“When I look back, I am so impressed again with the life-giving power of literature. If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young.”
Maya Angelou was one of the wise people. Wisdom is an endangered species in the information age. Information, knowledge transfer, unlimited cyber- data accessibility. It has never been easier, or harder, to learn stuff. Easier in the sense of information finding and retrieval; harder in the sense of understanding, assimilating, applying and allowing what is learned to become transformative of who we are.
Angelou is right. Reading of literature allows us to enter stories not our own, and find ourselves there. A novel is not only a story, it is a world into which we enter, with people we encounter, conversations we overhear and circumstances we experience in the imagination, rehearsing the questions, experimenting with answers, and like pilots in a flight simulator, practice the moves and manoeuvres that might some day save our lives.
Can that same process take place watching a film? Reading an average novel takes 8 hours assuming 40 pages an hour or a 300 page story. Even a long film is over in 150 minutes. Going by my own experience, and with no claims it has to be so for anyone else, I've found some films to be just as transformative as reading a novel. That said, the experiences are not comparable at the points that matter most. Written stories depend on words being chosen and crafted; context being created and made credible, at least within the imaginative world of writer and reader. But I wonder if novels depend rather more on description and imaginative sympathy in the reader, to enable characters to form and grow and become living agents in the story.
Yes there''s the film script, and the good direction that enables characters in a film to emerge into their identity and seek to win the assent or resistance of the viewer, just as in the novel. But the written story has the great advantage of slowed down reading, re-reading, pausing between chapters for seconds, minutes, hours, even days, during which time the story slowly seeps into the mind and emotional biosphere of the reader.On the other hand, in less than two hours a film can so impress itself on the mind and memory, the conscience and emotions, that seeing it the first time is a memorable and world-view altering experience. I think of Schindler's List, The Mission, Patch Adams, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Kite Runner, The Shawshank Redemption, The Reader, as films chosen at random which at the very least demanded, or at least encouraged, some reconsideration of how I viewed the world, myself or other people.
I suppose the adaptation of a book for the screen is a good way of understanding some of the differences and similarities of these two experiences of story - story read, and story viewed. Reading Pride and Prejudice is an education in manners, motives and mischief, conducted by an author whose scalpel is precise and whose skill exquisite in opening up the inner machinations of social control and personal exchange; watching the BBC adaptation is an altogether different experience, but done faithfully to the original, it can achieve much the same effect. I recently watched Gregory Peck as the lawyer in To Kill A Mocking Bird; would I have needed to read the book to feel the ethical earthquake rumbling through that whole film?
In a world now incurably visual, even digital in its story-telling, the written word, literature remains an essential humanising and transformative medium. Having just read Lila by Marilynne Robinson, I am persuaded all over again, the written story remains a means of grace. But then, having watched To Kill a Mocking Bird in all its black and white and grey portrayals of human moral behaviour, I'm equally convinced that film has the same capacity to shake our assumptions and shatter our complacencies.