I’ve been tasked with stating the case for how and why movies trump those palpable, pulpable things they call books. This might all get too technical, but fear not – this article is being adapted for the big screen, starring Morgan Freeman as a misunderstood student film critic. He’s so wise.
First up, the obvious: film films the world. What’s on the reel is real, and so what we see has a very deep connection with the literal. This changes the relationship between the literal and the allegorical, when compared with literature.
The literary trick of smuggling extra meanings under the folds of language isn’t much of an option, so films have to communicate meaning to their audience through images. A downgrade, you might think – but this is precisely the case in real life. Reality provides us with no narrational paragraph explaining what’s on someone’s mind when we’re with them. And, barring the occasional voice-over, it’s the same in film. It is our world; the world of exteriors, wherein to read another human isn’t to be given a legible code, but a mixture of their speech, their actions, their universe. Cinema is the moving image of psychology.
Narrative literature then, in its telling of events entails a translation of media (from the visual, audible and physical to the linguistic). Film has to make no such leap, and moreover its narrative mode is arguably far richer. The novel, with few exceptions, is told from either the third or first person.
And film? Well, it’s a weird hybrid: narrational point of view in films doesn’t step out of them to describe the action – it is the action. It goes beyond depicting realistic circumstances to commenting on them.
Take The Social Network – it’s Mark Zuckerberg’s story, so the camera often sides with him. But it’s also a movie about social surveillance – shown by a critical distance of the camera, which then becomes an (inevitably judgemental) onlooker. So cinema’s unique contribution to narrative is its subtle blend of subjectivity and objectivity.
There’s also the factor of actors – think about Johnny Depp. Watching Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, you’re never able to forget that this is Depp’s rendition of Willy Wonka; it is his borrowing of the role, just as Gene Wilder wore it before him. In film then, character and actor are intertwined. Film is not just about characters, but the performance of characters. Various layers of consciousness and self-consciousness are chewed up in a giant Wonka gobstopper of reality and fictionality – hence our girlish giggles as movies import the character of their performers.
To claim a picture is worth a thousand words may be a cliché, but it’s rooted in truth. Only a fraction of what we feel, communicate and understand is through language: movies pick up the slack. As David Lynch put it, when asked what one of his movies meant, ‘If I could express it with words, I’d have written a book.’