Everyone has a preference as to the type of art and media they consume. Some people like books, others prefer movies, television programs, live theater, music, online content and many simply like a combination of all of the above.
Even though our modern society is captivated by “the next big thing” technologically, it is the written word, no matter how it is delivered (printed or on a screen) that has a unique ability to communicate deeply like no other medium and is still the best way (in my opinion) to consume content.
Why is that? After careful scientific analysis of my personal biases, I’ve determined that written words are king for two reasons:
- No musical soundtracks
- No special effects
Real life doesn’t have them and neither does the written word.
This concept was made real to me on an evening flight from the east coast to Chicago years ago. From my window seat, I pondered the business of the day while staring out the window into the black. In a moment, the jet cleared some clouds and below me in the distance were the lights of Cleveland, Ohio. It was a beautiful, sparkling sight. Then, as I visualized a map of the Midwestern United States, I realized that could see the lights of Akron just south of Cleveland, then Toledo in the distance, Detroit, Michigan north of that, Fort Wayne, Indiana in the distance and my destination Chicago on the far horizon 350 miles away, all glimmering in the cold, clear air, as seen from 35,000 feet…and all visible at the same moment.
That was the point when I decided that soundtracks and special effects only got in the way. Silence was the best music and millions of lights spread out over hundreds of miles were the ultimate special effect.
I often consider how life would feel different if at various points in your day, a dramatic, comedic, or majestic musical soundtrack accompanied it. Or when you hit your head, a “boing!” reverberates through the room and a laugh track sounds. Of course, it would not be comical at all. Hitting your head hurts and life has no accompanying music or background effects.
What if it did?
On a cold snowy morning, I dress warmly, grab the snow shovel and hit the garage door opener.
(Cue the Emperors Theme from Star Wars)
As the door opens agonizingly slow, revealing a foot of snow needing shoveling on the driveway, I pull on my leather gloves in slow motion as a puff of exhaled breath signals the start of the task before me. (The music swells to a climax)
Blogger note: Imagining scenarios like this does not qualify as mental illness. Goofy maybe, but not enough to qualify for medication.
Then, in a burst of reality, I set down the shovel, go over to the gas-powered snow blower, pull the starter and get the whole job done in ten minutes, quickly returning the machine to its spot in the garage, close the door quickly and run indoors where it is warm. The noise of the snow blower engine drowns out the background music and wakes the neighbors. (As my mother would say, “Holy cats Dan, what is that noise?”)
That is real life.
Books in any form are better at communicating real life simply because they stimulate our imaginations as well as our intellects. Movies and their respective soundtracks and special effects connect primarily with our emotions.
Of course, in a deeply spiritual or romantic view of life, I suppose there are “soundtracks” of birds chirping or babies crying, but those simply attest to the simplicity and “realness” of life, which is never as dramatic as movies make it seem.
This is probably another reason why most authors truly hate the movie version of their books. It makes the real unreal or at the very least, not what they imagined when they wrote it.
Showing a dramatic or meaningful moment in writing activates the imagination and creates a powerful, memorable mental image.
That’s why I like the written word.
As a reader I’m often disappointed in the movie version of books I have read. I guess no movie can compete with our imaginations.
I’ve also noticed the written word affects me more deeply. For instance if I hear a bad word, I may flinch, but if I read a bad word, it takes longer to recover.
This one is good, Dan. Language is powerful. I always told my senior English students, “When you read a book, you become your own Steven Spielberg–supplying all the special effects in your brain.” Our job as writers is to assist the reader in that task. I can tell, you had fun writing this blog post.
While reading, I’m in control. I follow the writer willingly or put him down at will. Videos and movies are a trap. I am bound to sit and watch passively and can only respond viscerally.
That’s why I do not – NOT – watch webinars, forwarded videos, and the like. I refuse to be trapped.
And yes, I am claustrophobic.
You’re right, Dan. There is something about the written word that is more powerful than just about anything else. They have the ability to stay with a person long after spoken words are forgotten. I guess this is why I like written notes and cards–both giving and receiving them. I can go back and re-read.
For books, what a gift for an author to use the power of the written word to show their stories, poignancy in a scene, and other things.
Sandy Faye Mauck
Great post. Makes you really think. I am a movie buff (old ones). But you are so right. We are individuals and for a scene and words to be spoken to our hearts, we have to sort of manipulate them by our experiences, our OWN emotions and not manipulated by someone else’s crescendos that for us might be at the wrong time.
I have a friend that far away that reads many of the same books that I do but wow, do we see them differently at times. What excites her, makes me want to lay the book down; what blesses me, bores her. But generally in the end, she gets what she wants and so do I and for different reasons. h the power of the book!
I never realized that “most authors truly hate the movie version of their books.” I’ll be pondering that for a while.
Thanks Dan, for explaining what most of us innately know, but are not sure why. Whoever said, “a picture is worth a thousand words” must have had little imagination or had a problem with reading or was comparing the Mona Lisa to the first thousand word of any draft I’ve ever written (not pretty).
As for me, I’ll take a few well written words over a thousand pictures any day.
Yes, words (especially fiction) can engage our imagination but I think words have two other advantages over media. First, we can move through them at our own pace; we can stop to reflect without missing anything. Second, depending on the point-of-view, we can access a character’s inner thoughts, motivations, fears, etc. This access if done well can increase the degree to which our imaginations are engaged. Unfortunately, if not done well it can disengage our imaginations.
There is, for me, a balance. Words are important; but I live visually, and images, even if imperfectly conveying the spirit of the words, play a role that can’t be discounted.
An example is the Spielberg/Hanks collaboration, “The Pacific”, an HBO miniseries. It’s based on several memoirs of WW2 in the Pacific.
One of the sources used is Eugene Sledge’s “With The Old Breed”, which is one of the finest memoirs of any type ever written.
And yet…”The Pacific” enhances the book, by recreating Eugene Sledge as a character, with a degree of individuality which, while fictionalized, is still compelling.
The miniseries departs from the book in several areas, which are understandable. Combat is never easily defined, nor organized,but a storyline must have an arc. It doesn’t detract.
And the score, by Hans Zimmer, is completely appropriate to the action. It’s haunting, an elegy to both loss and grandeur. As a combat veteran myself, the score is something to which I return, over again.It’s not the score to my life – I don’t have one – but it is nonetheless something that helps to define the depth and breadth of the world.
I agree. But imagine your example pressed into a two hour movie rather than 6-8 hours of the HBO series. I also love the HBO series on John Adams based on the book.
Movies, if done well are powerful, but the brevity can make characters hollow.
I love this blog today. I have always been an avid reader. As a new writer, your words about the written word really hit home. Recently a family member encouraged me to do a video blog instead of a writing blog because “no one reads anymore.” Thank you for a reminder of the power in the written word. God was the first best-selling author to be in print-The Written Word.
You raise an excellent point, and it is one to which I wish publishers would harken.
Compressing “The Pacific” into two hours would have been a failure; taken as a facet, Sledge’s story simply had to be told against the other lives whose arcs were thereby related, over that span of cinematic time.
“The Pacific” takes time to develop backstory, and to give characters the time to spring to life. It has a delightfully old-fashioned quality in that way; the “pull up a chair and listen” that our society seems to have forgotten.
I’ve heard the writing mantra “no backstory in the first fifty pages”; it reflects the immediacy of life as we perceive we live it, and certainly reflect current films which throw you into the action before the opening credits roll.
But most of the characters are eminently forgettable.
What is the point of cinema, of writing, of art, absent its providing a context of character?
What point listening, if in listening we experience no epiphany of empathy?
Good post! Very true – I hadn’t actually thought about it in that way. Also, through the written word we can begin to understand people who lived hundreds if not thousands of years before we were born – by reading what they wrote. No other medium can accomplish that!
“After careful scientific analysis of my personal biases…” Dan, may I borrow that line? I will give you full credit for it, of course 😉
No problem. But only under the following conditions:
–If people laugh then it was taken from me.
–If they are confused or angry, you need to tell them it was from Steve Laube.
Yep – you’re right. Words win. The movie in my head that is generated by great words is always better than any soundtrack or video. Hmm. Wonder if that’s why God started the whole shebang with words.