Susanne Dunlap

Reading vs. Watching

In Books I have read, The writing life on September 15, 2010 at 9:03 am

At different times in my life my balance of reading books compared to watching movies shifts. Lately I’ve been in a reading phase. In the past few months I’ve read about eight books. I’m on the last book of the Hunger Games trilogy, Mockingjay, on my iPhone, and my bedside reading is Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I’ve also dipped into several non-fiction books and started The Women by T.C. Boyle and Masha Hamilton’s 31 Hours, both on my Kindle app on my iPhone. I read what I’m in the mood for at a given moment.

Last night I watched the movie Where Angels Fear to Tread, an E.M. Forster adaptation. This morning I heard a review on NPR of the coming movie treatment of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Oddly, many of my favorite movies are adaptations of books I have read and loved. Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace. At least two TV series adaptations of Pride and Prejudice. Out of Africa, Enchanted April, etc. etc. And I was pleasantly surprised by the recent Pillars of the Earth.

That’s not to say I don’t love many movies that are not book adaptations. But the fact that I do like movie versions of books I have read and enjoyed started me thinking. What do I like about them exactly?

In no particular order, I came up with a few ideas:

  • I like being able to “relive” a reading experience in a compressed space of time. I tend to watch my favorite movies over and over, perhaps because it involves a time investment of only two hours, rather than ten or more, depending on the book.
  • Something about watching real people, especially when they’re well cast and fit with your general idea of what the characters you imagined actually looked like, helps the book enter into your reality more easily. Now, when I re-read Pride and Prejudice, I actually see the faces and hear the voices of the actors in the first BBC adaptation, which relied a lot on Jane Austen’s actual dialogue.

(Of course, the opposite can happen in the case of a bad adaptation, but for my purposes here I’m only going with successful ones.)

  • Reading is an intellectual exercise. Your mind has to take the hieroglyphics on the page and convert them to words, and then to complex thoughts and concepts. It’s magical, certainly. Rewarding, demanding, and thoroughly entertaining on a deeply personal level. It can also be exhausting. For instance, I’m about halfway through Justin Cronin’s The Passage. An amazing, terrifying, dystopian fantasy, beautifully written and compelling. But it gives me nightmares. I’m not sure I’ll be able to finish it, even with the prospect that there might be a better-than-anticipated outcome as a reward. My own imagination, when I read, is so intense and powerful that I cannot create the distancing effect that’s so easy when I watch those gory CSI shows on TV.

But you can bet I’ll go see the movie of The Passage when it comes out, and erase the most disturbing bits by averting my eyes. When you read, you can’t avert your eyes.

Now to the real point of this post: What do I think about the prospect of the movie, Never Let Me Go? The book was one of the most chilling and haunting reading experiences I have ever had. The sheer technical, stylistic mastery of Ishiguro has the power to make me wonder why I bother trying to write, when I’ll never be as good as he is.

What, you might ask if you haven’t yet read the book, does that exquisite mastery consist of? I can’t pretend to do a thorough analysis here, but every word, every nuance, is so true to character and essential to the plot that I can’t imagine anything about it being different. There isn’t a single wasted word in Never Let Me Go, and the dramatic structure, the way Ishiguro controls what we see, when and how much is beyond brilliant.

Never Let Me Go is a quiet book, just as A Pale View of Hills was. I’ll confess to not having read The Remains of the Day because I saw the movie first. I plan to do so. The quietness of Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, and Christopher Reeve’s performances was masterful. So quiet can be done. But what about the prose?

Here’s my one fear: Ishiguro created the voice of Kathy H. perfectly, imbuing her with a combination of naivete and resignation, but it may translate to something too ordinary when you take away the writerly feat of making such a voice work, word by word.

I’m definitely going to see the movie. I’ll check back in with my verdict when I have.

In the meantime, I’ll keep reading and watching, for the different and complementary pleasures they give me.

  1. The first thought that occurred to me here was: where do you get the time? My room is stacked with books ‘to read’, and I only watch 20 mins of TV per week (an antiques show). The rest of the time I am juggling with writing and life. I then lie back and read… only to fall asleep after two pages, perhaps. How I admire someone like you, Susanne, who not only can stay awake, but also write balanced analyses and comparisons!
    The answer is obvious. I should just read what you write, and stop juggling and battling on my own.

    • Rosanne, you are sweet! I think the Kindle app on my iPhone has transformed my reading, because I can do it just about anywhere I have a few minutes to spare. And I’m fortunate I’m a fast reader as well. But those books do keep piling up for me too. I’ll never get through them all!

  2. I also heard the piece on NPR about the movie adaptation of Never Let Me Go. I haven’t read the book yet, so I don’t know what Kathy H’s voice is like on paper, but I think Carey Mulligan is a wonderful actor so I expect she’ll do the role justice. In An Education, she managed to pull off that teenage combination of naivety and cynicism, at the same time youthfully optimistic and jaded beyond her years.

  3. Ah, well, M.J., I can’t tell you any more because it would be a spoiler. I’m sure the actors will do justice to the roles (they’re all good). Anyway, I’d love to hear eventually what you think of the movie and the book, if you decide to read it.

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