Movies and Television as Literature: Page vs. Screen

Why you should be both a discerning reader and active viewer.

In Parts 1 & 2 of Movies and TV as Literature, I've talked about the ways stories on the page and screen are the same. Now let's look at some of the ways they are different, and why you should be both a discerning reader and active viewer.  

Movies and television as literature, books vs movies

Although I spent many years declaring "Books are better", I've altered my perception simply by learning more about what it takes to take a story from script to screen, and thinking in terms of "story" instead of "book" vs. "movie"--so I'm not going to argue the superiority of one over the other.  

I realize movies and television are often perceived as being stories for lazy people. And maybe that's true 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 the reading and viewing experience is so different, we open books or turn on the television with very different expectations, which can affect our perception. 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. I can sit and write about a visually elaborate, complex world in about 15 minutes for free, while on screen it can take months and millions of dollars. This accounts for the many changes that occur when a book is adapted for the screen, and why book lovers will declare--say it with me now--"The book was better!"

BOOKS

With books, the reader is dependent on their imagination, and therefore are to some degree 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.

It's interesting when readers discuss how their experiences are vastly different with the same story. Each person brings their background and knowledge to a book. How they picture the characters and setting varies, and their past influences how they interpret themes, which then alters how they 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 is 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 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, even if that impact has diminished over the years. Our vocabulary now comes primarily from television and movies where it once came solely from books. 

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 perceive what is happening and what characters are thinking and feeling. 

Stories on screen are limited by a budget, and shooting scripts are seldom more than 120 pages. A movie must focus on a particular story, and get it told in less than two hours.

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 <insert favorite show here>. As I mentioned before, movies and television now guide popular culture the way books used to do. 

Filmmaking 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 how a movie looks, which affects how we feel.  

One doesn't have to become an expert in filmmaking to be an active viewer, but a certain degree of visual literacy is helpful. Understanding compositional elements, such as the use of camera angles and placement of people and objects with 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 from facial expressions, pauses, and hints laid down like breadcrumbs through the movie. Because our sense are so engaged, we may have to work a bit harder to discern subtle themes—or try to find an underlying message buried in the spectacle of special effects and explosive fight 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 it, and will describe the acting as fake and 'hammy'.

CONCLUSION

The point of this series has been to encourage you to develop an understanding of plot, characterization, setting, conflicts, and theme, as well as how films are made, in order to move ourselves and our children from passive to active and discerning viewers. We may enjoy the sensation of being couch potatoes, but we must realize that:

  • Stories are powerful, regardless of whether they are on a page or on a screen.
  • We are responsible to teach our kids how to interpret what they see as well as what they read.

If you've enjoyed this series, please leave a comment below.