Sunday, 26 July 2009

Lights, Camera, Action - Gillian Philip

I watch too many movies. I should read more, watch less. But my misspent hours with my DVDs aren’t entirely wasted, professionally speaking. There are scenes in my favourite films that I’d love to be able to – well, not reproduce, obviously; that would be stealing. But I’d like to get the same energy, the same straight-to gut hit that you get from the best movie scenes.

It’s not possible, obviously. Movies don’t have to hang about describing the landscape, they just dump you straight in it. Same with character description, the weather, the background music... There are scenes that are all but perfect film moments and they couldn’t be written – or not in the same way, not as a sort of storyboard-in-a-novel. The tango scene in Moulin Rouge! could only be a movie scene; it couldn’t live that way in prose. Some movies do it better even when there is a book – Sonny Corleone’s book-bound death in The Godfather was never as elegant and brutal as the one he met in the film.

I was thinking about both those scenes recently because I’m on holiday and I ran out of books (sob), and moved all too early onto DVDs. But just as I was in the slough of despond about not being able to write a tango scene that danced, or a death scene that – well, that also danced – my eight-year-old daughter (who never seems in danger of running out of books) announced that the abridged version of Call Of The Wild was her new favourite.

‘Good pictures, too,’ says I.

‘Yes, the pictures of Buck were good. But John Thornton didn’t look like that.’

‘Oh,’ says I.

‘The pictures are good,’ she says, ‘but my mind-pictures are always the best.’

Which reminded me of something someone said recently – and I have to apologise because I can’t remember if it was here or on Facebook or somewhere else, so I have to paraphrase – ‘No two people in the world ever read the same book.’

Which is so reassuringly true: everybody has a different mind-picture. Everybody sees the same film – more or less. Visually, anyway. But everybody reads a different book. I’d love to see what readers see when they read my characters but it’s probably just as well that I never will - though I get a real kick out of hearing how someone else pictured a character or placed a scene. It’s magical to think of someone reading your words, but making his own mind-picture. (What’s more, the power of the mind-picture is consolation for any author who hates the face printed on the cover of their book.)

Besides, going back to films, it works both ways. There are words that can’t be successfully filmed – not as they were written. For Whom The Bell Tolls is one of my favourite books. It was made by a great director, word-for-word and scene-for-scene, into one of the most turgid film experiences ever.


Saviour with an S said...

I remember watching a televised interview with Alfred Hitchcock where he claimed that good novels make for bad films and dodgy books for good ones.

Paul Lamb said...

This observation is exactly why I think writers shouldn't spend too much time/effort on the clothes a character is wearing or the details in a given room. The reader is going to dress the character how he/she sees the character, often despite how that character is described. Unless some article of clothing or the gun on the wall is critical to the storytelling, I think most descriptive work like this really ought to be little more than general to give a feel of the character's looks/habit/style or the setting. The reader is perfectly capable of providing the details, and any unnecessary words are merely taking up the space some other bit of craft could be using. In fact, there is a phenomenon known as the "Nancy Drew Moment" that was commonplace in those novels for a time in which the narrative is interrupted for some detailed but thoroughly extraneous description of the character's clothing. I think there is a philosophy of writing that believes that writers must give readers every detail so they can picture the scene. I think that's baloney.

As to scenes and clothing in movies, I'm sure you realize that they don't just happen. There are crews of people who work diligently to make the room look exactly as it does or to present the landscape for exactly the right angle at exactly the right time of day, et cetera. It's unfair in a way. Movies have crews; novelists are on their own.

Magenta Orange said...

Exactly! Well done to your eight year old daughter - she understands what many publishing houses do not. It is for that very reason that I fight tooth and nail to keep pictures of my characters OFF the covers of my books. I want my readers to create the characters in their own imaginations. I do not describe what my characters look like either. Good for your daughter and have a fab holiday. xx

Rachel Fox said...

Our daughter never runs out of books either. I chose a Hilary Mantel ('Place of greater safety') as holiday reading and I think it may last me till Xmas. It's great though.

Bill Kirton said...

I like the comment of either Flaubert or, more probably Stendhal who said he didn't know the colour of a character's eyes because he was looking through them not at them.

Michael Malone said...

I'm liking this post, Gillian. Dead interesting. More please.