Reading or watching, dreaming or knowing? Pages of reading or hours of watching? The debate is fierce, especially in the wake of the likes of Life of Pi and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. YASHASVINI RAJESHWAR enters the fray, searching for the answers.
Modern literary prodigy Christopher Paolini of the Inheritance Cycle fame once said, “It's amazing that a man who is dead can talk to people through pages. As long as this book survives, his ideas live.”
Through the years, it is perhaps this quest for immortality that has inspired man to take up writing. The need to survive after one's death; live on after one's life and the desire to impact more than one's immediate surroundings often spur man to labour over the printed page. Every well-placed semi-colon and well-chosen preposition contributes towards creating that indelible persona, the enviable afterlife.
Words or pics?
Yet, ground reality has changed since the days of the English classic. Today, 'The Streetcar named Desire' is more quickly associated with Marlon Brando and his fiery performance as Stanley Kowalski than it is with Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Tennessee Williams. As children, we quailed in our seats as we watched Jumanji, a board game where horrors came alive with every move. How many know that the movie was actually based on a short story of the same name? For the literary inclined, Roald Dahl is a household name. Yet, the sound of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory still summons images of a bright purple suit and the contraptions that make up the make-believe factory. Roald Dahl is forgotten in the Oompa-Loompas' song and dance.
The list can go on. Old time favourites such as Gone With the Wind, The Scarlet Letter and To Kill a Mockingbird all got a fresh lease of life after Hollywood came calling. Various contemporary series are not far behind. The film adaptations of Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia and Twilight open to packed halls and waitlists a mile long.
With a few hours to spare, you know the stories of characters that you would otherwise have to plough through in a few hundred pages. Movies offer a shortcut, an easy way out.
Yet, a popular internet meme perhaps offers the best rebuttal to this argument. Juxtaposed against a bewildered looking man, the text reads “If a picture is worth a thousand words, why is the book better than the movie?” And there, the argument stands. For all the bookworms out there, there is always a rush to finish the book in time for the film release. Characters are understood, the storyline is revealed in all its complexity and you know the plot much better than what three hours of silver screen exposure would allow you.
Over the last couple of months, we have seen a new surge of book-based movies hit the screens. The most recent and perhaps the most successful of the lot have been Life of Pi, Midnight’s Children and the Emma Watson starrer The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Post their release, the book sales has seen a significant increase, with scores of people becoming aware of the print original for the first time.
But with respect to the 'Books vs Movies' debate, the jury is still out on the subject. While some are avowed movie buffs, others would die for the smell of print on paper. Dimple (name changed) is drawn by how the narration ends in a maximum of three hours while Karthick Sundar agrees saying “I prefer watching Sherlock Holmes with Hans Zimmer's BGM than reading the book with traffic in the background.” On the other hand, Nandhitha Hariharan is enamoured by the ability to “read the story, be the character” and would not stray far from books unless on lazy summer days.
And inevitably, the question always arises. Why should one read the book? Why waste hours flipping through pages of fine print when the takeaways are arguably the same? The reasons are many. Characterization and plot are limited by restrictions of time in cinema. Often, when the author is hardly involved with the making of the movie, the film adaptation is not quite what the author meant the story to convey.
The power of language to paint images is lost when the pictures are painted for you. Your mind's eye goes into hibernation and you are fed all the information on a silver platter. Your ideals of the perfect protagonist are ruined by a nose too big or clothes too bright. Movies may be easier, but they are far from perfect.
Why the backseat?
Though movies are flooding the market today and multiplexes are springing like mushrooms around town, reading has not died a silent death. The culture of information sharing is rampant today and, as Varun Agarwal said at The Hindu Lit for Life 2013, our lives are now characterised by news feeds and tweets. We read all the time. Yet, when it comes to books, the story is a little different. With a petennial time crunch, reading for pleasure is a difficult task. Today, Karthick does not lack company when he says “I cannot read anything longer than an A5 sheet of paper”.
However, taking sides is still a tough ask. When put on the spot and demanded their allegiance, most find it easy to take the middle ground. As Anukripa Elango says, “With a book, we make the story our own in a lot of ways. In movies, we see the story the way someone else sees it. Sometimes, movies are so mind-blowing, I couldn’t have seen it any better but other times, that is not completely true. It is always a tough call.”
A decisive conclusion to the question is difficult. Some stories are better read, others better watched. Some are better imagined, others better taught. Some are better felt, others are better seen. As long as the need to be entertained remains, books and movies shall fill our free hours. As long as the need to be transported remains, the printed page and the silver screen shall have takers. Some needs are truly universal.
They were books first!
A picture book first written and illustrated in 1990 whose protagonist derived his name from the German word for ‘fear’ went on to become a series of very popular movies – Shrek!
In 1974, a novel was written inspired by several real-life incidents that resulted in many deaths. The movie went on to become the highest grosser up to that point and the father of blockbuster film – Jaws
A series of books were written by PL Travers between 1934 and 1988 about a woman blown into a household by the wind. The story was later adapted into a Disney movie as well as a musical. – Mary Poppins
The story speaks of everything from teenage love to the Vietnam War and was written in 1986 by Winston Groom. Today, it is largely associated with Tom Hanks - Forrest Gump
Jonathan Nolan (yes, Jonathan) wrote a short story in 2001 which not only inspired Hollywood but cinema industries all over the world – Memento Mori