Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Lessons from the Hoopskirt Brigade

by Stephanie Black

The movie Gone With the Wind is a great classic, a masterpiece, and a host of other good things, or so I hear. I’ve seen it, mind you, but it doesn’t stand out in my mind as particularly thrilling because I can’t help comparing it to the book.

Gone With the Wind is one of my all-time favorite books. I’m firmly of the opinion that if you’ve only seen the movie, you haven’t even begun to enjoy GWTW. You’ve sat down to Christmas dinner, but you've bypassed the prime rib and just nibbled on the olives and carrot sticks.

It’s rare indeed for a movie to approach the power of a book, and I think there are a number of reasons for that. When a book gets translated into a screenplay, a good chunk of the story, by necessity, gets cut out (for example, Scarlett has three children in the book, but only one in the movie. And there’s no mild-mannered Will Benteen helping out during the desperate days at Tara). Characters don’t necessarily match your idea of them (Melanie in the movie is not frail and petite like in the book). Some scenes don’t play out like you pictured them (The last scene in the movie bugs me. In the book, the emotional tone of the scene is that Rhett simply doesn’t care anymore. He’s indifferent and polite. As he puts it, his “deathless love” for Scarlett has worn out. In the movie, it looks more like he’s marching out in a huff. A huff implies anger, implies passion, implies that the situation matters to him. That’s so wrong.)

I think there are two things that a movie can’t capture in the same degree that a book can: the power of imagination and the power of language.

As a writer, I confess to operating with the mindset that I’m putting a world down on paper that will then appear in the reader’s imagination exactly as I pictured it--like writing involves a wholesale telepathic transfer of images. But it’s not that way. Words evoke associations and impressions. Each reader will have his or her own idea of what the characters and setting look like. I once asked my sister to describe some of my characters, and her answers were fascinating. A character that I’d given short, curly blond hair now had long light-brown hair in my sister’s mind. She’d associated the character with a girl she’d known and brought that girl’s image to mind, reading right past any details that said otherwise. And the beauty of it is that our differing pictures of the characters don't matter. As long as the story people engage our interest and empathy—feel real to us--who cares how their hair looks? Imagination is what brings the story to life, both for the writer and the reader, and we don't imagine things exactly the same way.

In a movie, there’s no room for private interpretation. The characters look how they look, right there on the screen, and though we may react differently, we all see the same thing. Fun, yes, powerful, yes, but movies don’t demand the exercise of our imagination to the same degree that a book does.

Another thing a movie can never capture, no matter what the beauty of the cinematography, is the joy that comes from the language of a book. I very rarely read novels cover to cover more than once. I read GWTW when I was a kid, and I don’t think I’ve read it all the way through since then. But I tend to wear out copies of the book—big fat paperbacks can disintegrate when they get opened countless times. I like to dip into the book at random spots, enjoying scenes, passages, snippets of Margaret Mitchell’s writing. Mitchell is a master of characterization and description. She creates the kind of characters that make you want to talk about them and analyze them and admire them and bemoan their bad choices like they're real people. It's not just what happens in the book--it's how Mitchell describes it that makes the book so powerful.

So as a writer, I struggle in my own work as I seek after vivid words that will evoke the power of imagination. I'm not yet where I want to be, but hey, as Scarlett O’Hara would phrase it, “Tomorrow is another day.”

And just so you know my hypocrisy, I’ll confess that I’ve never read the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but wow, the movies were great . . .


At 5/03/2006 1:53 PM, Blogger Mean Aunt said...

I definitely visualize characters how I think they should look. Sometimes it is how the author describes them, sometimes the character reminds me of someone I know.

Come to think of it, Rob Wells doesn't look like himself either. . .

At 5/03/2006 2:28 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

What should I look like? I'm happy to change.

At 5/03/2006 2:39 PM, Blogger Mean Aunt said...

Older. Now get to work on it!

At 5/03/2006 2:55 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

Easy -- I get older every day!


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