(Actually, I demur slightly from the above quote…read on to the end of the article to find out why)
If your family is anything like mine, (and, let’s be honest, it probably isn’t) your mom probably told you something along the lines of “books are better than movies”. This is another famous variation: You: “Mom, can I watch the movie?” Mom: “Did you read the book?” Basically, if you haven’t read the book, no dice.
Some people take the “Movies V.S. Books” debate in stride, and don’t really have an opinion. They like entertaining books and hate boring movies. I get that; it’s the case with all of us. Even with books that eventually become movies or acclaimed TV series, people who liked the book are likely to enjoy the movie, right?
Just for posterity, I’m going to state that this has nothing to do with a scolding “too much TV is bad for you” kind of spirit you probably encountered when you were a kid. In fact, I would counter that too much reading can be equally as bad for you, if not worse given all the crap on the market nowadays. People like to complain about the crapshoot that is modern cinema. If you look at the quality of literature one hundred and fifty years ago versus the quality of literature today, you can see how much farther we’ve sunk.
But this isn’t that kind of article either. I’m going to take a look at the objective facts behind the storytelling capacity of books and movies and make a verdict as to which one is better at doing the job. As the title suggests (Spoiler Alert!) I’m going to conclude that books are better.
There are many, many mediums of telling a story. Books, movies, paintings, RPGs, video games, comics, verbal storytelling, music, and a whole lot of others. Some tell the story clearer and more concisely than others. This is just indicative of certain mediums of storytelling just being better.
Why movies then? Well, before movies and books came on the scene, the only ways of relating stories where through drawings on the walls in caves, word of mouth, and later ballads. When these became decrepitated and archaic, books came on the scene and stayed there for quite some time.
Just over a hundred years ago, the Wizard of Menlo Park came along (Thomas Edison) and decided to try telling a story using pictures instead of words. Thus were infant movies created, destined to become (arguably) the most popular way of telling a story; a position proceeded by novels and ballads before that.
I am not saying that you should never watch a movie or experience any other kind of storytelling art ever again. Movies have their place. Movies probably occupy second place when it comes to communicating stories through art. They’re not better than books, however, for reasons that I will now disclose.
First reason: Most movies can’t handle a narrative that is the size necessary for a book. Since the whole of a movie is usually at the optimal viewing time of 100 minutes to 2 hours (I honestly prefer movies that are two and a half hours long, at least), there is no way that they can tell as much story as a 500-page novel is so short an amount of time. The consequence is that there is just less story to go around. Less development of character, less dialogue, smaller cast of characters, cut scenes from the book.
Second reason: Movies don’t have a very good way of telling the viewer what the characters are thinking. I don’t say that this is impossible, and if you’ve watched older movies, sometimes what the characters are thinking takes the form of an echo-ey-sounding narration. However, this is just directors borrowing from novels to better tell their story, since they can’t do so effectively on their own. There are other ways of doing this, but usually you miss out on the classic “Joey thought, boy, does it smell in here” and straightforward way of telling the reader in an obvious fashion.
And, let’s be honest here: there is an ever-present temptation to abuse cinema for money. This happens all the time. A lot of poorly-made stories can garner impressive box office gross and high ratings. Why? Because there’s a lot of people willing to spend money to watch a movie. Even worse, the most popular entertainment companies want to express political points through film. The whole deal has gone from bad to worse.
Not to say that there aren’t good movies still being made, or that good storytelling has all but vanished. We’re at a steep incline (and I would love to see us improve, *cough cough* Disney *cough cough*) but it’s not all bad. However, one thing I am sure of: by-and-large, books are better than movies.
(In response to my statement up top…some books fall into the dilemma that movies more often do: they don’t tell as much story, the quality stinks, or some other deal. Compare the book Polar Express with the movie. There’s really no contest. This can sometimes be more drastic, like the original How to Train Your Dragon books versus the movies (which were pretty good, by my estimation). “Always” is just too broad of a term for me.)
Good luck, and happy writing!
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Until then, writers!