Friday, August 10, 2007

Splash du Jour: Friday

The present era grabs everything that was ever written in order to transform it into films, TV programs, or cartoons. What is essential in a novel is precisely what can only be expressed in a novel, and so every adaptation contains nothing but the nonessential. If a person is still crazy enough to write novels nowadays and wants to protect them, he has to write them in such a way that they cannot be adapted, in such a way that they cannot be retold.
-- Milan Kundera, in Immortality

Have a great Friday!


Merisi said...

Methinks Mr. Kundera's making a mood point, if not underestimating the intelligence of his readers: they already know that any movie adaptation of a novel they are reading will be another story, the screenwriter's and the director's, for instance, not the reader's and, least of all, the novel's writer's.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Merisi. I agree.
The medium is the message.

But so many people do blithely make the comparison between the two forms that I can’t fault Kundera for making the point.

It seems almost inescapable to hear one complain, after watching a film adaptation, that “the book was better.” Or to note with disappointment that a film character was not portrayed in the way a reader of the novel imagined him. Moot indeed.

Kundera's novels do not "translate" well to film. They defy being shoved onto the big screen. Heck, they even defy discussion of themselves as novels. (I can't wait to see what you do in reviewing this one, will be quite the challenge, eh?)

I guess I would focus more upon the first part of his quotation: the lament over the way the word is grabbed up and distilled into that narrowed range of interpretation.

The question Did you read the book? is often answered with No, but I saw the film.
Of course, here is where we separate into two hemispheres: we aren’t even discussing the same thing.

You may know that.
I may know that.
But many do not give it any thought at all.

I'd say that a point to be taken away from the Kundera quotation is that – at least where I live - we are in an age where many people do prefer the visual. It’s less work, isn’t it? A faster escapist fix. And in seeing a film, we may think that we are not missing anything.

But film forces us to obey its often linear and for the most part superficial surfaces. We have probably all seen a film with a really bad (intrusive) narrative voiceover or perhaps we have watched a character in a film hold forth in soliloquy aloud – for the most part, it’s rather unsettling. It doesn’t “work.”

Maybe the question we should be debating is not whether a valid translation is impossible but rather what IS the “essential” in that novel form that cannot be grabbed by these transformations. That is, what do we lose…and why IS it “essential” to us?

As an educator of teenagers, I feel that I need to be able to offer them some consideration of why the things that can be achieved only through the written word are of vital importance for us to value and preserve.
It is no surprise that many do not believe that they are. Or they simply have not considered the question.

Kundera’s books themselves, it seems to me, attempt to be living illustrations of the great value of those reflective qualities that only the written word can bring to us.
I don't think any lecture could achieve this better.

It is said that a good novelist teaches his reader how to read him. I find this to be exceptionally true in reading Kundera, who has said that the sole reason for a novel is to
“discover what only the novel can discover.”

We don’t have to agree with him.
But it more or less nails a key component of his work, doesn’t it? Even though he must cringe at our lifting of a passage from the whole, and discussing it, it seems a thought worth following down the rabbit hole.

Matt said...

What a great quote that speaks the truth of my mind.

Words have the irreplacable power to express nuances of emotion and what is said and not said between people in a unique way that appeals to readers.

By the way, i never got to read Immortality. Could be my next Kundera. :)

Merisi said...

I will try to take the time to write a comment, in answer to yours, in the course of the weekend. For now I'd like to interject this question into the discussion: Why is the overwhelming tenor nowadays that the word is in danger of being drowned out by the visual? I feel that this lament or interpretation of todays more visual surroundings is too pessimistic. Take the children, the young people of today, a great and diverse number of which I have had contact with in the course of the last dozen years or so. They invariably seem to me more aware of the world they live in, their own place in it, the past and the future than I ever was as a very young person. And I started reading "grown-up literature" when I had not yet reached ten years of age, had parents who valued the world and sure tried to bring us kids up the right way (TV? No way, they said, even though we were allowed to watch a few series and movies, hence no visual overload *g*). I remember reading Stefan Zweig's "The World of Yesterday", his memoirs of growing up and becoming of age in the Vienna of the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Reading the chapter about schooling in the late 19th century and later, about what he called "Universitas vitae", I felt a tremendous loss, I was keenly aware that the intellectual world Zweig was writing about was gone, had become the "world of yesterday". Now, a century later, the world seems once again on the cusp of another era, a more visual one, but I am not feeling the same loss that I felt when reading about Zweig's world. I am convinced that the written wor(l)d has never been more alive.

Merisi said...

My parents sure valued the "world", but I had intended of writing "the word". And then, Zweig's memoirs of growing up and "coming" of age.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the considered response.

I honestly don't know that we are better off or worse off today in our increasingly visual-saturated lives.

And I vacillate from feeling overwhelming confidence to mild despair in terms of today's youth.

There's something to be said about their having an enhanced awareness of "their world."
For one thing, there are many sources out there for them to utilize in shaping their views. They are readily available to them through many sources - including television and YouTube - largely visual sources that were not available to former generations.

The question of what is this "essential" thing we get from reading interests me, however, mostly because reading (and writing) seem to be mediums that foster and sharpen critical thought in a specific, logical way, as no other medium can.

It would be difficult to conduct a complex debate - or a discussion such as this one - through strictly visual means.

I have noticed the same thing you have - there are those today who feel the word is in danger of being drowned out by the visual.
Though I wouldn't say that the current climate of caution has risen to an "overwhelming tenor," every age has had its prophets and - perhaps - alarmists. I have actually read only a few writers who address the topic...and many of them are accused of being neoLuddites - or simpy grumpy old people when it comes to the new world!

If some of us sound a little hysterical about diminished reading in our culture, it's probably because we fear losing something very precious to us. Well, and maybe we feel a little grumpy too.

Enjoyed reading your thoughts on the topic. Have not read the Zweig, but it sounds interesting.

cipriano said...

I have been reading and thinking about the very interesting series of comments here, between Merisi and Anonymous.

The nature of good literature, vs. movie adaptation, etc.

I remain firmly convinced that a movie that is “better” than the book, would be either
a) an anomalous exception to the rule, or
b) the assessment of a non-literary minded moviegoer.
But it cannot be both things!
In regards to the a) scenario, what I am saying is that I suppose it is possible that a really poorly written story could be spruced up by some talented screenwriters, but again, it would be the exception to the rule.
And so, as I finally finished Kundera’s book today, I came across what I feel is almost a perfect illustration of how a book [a written sentence] can do something that a movie simply cannot do. I saw it in the first sentence of chapter 23 in Part 6 of Immortality:

When someone dies on the screen, elegiac music immediately comes on, but when someone dies whom we knew in real life, we don’t hear any music.

My God!
In that one sentence, not only is Kundera alluding to the very medium we are discussing here, [film/movies, etc.] and differentiating this medium from the experience of real life, [where we hear no musical accompaniment to tragedy], BUT, he is also allowing us to apprehend, in that same sentence, a truth that could not possibly be conveyed by way of viewing a film, unless the information were transmitted by subtitle or narration.

In other words, watching a movie, we would be leaving the apprehension of the last half of that sentence to chance!
Perhaps the movie-viewer [hearing the music] may somehow sense that all-important latter half of the idea [when someone dies whom we knew in real life, we don’t hear any music] but isn’t it more likely that they would not?
The written word does not leave it to chance.
When it comes down to it, there is no way for the visual medium [the movie] to TELL the viewer this latter portion of the overall idea, unless, as I suggested, some sort of voice-over effect was employed. And film-makers [hopefully sparingly] do resort to this when all else fails, which it often does.
Yet, in the written version, we “get it” without missing a beat.

Hence, this one sentence of Kundera’s clearly informs the attentive reader to acknowledge something in a way that the movie cannot accomplish.
The movie can only play the “elegiac music” and leave it at that.

The amazing thing about a book like Immortality, or any great piece of literature, is that one can turn to nearly any page in the book and find similar instances, where any movie adaptation is going to be missing vital nuances in its attempt to focus on the guts of the story. This is why movie-goers, who are also readers, so often say, “the book was better.”
The book was better, because the movie, of necessity, excised the very parts that were most meaningful to the reader.
This, this was the essential stuff!

Hence, I guess I agree with Kundera, that “What is essential in a novel is precisely what can only be expressed in a novel, and so every adaptation contains nothing but the nonessential.”

Merisi said...

I tend to see movies and novels as separate from each other. For instance, "The English Patient" by Michael Ondaatje is a great book, and I loved the movie, great cinematography, even though the story transported only parts of the novel's themes. Another novel, that comes to my mind and the screen adaptation of which I liked, is Henry James' "The Europeans" (I didn't mind a bit that the time frame was moved to the fall, for instance *g*). Are movies necessarily "shallower"? Sure, they last only 120 minutes after all, but they can equally well transport a message (it's me anyway, who wants to be the one dedecting a "message", I don't want to be "told").
Last night I happened to see an interview with Philipp Stölzl (the link guides you to his website), the musical director of "Benvenuto Cellini", an opera that will open this week at Salzburg Festivals. I am very impressed by his accomplishments (not only because be created that "American Pie" music video with Madonna *g*), and even though he definitely grew up loving the visual medium from a very young age (by eleven he knew what he wanted to do in life), he is a young man who is talking like someone who has read a great deal (even though he does not emphasize this, it's only my impression), with the difference that he is able to tell us stories by visual medium, which may be better than, let's say, a novel by Stuart O'Naan. I am tempted to get a ticket for the opera (if still possible), thank heaven they do show it on opening night on national TV.

cipriano said...

Interesting comments, Merisi.
There are many people, and I think that statistically it would be the majority of people, who will be more motivated to watch a movie than read a book. Considering also the social entertainment factor of moviegoing as opposed to reading [two or more people go to a movie, but rarely do two or more people sit and read the same book together, for entertainment]... the movie business will always remain a more lucrative business for those behind the scenes. Actors and film-makers will continue to make more money from what they do, than will authors and publishing houses.
Perhaps J.K. Rowling is the one exception to that rule, but even there, I would venture to say she has made more moolah from movie rights and plastic flying broomsticks than from book sales!

What I am getting at is that cinema will always be a more POPULAR genre.

And one reason that it will be so, is because it will always require greater effort and intelligence to correctly read a book, than it will to correctly watch a movie.
And people, modern people, are notoriously lazy.
Movies are the lazy-man's book, and because of the film-maker's reliance upon previously written story, the movie industry as a whole has succeeded in dumbing down our culture to the point where a movie can be enjoyed by people that cannot read AT ALL.
I am not decrying the visual arts so much as simply making a comparison between the two forms of stimuli/entertainment.
The one [movie-going] can be apprehended and understood by the illiterate, the other [reading] cannot.
And now, given a choice between these two life-situations [literacy or illiteracy] who among us would say that the latter one is the desirable state?
None of us would.
And yet, an illiterate person could watch three movies a day for their entire life, becoming a veritable movie aficionado in the process, while never becoming any more "literate" per se.
Only through reading, will they become literate [able to read and write].

My tangent is now far afield of your questions of: Why is the overwhelming tenor nowadays that the word is in danger of being drowned out by the visual? I feel that this lament or interpretation of todays more visual surroundings is too pessimistic.

To answer the first question, I would suggest that if you take groupings of young kids and ask them if they would like to spend the evening watching a movie, or reading a book, probably 9 out of 10 are going to say that they want to watch the movie. They do not want to read Black Beauty, they want to watch SpongeBob Squarepants.
And that is sort of understandable, since the literary mindset is something that often needs to be encouraged in youngsters, and if the parents themselves don't read, well, the children probably won't be encouraged in that direction.
And the reason that it is being "drowned out" is simply this... in the past, there wasn't even any water around to drown these kids in!
Movies are a recent blip in the history of the literary development of children. In other words, if you asked the same question as above [movie or book] 20 years ago, you may have had only 6, 7, or 8 kids out of ten choosing MOVIE.
But let's take it back an era or two.
How about 40 years ago? Probably half of the children would say "Movie".
What about 80 years ago?
What the hell IS a movie?
This is why I am a bit pessimistic... if we could see a bar graph of the situation, we probably should be pessimistic.

Having said all of the above, there is a situation that I yet need to discuss, and also a confession I need to make.
I will make the confession first. It is this:

And last night I watched one!
I re-watched one of my favorite movies of all time... Eyes Wide Shut, Cruise & Kidman. Stanley Kubrick.
And it perfectly illustrates the scenario I want to address.... that being... "What if the book version of the movie is virtually unknown?"
Good point.
Like, not all movies are going to be based on some tremendous work of literary art... does that invalidate the genius of a good movie?
For instance, I did not even KNOW [until now] that Eyes Wide Shut is based on the novella Traumnovelle [in English, Dream Story] by Arthur Schnitzler.
Did not even know this. But obviously, Kubrick did, and he created what amounts to an artistically wonderful adaptation of that story. [Of course, I am saying that in faith, because I have not read the story!]

All of this to say I am not opposed to the existence of movies.
I am opposed to movies taking the place of books, in people's lives.
In my above statements I am [to the detriment of my argument] appealing to extremes like literacy and non-literacy, as though there are no realms in the middle-ground, whereby people may comfortably live. I realize I am doing that. But let's stay on the topic of extremes for just one more minute as I pose the following scenario:

Let's say an election was called, and a majority-vote decision was to rule the day.
The ballot read,

I vote for the following to be stricken from the face of the earth.


Please choose one.

I do not even want to wake up for one more day of life in a world that might have voted for B) to be abolished.
But I fear sometimes that this is exactly the kind of a world we may be headed for.
Or [worse] already living in!

Merisi said...

Talking about the power of words versus images, last night I happened to view "Andiamo!", a documentary (which doesn't necessarily come accross as "documentary", but as an entertaining and thoughtful movie) by the German (I think) director Thomas Crecelius.

I think to remember that the subtitle is "The last summer in Sicily", unfortunately I wasn't able to find the movie at

The documentary follows a group of high school students from Noto, a sleepy town on Sicily's east coast, throughout the summer after high school graduation. These young people face hard choices: look for the scarce opportunities in their hometown, or leave, to study elsewhere, probably never to return, because career oppurtunities in Sicily are few and far between.

Cipriano, if you are able to find the DVD somewhere, try to watch it, and then write about your thoughts. I cannot imagine any book, read in 120 minutes' time, could as poignantly and eloquently reflect on the destinies of this group of young people.

I will try to find out what happened to one of the girls that decided to leave, to go north to Milan (or Bologna, I forgot), to study. She's planning on getting her degrees, and later work a few years abroad, in the world centers of marketing and public relations, in order to be able to one day promote her beloved little town of Noto by the sea, which in her opinion deserves to be kissed alive and introduced to world attention. This in turn, could make it possible, for the young people of coming generations, to continue living in the one beloved place they call home.

Merisi said...

You may remember the movie "Cinema Paradiso", whose plot was also set in a small town in Sicily, albeit in the 1940, and tells the story of a famous film director, who as a child fell in love with movies. This early interest gave him a way out of the rather dire prospects of life in Southern Italy. Like the young people in "Andiamo", he had to face the same choice, decades earlier, having to leave his beloved Sicily to persue his dreams. This movie also tells a story one would be hard pressed, in my opinion, to tell in 120 minutes' time in written form.

DT said...

Here's the part of the Kundera quote that bothers me: "The present era grabs everything that was ever written in order to transform it into films." For the most part, I can separate the two experiences, enjoying books and their subsequent films as two separate entities. But how often do we see films and their subsequent books? (and I mean moreso than those "novelizations" of the films that are essentially just the screenplay transcript)

cipriano said...

I think that overall, where this initial topic has veered from its original moorings is that it has tended to accentuate the divergent qualities of cinema vs. literature over against the original speculation which was simply, "what can literature do for us, which movies can not do for us?"
It is pretty obvious that literature can afford us a broader depth of interpretion than movies can afford us. In movies, we are morseo INSTRUCTED what to think, than in written word [literature]... I think this would be a salient point, hard to diasallow or contradict.
Books point us toward what to think, but cannot show us.
Movies show us what to think, but cannot point us anywhere beyond themself.