Monday, December 27, 2010

What a Picture is Worth

Movies have several advantages over books. They can switch easily switch between different character's point of view without confusing the audience. A few bars of music and special lighting can set the mood. Action is clearer. A character can be established in one quick shot. So can setting.  A picture can, indeed, be worth a thousand words.

I went to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 1 today at the theater. It's my one movie this year. If you've seen it, you know how the empty, lifeless rooms of the Black family mansion further the feeling that Ron, Hermione, and Harry have been cut off from family. A bicycle and school books litter Sirius Black's old bedroom as if his boyhood was abruptly abandoned, reflecting the situation of Hermione, Ron, and Harry. Later on, when they're on the run, they camp out in increasingly remote locations, further enforcing the idea that they're isolated.

It's skillful visual storytelling. The set design, the cinematography, the makeup, and costumes work together with the script and the actors in every shot to make it clear to the audience that this quest has a high price for each of the three characters. The special effects and action sequences are the height of film making artistry.

I read the book though, so I expected to see that on the screen. I suppose it would be fairer to deconstruct a movie that I had no expectations going in and talk about how the story was revealed. But the thing is, writing and motion pictures are different kinds of storytelling. While I admire a well crafted movie, my focus is on writing. Can I learn about the craft of storytelling from movies? Sure. When I write a story, I envision it in my imagination much like watching a scene from a movie. We're from a visual generation. It's hard to get away from that. When I want a reader to know how a character feels, I give visual cues about their state of mind through their body language. However, movies are limited in the scope of what they can show. Novels aren't. Novels can weave depth of detail, memory, and complexity of emotion in ways that movies never can. So like Lisabet, when I watch a movie, I'm there to immerse myself in it, not to analyze it. I recognize elements of craft, but don't dwell on it. Sometimes, most of the time, it's enough to be entertained.


  1. hi Kathleen!

    I'm still waiting to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I've read about half of the book, mostly on audio in my car, and i'm amazed at what a mature novel it is. its hard to think of it anymore as a kid's book even though it introduced a whole generation of kids to the joy of losing yourself in a good book. And they are very good books. Even the literary snobs who attack Stephen King and Stieg Larrson can't touch J K Rowling. Her books will stand the test of time. Having read your blog, I can;t wait to see the movie. The Potter movies are iconic for my kid in much the same way the Beatles were iconic for my generation, because like the boomers and the Beatles, this generation grew up watching Harry Potter, from the time my son and Harry Potter were little kids together, until now that they're both almost men.


  2. Garce -
    My eldest daughter refuses to see Deathly Hallows 1 until II comes out because she wants to do it in one fell swoop. I don't blame her. I'll probably see this one again before I see the last one. It was harder to say goodbye to the books than it will be to let go of the movies for me.
    Is every sentence J K Rowling wrote textbook perfection of the craft of writing? No. Do I care? No. I hardly noticed, because I was immersed in the story. I should be so lucky to create a world that leaves readers aching when it ends.

  3. Hi Kathleen,

    I loved the Deathly Hallows movie. I was very frustrated that they didn't release both parts together (given that they've already been made). I went back and watched the first 5 movies before I went to Deathly Hallows (I couldn't bring myself to watch the 6th because it was so depressing).

    You are spot on about what makes the movie work. It is beautifully done, and yet it still lacks the depth of the book.

    I was one of those who waited each year for the next Potter book to come out and immersed myself in it as soon as it was in my possession. One of the books came out while I was working in Holland in a place where I new no one. Strangers would see me reading the book and ask me who my favourite character was and which I thought was the best book. Somehow, Rowling managed to tap deeply into our imaginations and created something new that we all had in common. And then she kept doing it. For years. Movies can't really do that.

    But I surely love the things that they can do.

  4. Mike - Yes! I love the community of HP fans. One year, we had no intention of going down to the bookshop at midnight to buy the latest release (I believe it was Half Blood Prince) but the cats got into a massive fight that made it impossible to get back to sleep, so we said "what the heck, we're up anyway" and went down to the store. In the parking lot were about thirty kids who looked a lot like the soccer hooligans I'd seen in Germany. They were sitting on the curb, reading.

    Movies had their own special magic. If it weren't for the massive headaches I get in theaters, I'd go more often.

  5. Hi, Kathleen,

    In some ways, I think it's easier to convey emotions in a movie. The human sensory system is dominated by vision - as you point out, just one or two shots is enough to evoke a mood. A film director has many tool available: light, color, composition, angle, speed of motion, image resolution, field of view... All we poor writers have are words.


  6. Lisabet - They do have it easier with mood. They also have it much easier with action sequences. I'll admit that in many books, I lose track in fight scenes, and I can't picture what's happening. On screen, it's all pretty clear, and it happens fast instead of taking a couple pages to describe.


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