The love-hate relationship between literature and film

Are there any two fields of study with a love-hate relationship as fierce as that of literature and film? These fields are so often pitted against each other, despite their many similarities—or maybe because of them.

At the same time, it sometimes seems as though it should be impossible for one person to love literature and film equally because there are just so many differences between the two. Reading is mostly a personal, fragmented, and time-consuming activity; watching a movie, on the other hand, tends to be a communal, non-stop experience that rarely lasts longer than an hour or two, three.

It sometimes seems as though people are not supposed to love literature and film equally, either. Bookworm or movie maniac: the choice is yours, as long as you make one. It’s “the book is so much better than the movie!” vs. “books are boring” and “TV? I much prefer a good read,” vs. “I don’t have time for reading”.

Maybe these two forms of art simultaneously resemble and contradict each other to a point where peaceful coexistence is impossible. But why should it?

Shakespeare & Company, a stunning English bookstore in Paris.

Why we love literature: knowledge
I was one of those kids who devoured books. Whereas some of my friends watched a lot of TV, we went to the library every weekend. Even though my mother upheld a strict no-books-at-the-dinner-table policy, I always carried a book around in case I’d manage to sneak a few glances at a page. Genre didn’t really matter to me; I read everything I could get my hands on. Looking back now, I can’t say how it started, or why exactly I loved reading so much—I just did. It made sense to me. Words were as vital to my brain as food was to my stomach. Reading was the fuel I ran on.

In my Introduction to Literary Studies course, we discussed various explanations of why people enjoy reading. One reason: literature can open our eyes to other opinions and perspectives. It brings us in contact with ideas, emotions, thoughts, and cultures we would otherwise have had no or limited access to, hereby expanding our general knowledge and stimulating our own imagination. Reading helps us dream a little bigger.

As stated in my notes of aforementioned course,

reading can soothe our soul and carry us away; it can console us because it makes us realize we’re as important as everyone else. It can show us that we’re not alone, that other people have had similar problems; they made it through, and so will we.

In addition to this factor of comfort, literature allows us to escape our own lives for a little while. Giving someone a good book is giving them a portal to a different mind, a different universe; it’s giving them a break from their own existence.

And isn’t that just what everybody needs from time to time? Sometimes we prefer to surround ourselves with knights (A Song of Ice and Fire) and wizards (Harry Potter) rather than our own contemporaries. Sometimes we want to experience a world (The Lord of the Rings) or just simply a life (any realistic fiction) other than the one we’re already so familiar with.

Literature provides us with a peek over the fence, a glimpse into another life. What’s intriguing is that the grass isn’t necessarily greener there—in fact, fictional worlds are often much bleaker than the one in which our own comfortable first-world existences take place. Why is it that we enjoy stories like The Hunger Games?

I think part of the appeal of stories in general lies in the way literature condenses human existence. Books necessarily present a distorted view of life: they zoom in on certain aspects and ignore others. Unless it’s an extremely realistic book, it will leave out the parts where the main character takes twenty minutes to get out of bed, spends another twenty minutes in the shower thinking about all the mundane errands she’ll need to run that day, reads all status updates that were posted on Facebook overnight, etc. Instead, books tend to focus on more significant events and more intense emotions. The boring parts get snipped away. What’s left is a concentrated and exhilarating experience of life.

In a tragic story such as the aforementioned The Hunger Games, protagonist Katniss endures hardships you and I will probably never know. Nothing to be jealous of. But God, does she have a great goal to fight for. Similarly, we don’t envy Frodo for having the Ring, but isn’t it fantastic that he gets to save the world? Sure, their lows are low, but in turn their highs are sky-high–rendering the aforementioned concentrated and exhilarating experience of life even more exhilarating.

(Of course, this idea was already formulated two thousand years ago, by Aristotle. According to him, people channel their feelings through tragic tales. He called this emotional purging ‘catharsis’.)

So what about film?
Most of the above applies to film as well. Movies also have the ability to expand our general knowledge, and to provide entertainment, escapism, comfort, and catharsis. In fact, I often find movies more cathartic than books. When I saw Warrior, I was blown away. I stayed in my seat until long after the credits had stopped rolling, simply because I was still too absorbed in the story to let it go.

The reason for this, I think, is simple: film is more straight-forward. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. There are advocates of literature who like to write off movies as “dumb” compared to books:

Cinema audiences, unlike novel readers, cannot bear too much reality. Pool their respective IQs, and that of the film-watchers would be points lower than an equivalent number of public library readers…
– John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel

However, when I say film is more straight-forward, I mean that it typically takes longer to read a book than to watch a movie. More importantly, books require you to convert words to mental images, whereas movies immediately present you with the images; books, in other words, are by definition unspecific, whereas movies are necessarily specific.

Imagine these two forms of art as drugs. If books were weed, movies would be cocaine. Film is instantaneous. You walk into a movie theater and get the stuff inserted straight into your bloodstream. Sound, visuals, emotions exploding all around you. Takes an hour or two, tops. Books take longer. The end result’s the same, though—catharsis, comfort, escapism, entertainment.

Film and literature are two different roads that lead to the same destination. Often, they cross paths; over 50% of commercial movies are book adaptations. Then why do we still insist on pitting them against each other? Sometimes you crave the instant, intense catharsis a movie can provide; sometimes you want to form your own mental images and to immerse yourself in a world of words for a longer period of time. I say film and literature are interrelated yet independent forms of art, and I refuse to choose. I love ’em both equally.


8 thoughts on “The love-hate relationship between literature and film

  1. I agree and think you can easily love both, but I think that there is still an intellectual snobbery out there that dictates one always must say “oh the book was better”, even when that is not always the case. For example, The Shawshank Redemption was an OK novella by Stephen King, but the movie elevated the subject matter significantly, if not with a bit of sentimentality. What I have problems with when a book is turned into a film is the general reductive quality of the movie. Gigantic worlds in books are sifted down to their essentials for movie consumption, an action that tends to be necessary as most movies are only 2 hours and books can over eons. Personally I find it foolish to eschew one medium for the other and aim to take both on their own merits.

    1. Yeah, it’s the intellectual snobbery that gets me, I think. Movies are just as much pieces of art as books are. They’re just different but that doesn’t mean they each have their own merits, as you say.

      Thanks for your well-thought out comment.

  2. i think that films and books should be treated as two separate entities. this is because with a book you adapt it in your mind, using your imagination inventing a world which only you know. therefore when the movie is made it will be one or a small number of peoples adaptation of the book. how could their imagination possibly come up with the same scenery, imagery and ideas which you conjured in your mind? for this reason i never compare books and movies because it is one persons perception on the importance of each section in the book
    lovely post though :)
    i also love both books and films :)

    1. Definitely – a movie adaptation is merely an interpretation of a written work. It can never be the ‘one true’ depiction of that book because, as you say, every reader creates their own world in their imagination.

      Thank you for commenting!

  3. I really enjoyed reading your post. I agree with you wholeheartedly regarding the relationship between literature and film. They are similar with shared experiences, though completely independent from one another as well.

    And if I may point out my favorite sentence of yours and quote: “Film and literature are two different roads that lead to the same goal.” Though I would also argue that all great art, regardless of the medium, has the same goal in mind. To touch on the human experience within our own scope in time.

  4. Catharsis, or purgation, may have something to do with the popularity of THE HUNGER GAMES, but I’d attribute it more rightly to bloodsport and dystopia! Nice piece.

    1. You’re definitely right – dystopian stories have always been popular (I’m partial to them myself too) and I know I used to adhere to a “the bloodier, the more exciting” rule when I was the YA target age. Except YA wasn’t the ‘in’ thing back then, so now I have to pinch all those books from my little sister in order to know what I’m talking about…

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