What Literature Can Do That Film Cannot

When I was a kid, I read a lot, and was read to. Certain books stand out as having shaped and immeasurably enriched my life. Tolkien, Narnia, Watership Down, Viking tales that I now can’t remember the names of. Later, it was Sci-fi, Ursula Leguin, Asimov, lots of historical fiction. In college and afterwards there were Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, Melville, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, Robert Stone, Thomas McGuane, Patrick O’Brian, many others. Too many novels to remember or name.

Often, taking up these books was a way to escape from the difficulties of being young in the hard-bitten New Hampshire mill-and-college town where I (mostly) grew up. Whatever the reason, I learned through this experience the same thing all bookish kids do -- that books, and especially novels, have the power to strike an almost musical chord of emotions.  The novelist John Gardner referred to this effect as the “vivid, continuous dream” of fiction. 

Now, film is a wonderful art. It’s an important art, and in recent years there have even been some excellent shows on TV. But you can’t get the same kind of transportation from visual media.  Films don’t last as long as books, for one thing, and the experience is just nowhere near as deep. 

The enrichment film bestows upon viewers is qualitatively different than the enrichment books bring to readers: more superficial, less comprehensive. Why? Because the less effort you put into something, the less you get out of it. The less imagination required to participate in a fictional narrative, the more passive and distanced the audience. Books give readers an ownership stake in the creative process.

You can get much closer on the page, and the experience can be so much more complex.  With literature, but not with film, it’s common to find yourself laughing and crying at the same time. The novelist Robert Stone once told me that we all possess two stories: the one we’re carrying around inside, and the one we’re experiencing in the exterior, material world. Where interior and exterior meet is where viable literature happens. Film can’t effectively project that interior story.

Let’s take Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as an example. Have you seen the movies? Did you read the books first? What are the main differences between the two experiences, do you think?

Here’s what I think:

1)    Characters. Reading the books takes a long time, months or at least weeks. We get involved with the characters. They become almost like good friends to us. We experience the story alongside them, and even, quite often, from inside their minds.  We empathize with their emotions. At times our identification may be so strong that we forget ourselves entirely; our thoughts and emotions and visions become theirs for a time.  In the movie we may have an inkling of this effect -- maybe one of the reasons people go see them again and again -- but it’s nowhere near the same thing. In reading the books, the characters have entered our consciousness permanently -- they’ve become our friends for life.

2)    Description and setting. The scenery in the Lord of the Rings movies is very beautiful, and Peter Jackson has done a wonderful job with it. But our appreciation for it is fleeting, like lush, spectacular landscape viewed from the window of a bus. In the books, we dwell within the setting. We’re there for a much longer period of time. In fact, if we’ve been reading actively, our own imaginations have been engaged, with Tolkien, in the act of creating the setting, and we’re left with the sensation of having actually been to Middle Earth; not just of having seen it up on a screen.

The world you experience when you read the books is absolutely unique -- you and Tolkien together have created, in effect, your own, intensely vivid landscape, a landscape that is at once deeply troubling and profoundly beautiful. So it enters your consciousness. It enlarges your perspective. Also -- and this is why I just used that word, troubling -- Tolkien is adept at using the setting to reflect and refract the emotion of the story.

Now that’s a dimension -- the emotional refraction of setting -- that film can’t do with anywhere near the same degree of subtlety or completeness. It’s one of the many reasons that literature is unique, and that it’s not going to go away any time soon. Literature fulfills basic human needs. Literature is essential, because it offers a way to experience the world not offered by any other art.


  1. I really enjoyed this post Tim. You make a compelling argument and I’m not sure anyone who’s read a book that moved them would challenge you. I would posit that TV Dramas such as Deadwood combine phenomenal storytelling with brilliant acting and cinematography to accompany. In this realm on could argue other shows as well.

    However, the unmistakable difference is in your quote, “Books give readers an ownership stake in the creative process.” I like the way David Foster Wallace explains this:

    Books will always be the most intimate form of art. A good TV drama can deliver, never as intimately, but on some level of edification in today’s sound bite world.

  2. Thanks Derrick. I agree about Deadwood, and indeed, many of the current crop of TV shows are quite excellent, as are a good many films. I definitely don't mean to diss film as a narrative art form - after all, there are many things film can do that literature cannot. I guess my main point is that narrative fiction ain't going anywhere, because it offers a certain kind of deeply satisfying human experience that no other art form can.

  3. You know what? I think books would do as horrible a job of translating if we tried to take something written for screen and lock it inside the pages of a 600 word novel. There are some powerful movies out there like Shawshank Redemption, or Titanic or something like that. The truth is maybe film makers should make fils and novelists should write novels. Let's not borrow each other's art

  4. Thanks for commenting, Michael. For the most part I agree with you; one only need look at some of the crappy novels that have been written to capitalize on popular films to see that what you're saying is true. There are many great films out there, and I am an enthusiastic appreciator of the medium. As a fiction writer, though, I'm always happy to notice the things that novels can do better - because in this age of digital entertainment, we're definitely the underdogs!

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.