uniform, his face decorated with deep cicatrizations like a carved wooden mask. Kit broke away from the women and raised her arms toward him, expecting him to lift her up, but he looked at her askance and rode off. Several men joined the group of onlookers, and stood somewhat apart from the women, grinning. One of them, spotting the bill in her hand, stepped nearer and began to examine her and the valise with increasing interest. Like the others, he was tall, thin and very black, and he wore a ragged burnous slung across his shoulders, but his costume included a pair of dirty white European trousers instead of the long native undergarment. Approaching her, he tapped her on the arm and said something to her in Arabic; she did not understand. Then he said: “Toi parles français?” She did not move; she did not know what to do. “Oui,” she replied at length.

There is much visual detail in this passage, but I never saw it in my mind’s eye.  I never “saw” Algeria like I saw it in the film.  Now that I’m reading passages from the book after seeing the movie, I’m “reading” it differently, and seeing it differently in my mind.  This might be a clue to always see the movie first.  I find the Harry Potter movies fantastic illustrations of the books, but poor substitutes for them.

Just look at this film clip and then imagine how to describe in it words.  Does the words camel, caravan and desert even come close to evoking what we see?

While watching the movie I felt the soul of the novel had disappeared.  The experience of reading and viewing beautifully illustrated the difference between the visual medium of film, and the world of black and white letters that are decoded inside our head.  The novel is rich in details I can’t see, and can’t be filmed.  Or can they? 

Movies seldom have narrative commentary.  One example I can think of is the theatrical release of Blade Runner, where Harrison Ford provided a film noir detective voice over.  I’ve always preferred the theatrical release over Ridley Scott’s director’s cut.  I wish movie makers would experiment with unseen narrators to see if they could get closer to filming classic books.  There is an aspect to books that is neither dialog or description, that is always left out of movies.

I also read Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear this week and it begs for a movie treatment, or at least a graphic novel adaption.  Bear describes a world that is as visually bizarre as Oz, and a spaceship with three hulls.  I have no way of visualizing this story.  And the novel, Hull Zero Three is written like an action film, so it feels like the soul of a novel is left out.

I wonder what my reading experience of The Sheltering Sky would have been like if Paul Bowles had included National Geographic like photographs of all the locations Port and Kit visited on their trip?  I know of one book that did this, Time and Again by Jack Finney, a time travel novel about 19th century New York City.  The book included 19th century photographs of the city.  It made a huge difference to the story.  I wonder how I would have experienced Hull Zero Three differently if Bear had commissioned illustrations for his book?

I assume writers expect readers to do all the mental cinematography themselves, but I don’t think it would hurt if they provided a few seed images.  I’ve talked to many readers who claim to hate movies of their favorite stories because it ruins their own mental images they have created.  I think my problem is I don’t visualize books as I read them, and illustrations and photographs would be helpful crutches for people like me.

I recommend creating your own experiments to test the visual powers of novels.  Would the monster hit TV show Downton Abbey be as popular if it was just a novel, without all the beautiful visuals?  And think about all the many visual interpretations of Sherlock Holmes?  There are many film versions of classic books Little Women and Pride and Prejudice.  Try reading the books before or after seeing the movies and see for yourself the visual limitations of novels.

JWH – 3/23/13

From Words to Films: Cloud Atlas, The Life of Pi, The Hobbit, Anna Karenina

Yesterday I saw Cloud Atlas at the theater, and it had previews for The Life of Pi and The Hobbit.  I’ve also seen recent previews for Anna Karenina.  All books I’ve read.  While watching the preview for The Life of Pi I wondered what Yann Martel and David Mitchell are feeling now that their words have become movies.  Do they feel like gods creating new worlds?

Lucky writers type words on their computer and a few years later those words become images on the big screen.  How marvelous must that feel for a writer?  Of course, a writer creates all their characters and scenes in their head by themselves, and a movie requires hundreds, if not thousands of people to create images on the screen for us to see.  And often, they aren’t the same visions the writer first imagined.  I can’t imagine David Mitchell picturing so many of his characters looking like Tom Hanks, but Tom Hanks with the help of make-up artists have fleshed out Mitchell’s characters in a world of pixels that is so much more vivid than printed words on a page.

I have to admit while watching the previews that I wished I could write something worthy of filming.  Few books are given birth on the big screen, so it’s a very rare honor that few writers get to enjoy. 

Look at the opening page of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – I saw it acted out yesterday.  It’s not the same at all, these words inspired a movie scene on the beach.



Next, watch this clip:



Now read from the The Life of Pi by Yann Martel.




And then look at the trailer for The Life of Pi:


These are just two examples.  I wish I had the time and technology to show several examples, with the exact book pages and filmed scenes.  Both Cloud Atlas and The Life of Pi are books of astounding feats of imagination.  I’m sure bookworms hope all their favorite books will become films, but few do.  I’d love to see The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi made into a movie.   That book also exhibited tremendous feats of imagination, although it’s a bleak view of the future.  I’m thinking movie makers prefer upbeat stories based on fantastic events.

I wonder how many writers sit down to write a story they hope will be filmed?  If you’ve read Cloud Atlas or The Life of Pi, you probably thought like me at the time that it would be impossible to film these stories.  Watching the preview of The Life of Pi made me realize that anything a writer can think up movie makers can film.  Watching the preview of Anna Karenina made me realize that movie makers are going far beyond what writers can do with words.  I don’t think any one mind can imagine so much beauty, color and vivid detail.


Look at this photo and then read Tolstoy’s words:

Anna was not in lilac, the colour Kitty was so sure she ought to have worn, but in a low-necked black velvet dress which exposed her full shoulder and bosom that seemed carved out of old ivory, and her rounded arms with the very small hands. Her dress was richly trimmed with Venetian lace. In her black hair, all her own, she wore a little garland of pansies, and in her girdle, among the lace, a bunch of the same flowers. Her coiffure was very unobtrusive. The only noticeable things about it were the wilful ringlets that always escaped at her temples and on the nape of her neck and added to her beauty. Round her finely chiselled neck she wore a string of pearls.

Well, they got the ringlets.  Can any words ever describe what we actually see?  What is the power of Tolstoy’s words that have made Anna Karenina one of the greatest novels of all time?   It is a novel that has inspired the production of many movies.  Will there be additional productions of The Life of Pi and Cloud Atlas?  Will Martel and Mitchell be as inspiring as Tolstoy?

Like I said, I wish I could write a story other people felt compelled to film.  The old saying is, a picture is worth a thousand words, well that means most novels have about 100 pictures in them.  But novels are really about characters fighting adversity, and that’s where movies and books really overlap.  I believe if I wanted to write a novel worth filming, I’d need to create unique characters facing unique conflicts.  Words are great for that.

I think it’s fascinating to read the words that become movies.  I think it’s even more fascinating see characters on pages become characters on screen.  I think it’s also fascinating  for stories to come alive before our eyes in the dark that we once read as black marks on white pages.

[By the way, is film even a valid word to use regarding movies anymore?  Are movies still filmed?  Or do they use high resolution video cameras?  In our modern times both novels and movies appear on screens.  I guess I could have talked about stories that appear in black and white on small screens and in color on large screens.  Is that the transformation good stories should expect – more pixels with great color depth?]

JWH – 11/5/12

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