The Book. The Movie.

During my long teaching career at the University of Illinois, and my occasional teaching for the Vermont College of Fine Arts, the subject of Film vs. Fiction Writing would inevitably arise in class.

My undergraduate students, especially, often seemed to begin the writing of their stories as a form of translation, from film storytelling conventions to typed words on a page: plot-driven narratives, with physical action taking precedence over internal drama and character insight.

I remember my students—even those ardently supporting the power of film—being shocked when I made this simple observation: that movies are only able to present third-person narratives, whereas the narrative arsenal available to writers of fiction (and nonfiction) include first-, second-, and third-person narratives. “Film,” I might say to their skeptical faces if I felt a little feisty, “is an inferior narrative genre.”

I’d go on to say that film, because it is so relentlessly visual, relies on the actor’s physical gestures and expressions to give a hint of what a character might be thinking. But those hints are never able to go as deep as the fiction writer’s simple “He thinks,” or “She imagines,” which efficiently open the vast interior spaces of a character’s emotional world.

When it comes to revealing characters’ deepest inner thoughts, movies try to work around the limitations of the practiced mobile facial features of even the most accomplished of actors by manipulating lighting to set an emotional tone; taking extra care on costuming; and the use of insinuating background music. Orchestral soundtracks, especially, provide stirring, ominous, or joyous emotional cues for the audience. Movies sometimes rely so much on musical saturation that you might say film is a form of opera, but without the singing.

And what about first-person narration, where the story is told from the point-of-view of one of the characters? For an example, the narrator of the novel Billy Bathgate, by E. L. Doctorow,

looks back at a distant moment in his life when he made a decision to join a crime boss’s gang:

Nobody said not to so I jumped aboard and stood at the rail, frightened as you might expect, but a capable boy, he had said that himself, a capable boy capable of learning, and I see now capable of adoring worshipping that rudeness of power of which he was a greater student than anybody, oh and that menace of him where it might all be over for anyone in his sight from one instant to the next, that was what it all turned on, it was why I was there, it was why I was thrilled to be judged so by him as a capable boy, the danger he was really a maniac.

Billy’s jumping aboard that boat is certainly film-able, but his calculating internal decision is not. And neither is Billy’s particular perspective: that of his somewhat wiser and older present self regarding his younger and reckless self.

A movie version of Billy Bathgate was made and it was a big flop, despite having stars like Dustin Hoffman, Nicole Kidman, Stanley Tucci and Bruce Willis. Why this fate? Because Billy’s singular narrative voice–poetic and yet awkward, rough edged yet also self-critical and regretful–the voice that made Doctorow’s novel so memorable, was lost in the physical medium of film. Without the first-person narrative richness of that voice, the movie had a hollow center.

As far as I know, only one movie boasts having a first-person point-of-view, 1947’s film noir Lady in the Lake (based on the novel by Raymond Chandler).

And I do mean boast. The movie’s trailer declares Lady in the Lake to be “a startling and daring new method of storytelling,” as if no one in Hollywood had ever read a novel before.

This movie, too, was a flop, despite all its claims of revolutionizing the movie industry.


A misunderstanding of what constitutes first-person narration.

In the film, we follow the main character viewpoint of the detective Phillip Marlowe. The only time we catch a glimpse of Marlowe himself is when he’s speaking to some other character who stands before a mirror:

We see through Marlowe’s eyes, literally. And awkwardly: the camera slowly turns when Marlowe looks to the left or right, as if his eyes’ gaze was dependent on the turning of his head. But this is not how people look at the world: our eyes flit about in their sockets with speed and ease. Also, the camera moves too smoothly. Here’s Walter Murch, in his excellent book on the art of film editing, In the Blink of an Eye, quoting the director John Huston:

“Look at the lamp across the room. Now look back at me. Do you see what you did? You blinked. Those are cuts. After the first look, you know there’s no reason to pan continuously from me to the lamp because you know what’s in between. Your mind cut the scene. First you behold the lamp. Cut. Then you behold me.”

Also, in the movie when there’s a knock on a door we see that door getting closer as Marlowe approaches, his hand reaching out to turn the doorknob. Who looks at the doorknob when opening a door? More likely we’re trying to visualize in our minds who this visitor might be. First-person narration is more than a mere visual perspective, it’s also the unveiling of the narrator’s complex and conflicted thoughts.

You can see some of the awkwardness that I’ve mentioned above in the trailer for the movie:

Perhaps the worst failed-first-person-moment in Lady in the Lake is also one of the film’s (potentially) most dramatic scenes. The disgruntled cop we saw Marlowe slug in the trailer has run Marlowe’s car into a ditch on an isolated stretch of roadway. Marlowe is knocked unconscious from the crash, and the cop pours alcohol all over him, then makes a call complaining about a drunk driver. When Marlowe wakes up, he hears the sirens of an approaching police squad. Realizing he’s been set up, he’s unable to do more than try to crawl across the dirt road, where scrub brush might hide him. We see, from his perspective, his hands grasping at the gravel road, making slow progress as the sirens grow louder and louder.

And that’s it, merely his visual perspective of his grasping hands and the road. But a true first-person perspective would be roiling with thoughts: concern about his injuries and anger about the crooked cop while calculating the possible consequences of getting arrested by that approaching police squad, for starters. It’s as if Marlowe’s mind is frighteningly hollow, empty of the thoughts and emotions we all would have if in his circumstances.

Sometimes, the medium of film can wrestle with its inherent limitations and attempt to alert the audience to a deeper understanding of the invisible. Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman (him again!) immediately spring to mind. Both films move seamlessly from the exterior world to a stylized version of the mind and back again. Spotless Mind has a particularly thrilling extended sequence when Joel resists and hides inside his mind to fight against his memories of his former lover Clementine being erased by a creepy medical procedure.

On the other hand, a skilled director can set up a scene without direct access to interiority so that we can understand what the other characters in the film cannot. Lingui, the Sacred Bonds, written and directed by Mahamat Saleh Haroun, is set in N’Djamena, the capital of the Central African nation of Chad.

Haroun has so skillfully woven the plot and the slow drip of the story’s revelations that when we come to the last scene, a celebratory gauntlet of dancing, singing women, we know what the women are secretly celebrating, while none of the men in the scene has a clue. The entire movie seems to have been moving toward this brief exhilarating window into the hidden inner lives of these women living in and quietly resisting a patriarchal culture.

And yet, even when movies do rise above the mechanics of plot to limn the outlines of their characters’ inner worlds, they too often fall far short of what fiction can so easily achieve. I have to agree with Zia Haider Rahman when she recently wrote, in The New York Review of Books:

If our reading experience of a first-person novel is substantially conditioned by the particular perspective of the character telling the story—when is it not?—then recreating that reading experience through the third person of film is impossible. There’s a basic difference between fiction grounded in the interiority of characters, on the one hand, and film and TV, on the other. Novels do interiority and the drama of the mind infinitely better than TV and film do.

And that is why, if I am interested in watching a movie based on a novel, I will always, always read the novel first.


Like this? Try also “The Hidden Face,” a craft essay about the fluidity of facial expressions, and how they still pale compared to our hidden thoughts.


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