Why a book is not a film

The Lumiere brothers
Image via Wikipedia

There’s a nice idea in the Ricky Gervais movie The Invention of Lying, where in a world without lies, films are now factual scripts read by their authors directly to a camera. Without lies you can’t have fiction. Or actors. In fact you can’t have films as we know them. Films are treated like books. And of course, that does not work.

There is a grammar to film. The intercutting of shots and scenes, the abbreviated narratives imposed by the act structure. These things are transparent to us because we grow up with them. But you can see their evolution in the history of film. From the Lumiere Brothers Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, through Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps scene and Orson Welles’ Citizen Cane, to the shaky cam of Saving Private Ryan. Film seems to most of us almost as natural as reality. But it is pure constructed artifice, projected at 24 frames a second.

Far fewer people learn the grammar of novels. More than ever before, but still a minority. There was never a golden age of fictional literacy in the world. Even Dickens, one of the first true literary superstars, only sold to a small number of well educated people, although he was read to a few more. We might be on the brink of such a golden age, but we aren’t there yet.

Literacy, in the West at least, is near universal. We can read cereal packets and glossy magazines no problem. But constructing a narrative out of words, sentences, paragraphs and pages can be more problematic. The Novel is a powerful narrative form, but like any form it relies on the readers familiarity with the rules of its grammar in order to work. Readers who are blind to qualities of voice and rhythm for instance often struggle with literary writing that relies on those tools.

So the popular novel performs a remarkable chameleon act, and adopts the grammar of film as its own. Scenes and settings are laid out like the opening shots taken through a camera. Most of the page is filled with dialogue, with instructions like stage prompts to inform the reader what the absent actors would be doing if they were there. Visual detail dominates description. And there is little indication of what is going on inside any characters head unless it’s revealed by an external gesture. ‘Bob nodded his head sideways with a wink of the eye.’ Do you know why Bob did that? Neither do I. The writer knows, but he’s not letting on.

Novels that only ape the grammar of film fail in more ways than one. It’s a common technique in franchise novels, where the reader can imagine all the details of the scenes and characters of their favourite TV show as they read. But they aren’t really satisfying. They are just filler between seasons of the TV show. They’re quick to write because, like FanFic, if you just sit on the surface of the narrative with characters and situations that have already been defined, there isn’t that much to think about.

And they absolutely don’t satisfy people who love reading for its own sake. Remember those prose films from The Invention of Lying? Remember how ridiculous and boring those films were? Well that’s how ridiculous and boring a book that limits itself to the grammar of film seems to me. And a LOT of other people. It’s why readers scream ‘MY EYES! MY EYES!’ when forced to read a page of Dan Brown style prose. It’s why SF, Fantasy and Horror that is written for readers trained to the grammar of film and TV, however well done, will always fail as literature. Trying to make a book work like a film is a nice shortcut, but in the end it doesn’t lead anywhere worthwhile.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

5 thoughts on “Why a book is not a film

  1. Interesting thesis – and it explains why adapting a good book to the screen is so often unsuccessful. Not only do you have to cut so much of the story, but you lose the intimacy of a close third person (or, even more so, first person) narrative. The books I enjoy – and write – are ones where you know the PoV’s thoughts and experience events through all five senses. It draws the reader in and makes the novel a much more immersive experience.

    At the same time I confess I do resort to some cinematic techniques like the establishing shot, because they are an easy way to orient the reader in an unfamiliar world. And the “in late, out early” rule is a good general discipline for maintaining pace. Readers are accustomed to the succinctness of film and have little patience for leisurely intros or lengthy denouments – they expect to be “in medias res”.

    There are some things that film does far better than fiction, of course. I try to keep my action scenes short because written prose, being linear, cannot adequately describe a busy scene with lots of things happening simultaneously. In fact action is generally tough to write – you have to be vivid and precise without getting bogged down in describing every detail.

    But then, all art is about selecting the elements that express your ideas whilst discarding the rest.


  2. Actually, I think there’s room for novels that take on filmic structure and ideas, alongside ones that are much more intimate and tell us what the characters are thinking. There are so many different types of reader who want different things from books. Let’s face it, Dan Brown, for example, is incredibly popular. I don’t believe that this is because his books are written like films or, indeed, that they’re written particularly well but I do think that the stories are incredibly gripping – a *lot* of people want that from a book.

    I also don’t buy into the idea that most adaptations of books are unsuccessful. I can think of very many that were critically and commercially successful and I think the biggest problem with book to film is people’s expectation of seeing everything from the book up there on the screen when they walk in. That’s never going to happen, for lots of reasons, but if we could turn that off and judge the film in and of itself, we might see that there are some ways that it has developed and improved upon the book whilst capturing its spirit.

    Personally, I don’t find Dan Brown offensive to read, although perhaps, especially in the Da Vinci Code, in need of a good edit. But then I’d say the same about The Lord of the Rings.


  3. Interesting view, and in its baldest expression of filmic novels I would agree. But literature is constantly evolving, and should be, as a way of analysing modern concerns. In the 21C, readers’ narrative lexicon is drawn from multiple media influences, in a way that it wasn’t even ten years’ ago, and novels need to fit comfortably into that mode of communication to transmit their essential ideas.

    We’re on the cusp of change, with many readers demanding the traditional literary ways they grew up with, and newer readers demanding a different form of communication which echoes the stories they consume from the world around them. It’s a tough job for any writer to speak to both groups. But both groups deserve the kind of fiction that appeals to them.

    Which gets me to my essential point: that in the 21C, books cannot be measured by a single yardstick. They do different jobs for different reader groups. I find Dan Brown superficial, but his novels are not designed to shine a light on the human experience. They are there to provide new information to readers who would not pick up a non-fiction book. (As an aside, this is borne out by a massive survey of readers by Brown’s UK publisher – people bought The Da Vinci Code because it “told us something new”.) It did the job it set out to do very successfully, using a form of communication that that reader group enjoyed.

    If you judge The Da Vinci Code in purely artistic terms then it clearly fails, and part of that is due to the filmic nature and lack of any kind of interior life for the characters. But art is only one metric for novels in the 21C – communication is another. Many ‘artistic’ novels fail to communicate and are just as much a failure as Dan Brown’s work.


    1. Yeah. This is one of those times when I wish I had remembered to include the paragraph which basically said “Filmic grammar used well in fiction is just fine, just don’t lose track of the strengths of fiction.” Next time. Thanks for commenting folks, very interesting perspectives.


  4. Nicely argued, Damien. I tend to side with Mark though, in the sense that cinematic language is just that: a language – and a pretty universal one at that – that belongs like any other in the writer’s toolbox. Of course, there’s a danger of confusing the word ‘cinema’ with the word ‘Hollywood’. Jean Pierre Jeunet tells how he spent considerable time analysing American films before embarking on ‘Alien Resurrection’ because the pacing and editorial style was so different to what he was use to in French cinema – a different dialect of the cinematic language if you like.

    I’d also argue it’s impossible for any writer in this day and age not to be influenced – at least to some degree – by the language of cinema and television. Perhaps, now, even the language of games. After all, it’s a language most people are exposed to from birth.



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