Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Of Seeing and Believing

I am always excited about film adaptations of books. The same is also true of books that movies have been based on. Even if I didn’t particularly like the movie, if I discover there is a book behind it, I will get my hands on that book. I can’t exactly say why this is. I suppose I love comparing a story-telling across two mediums. Most of the time I am disappointed of course, but that is a universal cliché. I still always get something out of it, see something there I hadn’t considered before: the director’s vision sometimes so far from my own it enters my consciousness as an entirely new aesthetic, if not an entirely new story, so that I can appreciate it for its own sake. And I believe that is fairly peculiar of me.

The Golden Compass, the film adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights is what I consider a good example of a film adaptation. I say this particularly because I didn’t really enjoy this book, and that has nothing to do with the current controversy whirling around its religious themes. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I was reading it for a class, but I didn’t feel the wonder and heightened emotion that one should feel from a good fantasy work. I didn’t ‘recover’ the ordinary through its fantastic estrangement. The movie effected this. The movie made me realize there were things in that story that had tuned in to my sense of the epic and the fundamental. But it had taken the movie to bring these feelings to flower. I find this quite remarkable, that the movie did what the book could not…definitely a first for me. And I have never cultivated prejudice for one medium, over the other. For me both books and movies nurture imagination in their own particular ways. Yet undoubtedly we have fewer opportunities to find book adaptations of movies than movie adaptations of books. I have found both, and been very surprised by both experiences. If anyone has any doubt of this, take a scene from what you consider a ‘good’ movie, try and write down all the subtle and fine touches in a single expression on a character’s face, make it into a ‘book’. You could write pages, but I don’t think you would get the same effect, not without being a tyrant over your reader’s imagination. And the same is true, curiously, of movies based on books; no actor could precisely capture what you felt for the words that originally evoked those emotions.

Maybe it was the effect of the succinct and the visual, and the medium just more properly suited the fairy-dimension. Then again I shall definitely enjoy the book more when I get it again.

One can read fantasy in the ‘right’ way of course, while still not succumbing to its emotional seduction. By the ‘right way’ I mean that we can ask ourselves the questions that we are supposed to ask, that the fantasy compels us to ask. In the case of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, people have been reducing this complex process to seeing ‘through’ the story to what it is ‘really about’. But this is missing the whole point of the value in fantasy’s extraordinary power to pull us back to the heart of the things we do. Reading (or watching) fantasy is never about what the story is about. It should give narrative form to ideas, the way myth does, but it is in its displacement to a world made strange, a world of magic and fairy-tale beings, it allows us to examine those ideas critically and consciously, without the distractions of the material. So the fantasists tell us.

And I confess I will always try to believe them, so long as they play fair and give us such worlds of wonder and peril as this. Whether seeing (movies) or imagining (reading), it is always really about imagining, isn’t it? It is just a way of feeling more than we ever could at the height of the mundane, in realms far beyond what is right there.


Waseem said...

I found Chronicles of Narnia movie to be almost equal, if not better than the book, most of the characters were re-created accurately and they stuck to the main plot points of the book. I especially enjoyed the war.

I think in general the reason someone wouldnt like a movie adaptation over the book they read, is that they didn't like the directors vision or the screenplay. Like I wasn't much of a fan of Goblet of Fire because of the amount of stuff they cut as well as the set design, but its my favorite book of the series, but I liked Order, even though they had to cut more stuff.

Goolam_D said...

You're right, the mediums are completely different. And from author to sriptwriter to director to audience .. interpretation seems to be the shit stirrer.

I personally don't think fantasy has too much meaning. But I think Karl Jung had some stuff to say about archetypes that applies.

KimyaShafinaaz said...

first things first.. its almost an extinct breed that can say thanks to the ability to make comparison.. between enjoying the movie aesthetic and the employing the art of imagination. most would ditch the tedious route of words and things to ride a wave of often spoon-fed colour.. (i think i just managed to highlight my prejudice :P)

Take "A Beautiful Mind" for example. The novel and screenplay adaptation by Sylvia Nasar differ gruesomely when one realised how the movie version makes you navigate the intricacies of John Nash's mental illness and schizophrenia vs his absolutely genius mind kinda like a blind person in alien territory.

But like all art, and artistic representations of the world.. the value is left up to the diversity of meaning derived from the audience..

really enjoyed reading this :) your style of writing is what did it for me! all the best..

Libra said...

kimyashafinaaz: I like your description of movie-watching as 'riding a wave of spoon-fed colour' vs reading as the 'tedious route of words and things'. In many ways reading has a lot of elements which lends itself to a more intelligent response. But I also don't think it has to be that way. Watching a movie can be as imaginatively stimulating and critical an experience as reading. And I have also known people who can read without a flicker of critical attention, simply devouring what the author is telling them to see. I think it has to do with the audience and how much effort they put into grappling with art. Its a choice really; one can deal with anything intelligently or one can sit there and let the world shape your consciousness without being an active partner in the development of your own mind.

goolam_d: Fantasy can be both profoundly meaningful or completely meaningless, being dependent simultaneously on the craft of metaphorical thinking and the luster of its metaphor. Among fantasy lovers there are both the very sophisticated and the very coarse.