I’m sorry that the new film of All The King’s Men didn’t get better reviews. Especially since I think it’s one of the best American novels ever written. So I’m sorry.
But I’m not surprised. The process of making a film – whether from a novel, a short story, a song-- anything, for that matter -- is fractious. It’s a process through which the end result, with rare exceptions, often bears little resemblance to the original.
I know that, because before I wrote novels, I made films. I spent over 25 years producing news, documentaries, and then industrials. Don’t get me wrong. I loved making films. In fact, while pursuing a graduate degree at NYU, I thought I might become the Lina Wertmuller of the US (okay, I’m dating myself).
And when I started working in network news, I had visions of becoming the female Edward R Murrow.
It doesn’t matter that my fantasies exceeded my grasp. I love telling stories visually. I love the joy of a beautiful pan, a crisp close-up of an actor’s face, Most of all, I love the magic of editing-- when you cut and shape a scene, and – by god – it works!
To this day, I still get a little thrill every time I’m in a theater and the lights dim, the curtains sweep apart (well, maybe not so much now) and the projector clicks on, signaling an escape from this world for a few hours. It’s a wonderful outlet for emotions, as well… and I’m a sucker. I cry early and often. In fact, the protagonist of my series is a documentary producer. And I’d love someone (other than me) to turn those books into films.
Despite all that, I’ve come back to words. The problem is that the filmmaking process is by nature collaborative, and each collaborator seeks to put his or her stamp on the process. If it’s not controlled by a strong director, the result can be a mess. Before production, scripts can be rewritten each time the “product” changes hands or a higher level production executive comes on board. Then there’s the director, the art director, the cinematographer, the costume designer, the actors, each of whom might have a different vision for the film. Once photography is complete, there’s the editor, the sound mixers, and the special effects team, all of whom can alter the film in significant ways.
Which is why I came back to words. Writing is still a solitary activity. But it’s my solitary activity. Sure, my agent and editor make comments, but they are careful to label their advice as “suggestions.” I like that. I also love the fact that in writing, I have five senses to explore, not just sight and sound. Both prose and film have their own rhythm and pace, but prose allows a reader to set the pace. We can dawdle over each word and idea, reread passages (as Kevin and Laura pointed out yesterday), or hurtle ahead to the next page. We are not held captive to an external, manufactured pace.
And then there’s that thing called imagination. While I love watching someone else’s interpretation of a character or a location on film, as a writer I trust my reader’s imagination to conjure up an image. It’s up to me to select the details that I think are important, but the end result will be the reader’s choice, and I love the fact that one reader may end up with one image of a person or place, while another will have a very different one.
Reading… and writing… takes more time. And it requires more energy. And that is one of the problems. We either don’t have the time or choose not invest the time to read. Or write. It’s quicker to snap on the tube, rent a DVD, or click on a link. In fact, it’s frightening how swiftly and quickly the number of people who read fiction has declined. But then, that issue – and what to do about it -- is a different blog.
What do you think? Which do you prefer – film or prose?