Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Imagining Details: Literature vs. Film

Sometimes I like to read the reviews included at the front of a book before starting the book itself. This was the case when I first picked up what I'm currently reading: In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien. The following excerpt from a review stood out...

"...literature's natural strength: the way in which an author can call on a reader's intelligence to help fashion a novel's effects."    - Harper's Bazaar

It got me thinking...when trying to describe something creatively within the structure of a novel/short story/etc., you can't simply set down every excruciatingly imagined, minute detail that your writerly brain can conjure up. To do so would likely mess with the flow of the work. It's very jarring to read an onslaught of description that sort of zooms you out of the narrative; and then once the description is over, to get plopped back down in the plot again. It's a delicate balancing act to thoughtfully include details - so naturally and subtlely that the reader is not consciously aware of receiving them - with just enough clarity to allow the reader's imagination to participate. Where the above quote mentions the reader's "intelligence," I think "imagination" is a more appropriate notion.

Movies can easily show us action,
with less need for the reader to "imagine" what's happening.
Photo Source
Within a movie, there are an abundance of details (objects that make up the setting the scene occurs in; the characters' wardrobes; the addition of soundtrack music to compliment the mood/emotions) - but many of these details are tucked in the background. Though the camera dictates what we see, viewers often encounter movie scenes the same way we take in the world around us. We see what we look at, we hear sounds around us. Smell, touch, and taste are harder to convey in a movie, but sight and sound typically unfold on film in a way that we recognize - in a way that requires less creative effort on the part of the viewer.

As an example, think about the scene at the end of American Beauty when Caroline (Annette Bening's character) has presumably just discovered Lester's dead body. We hear her gasping, the slam of the bedroom door. See her wet hair. Watch her open the closet doors with effort. Watch her notice and reach out for Lester's shirts. Hear the gentle clink as the hangers bump together. Hear her gasps turn to a sustained wail.  Watch her lean into the rack of shirts, clothes swaying back in unison under her weight. Hear the snap of hangers springing from the rail. Notice clothes softly crumbling to the floor, the awkward way Caroline's legs bend out behind her. All this occurs somewhat simultaneously in about 30 seconds. We absorb these details as naturally as if we're in the same room watching it all firsthand, unseen by Caroline.

How would this scene be different if presented in prose?
Photo Source
How would this same scene be different if presented in prose? It likely wouldn't do much for the reader if I wrote that Caroline is wearing a red dress and carrying a black purse. That the closet doors are painted white. That there are plaid shirts, blue shirts, and tan shirts hanging in the closet. Yet these details are also presented in the movie scene - we may notice them or not. We are likely noticing them without truly realizing it. In writing, the mention of these things may add painful bulk to the scene. Then again, writing provides descriptive opportunities that film does not: the ability to integrate touch (the softness of Lester's well-worn flannel shirt against Caroline's cheek); smell (the lingering scent of detergent on the fabric, mingled with her freshly shampooed hair, wet from the rainstorm outside); and taste (salt from her tears, an aftertaste of garlic from dinner with the man she was having an affair with).

To me, in film, the scene is served by the imagination of behind-the-scene movie folks (stylists, props, sound effects, scene dressers, etc.) These folks are responsible for determining what kind of clothes the character would wear; the objects that would be found in the character's bedroom; what music best suits the desired effect of the scene. Then they create a physical, "real life" setting by artfully arranging those details in front of the camera. As a result of all the imagination that went in on the back end, there is less imagination required from the viewer. We simply watch and listen. Film makers are able to present us with a great number of details due to the nature of the medium.

In writing, the reader is not able to absorb details in the same manner. Reading is not the same thing as watching and listening. The author must selectively decide what details to present in order to keep the story moving and not overwhelm the reader. There needs to be enough detail to breathe life into the work - to give the reader enough footing to imagine the world on the page in a concrete, personalized way - without allowing the reader to accuse the author of leaving them stranded in the dark.