Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Prodigal Wordsmith: Coming Back to Words

I’m sorry that the new film of All The King’s Men didn’t get better reviews. Especially since I think it’s one of the best American novels ever written. So I’m sorry.

But I’m not surprised. The process of making a film – whether from a novel, a short story, a song-- anything, for that matter -- is fractious. It’s a process through which the end result, with rare exceptions, often bears little resemblance to the original.

I know that, because before I wrote novels, I made films. I spent over 25 years producing news, documentaries, and then industrials. Don’t get me wrong. I loved making films. In fact, while pursuing a graduate degree at NYU, I thought I might become the Lina Wertmuller of the US (okay, I’m dating myself).
And when I started working in network news, I had visions of becoming the female Edward R Murrow.

It doesn’t matter that my fantasies exceeded my grasp. I love telling stories visually. I love the joy of a beautiful pan, a crisp close-up of an actor’s face, Most of all, I love the magic of editing-- when you cut and shape a scene, and – by god – it works!

To this day, I still get a little thrill every time I’m in a theater and the lights dim, the curtains sweep apart (well, maybe not so much now) and the projector clicks on, signaling an escape from this world for a few hours. It’s a wonderful outlet for emotions, as well… and I’m a sucker. I cry early and often. In fact, the protagonist of my series is a documentary producer. And I’d love someone (other than me) to turn those books into films.

Despite all that, I’ve come back to words. The problem is that the filmmaking process is by nature collaborative, and each collaborator seeks to put his or her stamp on the process. If it’s not controlled by a strong director, the result can be a mess. Before production, scripts can be rewritten each time the “product” changes hands or a higher level production executive comes on board. Then there’s the director, the art director, the cinematographer, the costume designer, the actors, each of whom might have a different vision for the film. Once photography is complete, there’s the editor, the sound mixers, and the special effects team, all of whom can alter the film in significant ways.

Which is why I came back to words. Writing is still a solitary activity. But it’s my solitary activity. Sure, my agent and editor make comments, but they are careful to label their advice as “suggestions.” I like that. I also love the fact that in writing, I have five senses to explore, not just sight and sound. Both prose and film have their own rhythm and pace, but prose allows a reader to set the pace. We can dawdle over each word and idea, reread passages (as Kevin and Laura pointed out yesterday), or hurtle ahead to the next page. We are not held captive to an external, manufactured pace.

And then there’s that thing called imagination. While I love watching someone else’s interpretation of a character or a location on film, as a writer I trust my reader’s imagination to conjure up an image. It’s up to me to select the details that I think are important, but the end result will be the reader’s choice, and I love the fact that one reader may end up with one image of a person or place, while another will have a very different one.

Reading… and writing… takes more time. And it requires more energy. And that is one of the problems. We either don’t have the time or choose not invest the time to read. Or write. It’s quicker to snap on the tube, rent a DVD, or click on a link. In fact, it’s frightening how swiftly and quickly the number of people who read fiction has declined. But then, that issue – and what to do about it -- is a different blog.

What do you think? Which do you prefer – film or prose?


Michael Dymmoch said...

Film or Prose? is like asking, Cats or Dogs? Good film can stimulate the imagination as much as a good book can. The pertinent word is good.

Like good books, good films, challenge us. And the majority today seems to have been taught not to think or to even try anything requiring effort.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Dear Libby:

I wanted to drop in and tell you that I find it refreshing that, as SPAN Connection says, bestselling writers have teamed with emerging authors to blog and promote together.

I included something about your effort (this blog) in my "Sharing with Writers" newsletter which, like you, endeavors to bring authors together and by doing so, help them all to blossom. Here it is in one of the "Tips" sections:

"Tip: I collected this information from SPAN's great newsletter: The Chicago Seven write a collective blog for the benefit of the literary crime fan. Bestselling authors teamed with some emerging authors (something all bestsellers should be doing in one way or the other to network and mentor). They offer up rills on crime, professional writing and their hometown, Chicago. Learn more at Now, how can you make something similar work for you? And how might you connect with them? Are you from Chicago? Do you write crime stories? See if you can find any other connections in their blog.

I hope it brings you some traffic and opportunity to share with other writers, both ensconced and emerging.

Very best,
Carolyn Howard-Johnson
Award-winning author

Sara Paretsky said...

Dear Carolyn

Many thanks. I'd love to know what visitors to the site like/don't like in our postings.


Libby Hellmann said...

What a lovely comment to leave. Thank you for that. And thank you also for the blurb in your newsletter. I feel very confident that the emerging authors on this list will be best-sellers very soon. They are all wonderful crime fiction writers.

I want to second Sara here... we've been blogging now since July, and it's time to get a sense of how to fine-tune the blog in the months ahead.

Thanks, all.

maryann mercer said...

While I like both film and prose, I find I'm more likely to pass over my hard earned dollars for a book than for the price of a movie ticket these days. Perhaps it has to do with some of the offerings the movie community gives us as choices. Maybe it's because, if I read the book before I see the movie, I am often disappointed that the director or screenwriter decided to pander to the public perception of how a story should end rather than stay true to the author's vision. OK. That might sound pompous, but considering the work writers put into their creations, it seems unfair to let someone else diddle with the story.
I also like the fact that books are more able to draw me into the story;sometimes to the extent that a door opening can scare the heck out of me if I'm reading a thriller. Maybe I'm spoiled by the old movies we used to see on Dialing for Dollars or the Early Show (when that was old movies and not an early morning news show). Good stories told without too much deviation from the book. I agree with Michael that good films and good books (and good stage plays)challenge us in numerous ways. I believe books still do. Films that do that seem few and far between these days.

Sara Paretsky said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sara Paretsky said...

Movies influence how we write, or at least how I write--I can't help but see action in pictures, and try to put those pictures into words. Some movies, vide Name of the Rose, work much better for me than the book--maybe proof of my lack of intellectual stamina! Some movies work as well but differently--Passage to India, Maltese Falcon. The big problem in my opinion is trying to put a book on screen exactly as it is on the page--the media are different and demand different approaches to story-telling. I loved the Paul Newman take on Ross MacDonald and it worked because it captured the atmosphre, the sensibility of Lew ARcher, not the verbatim text. Alas, the movie based on my own books did neither.

Keith said...

Prose is cheaper.