I couldn’t wait to get into the cinema the day the first Lord of the Rings came out. To see a story I had loved for so long on the big screen was a treat, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Tolkien’s storyline was preserved, and the special effects were brilliant. Still, when the film was over, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something had been lost, that some magic had been tainted in the transition from the page to the screen. And I know I’m not alone. There’s a reason that the phrase “the book was better than the movie” is almost proverbial. But why? Books don’t have a budget of millions to draw on. They don’t have high definition video, experienced actors, expensive special effects, and Dolby digital surround sound, either. So how is it that all of these advantages can be consistently bested by simple words on a page?
They are, though. And I think one of the primary reasons is that books do not have the advantages of movies. When you pick up a book, all you have are words on a page. The words may tell you about things and people and adventures, but you have to fill in the faces and settings and sound effects yourself. This may sound like a weakness, but it’s not. The larger gap between the words and reality is actually the secret strength of books, because the simple words on the page force you to be involved. You must activate your imagination, and build worlds with it – worlds you may have never seen before, populated with people you’ve never met, but you recognise them because you’ve helped build them from the reservoir of your own experiences. Forced into action like this, imagination becomes more powerful than special effects could ever be.
I know how far special effects have come. Far enough that you can now put anything you imagine on a screen… provided you’re a director. If you aren’t, than you can’t. This is why it’s strange to watch a movie version of a book you love: All of a sudden, you are locked into the way someone else has thought of the story. The scenes don’t appear the way you painted them in your mind, they appear the way the director ordered them. The characters don’t come across the way you imagined them, they come across the way the actors portrayed them, based on their own effort to get inside the heads of the people they are pretending to be.
In a book, that’s your job. And to do it, you are allowed to see through the eyes and think through the minds of the people you read about. You can look down and see their hands instead of your own, feel their heartbeat in your chest, and literally read their minds. There have been plenty of attempts to capture this sensation on film, but it never works as well. Narrators and camera angles can never compensate for the ability to live inside someone else’s head the way you can through a book. A film happens to us; we watch it as spectators. We may identify with characters, but we still watch them from a distance. A book happens in us. We are involved, creating the scenes and characters as they are described to us, seeing the world through their eyes and yet somehow still our own. In the process, we invest ourselves in the story, and become a part of it even as it becomes a part of us.
This is why the book is better than the movie.