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The Futile Shortcut to Reading Books: What is Lost Through Movie Adaptations?
When I was at the hospital waiting room the other day, I cracked open my favorite book and began to read. The woman next to me impatiently tapped her foot, looked up at the TV screen until she lost interest, flipped through a magazine for a while, and then finally peered at me. “That’s one bulky book. What’s it called?” she asked me.
“The Lord of the Rings,” I said, showing her the book jacket. Her short hair that curled at the ends and her tangerine tan reminded of an Oompa Loompa from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I tried to ignore this to the best of my ability.
“That must be at least 1,200 pages,” she said, and gave a massive huff. “I definitely don’t have the time to read that, let alone any book. In fact, I don’t remember reading a book ever since college, and that was…”
Here, she pauses and starts counting on her fingers. My eyes grew wider as I watched. The lady finally replies, almost in a proud manner, which is even more startling than the numbers, “14 years ago.”
After learning about a few reading statistics, I realized that it was not just that Oompa Loompa lady, but 40% of adults, who have not been reading books after college.
According to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), there has been a decline of 10% or the loss of 20 million American literary readers from 1982 to 2002.
And we had thought that Harry Potter transformed this generation’s children into lifelong readers, but it is even worse for the young: the loss is 28%.
So why haven’t we been reading? The problem is not time, because (if I’m right) we had the same 24 hours before and now.
It is because we feel a sort of restlessness in our lives, a constant reminder of the pressures that upon us, and a distraction from technology that does not allow the space to sit down with a good book. We feel an illusion that our world is too hectic to get lost in another.
With an average of thirty novels being made into films for the big screen according to bookreporter.com, people realize a “nifty” shortcut. Why, a novel takes a few weeks to read and its movie adaptation can’t last more than three hours. You could simply go to Regal Cinema, gain a time-efficient visual version of a book, and get on with the rest of your life. How clever, isn’t it? Not.
Let me ask you a question. Why in the world did the woman in Fahrenheit 451 choose to get burned with her books? She wasn’t trying to rescue her movie DVDs, was she? It was the books she cared about—so much that she was willing to die with them. But what’s so special about stacks of pages held together by string?
I remember trying to read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when I was in fourth grade, but I couldn’t get into it. Then I watched the movie, and next instant, I was reading the book. However, all the way through, it was Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, etc. that I pictured and it was the director Chris Columbus’s film settings and scenes that were embedded into my head. I didn’t have the opportunity to use my imagination to turn the words on the page into original pictures in my head. Repeat this situation six more times for the rest of the Harry Potter books, and you should get an idea of how one movie deterred my enjoyment for seven novels.
If you read a book before watching the movie, believe it or not, you have already produced your own perfect movie version. The possibilities are endless. You create the cast, you visualize the locations, you set the pace, and you fix the tone of the dialogue—all in your head. The writer painted a picture using words as his or her paintbrush, and with each small detail and sentence you read, you add more and more lenses to sharpen the image. Inside your head, your mind is exercising away on its treadmill and your creative machines are actively turning. In a movie, however, the director’s imagination is simply flashed on the screen and you receive it passively, very much sitting like a couch potato.
Some argue that imagination isn’t always positive. That is true, in fact. But books are not the cause of it.
In the book, Lord of the Flies, a group of boys stranded on an island slowly surrender to the grip of savagery. Their imagination brings the “Beast” into existence, and the Beast becomes such a dominant pretended source of evil that one boy named Jack insists on giving offerings to it. This feeds evil with more evil, and in the end, fear takes control of the boys and all sense of innocence is lost.
As depressing as Lord of the Flies is, negative imagination does not sprout from the book itself; it comes from the negative thoughts of the reader. In order to avoid this, remember that your mind is precious, and if you allow ugly thoughts to break through, you can’t get rid of them. In the book, The Road, as a father and son walk though a post-apocalyptic America, the father reminds his son, “Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever.… You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget.” (10)
And while you can control your thoughts when reading books, that is not the case when seeing movies.
Have you ever been fascinated by all those flickering and changing colors on the movie theater screen? Al Gore calls this “orienting response.” The shifting images have a scary effect: they transfix you and have the power of telling you what to think. The pictures are moving so fast that you don’t have the chance to question its truth. It looks right, so you believe it.
With a book, you can shut it, step back for a moment, ponder on the material, and reread passages as many times as you want. “Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly,” said Cornelia Funke, the author of the Inkworld trilogy.
And how can a movie adaptation possibly measure up to its book when so much of the book’s content is being deleted in the movie screenplay? For instance, Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix, the 870-page story, was on a serious diet when it was changed into its 2-hour film medium. A picture may be a thousand words, but what’s the point if it’s there one second and gone the next, too quick to allow us to study it?
Scenes can be removed and the storyline can have variations—sometimes too many that the film becomes unrecognizable to the book. For example, except for the fact that it is about a family of a dozen children, the book and the movie of Cheaper by the Dozen stand at opposite poles.
Why is that, before, people were happy walking several miles to borrow books from the library, and now don’t have the attention span to read two chapters of a book? Why is it that reading is seen as an antisocial activity when the same can be said about watching movies? And yet we find ourselves seated in the movie theater every time we’re with our date or friends?
Why is that many people don’t read books for pleasure anymore? Why?
Ray Bradbury predicted a dystopian world where “Hamlet was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: 'now at least you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbors.’” (61). Is that where we are heading? Is that our future?
The web has increased our appetite for information, and we are constantly reading when we are on the internet. And the fact that you are still reading this last paragraph of the article is an achievement as well. But what about reading the “old-fashioned” and the “yesterday’s” diversion—good ol’ books?