Money, on the other hand, is about more than just surfaces…

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Poser watch: A.S. Hamrah sends in this chewy morsel from the August 2005 issue of The Believer, an exchange between Britlit sensation Zadie Smith and Britlit supersensation Ian McEwan:

McEwan: [O]ne of the great values of fiction [is] exactly this process of being able to enter other people's minds. Which is why I think cinema is a very inferior, unsophisticated medium.

Smith: Absolutely. Because you get surfaces only.

McEwan: Right.

Strong words coming from the man who played Magneto. For the record, McEwan has 14 writing screen credits, fully ten of which are adaptations of his written works. Smith's highly acclaimed novel White Teeth became a miniseries starring the great Om Puri, and she earned a credit as a creative consultant on that adaptation.

This exchange is wrong in so many ways (On the desert island, would you rather have Ernst Lubitsch's worst movie or John Dos Passos' best novel?), pathetic in so many others (At this late date, with the movies themselves dying out, can anybody still say stuff like this and keep a straight face?), and ill-informed in so many more (Have I been misinterpreting all those flashbacks, expository background scenes, and voice-over narrations all these years?), that I'll just repeat some words of wisdom I heard from a guy in a bar a few weeks ago: "The novel is a form that doesn't have any hold on public attention anymore, so creative people with talent are putting their energies into other media. So with a novel you know going in that the author is a loser." Not only that, but a loser who, as Smith and McEwan prove through their actions (rather than their words) a loser who still dreams of being in the movies.

NEXT: Objective Isms

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  1. McEwan!=McKellen, although I feel this has a good chance of being some manner of deep, excellent, sarcasm.

  2. Not that it disproves your point, Tim, but personally, I wouldn’t call J.K. Rowling or Stephen King “losers.”

  3. Admittedly, Atonement was pretty good, although not the barn-burner some seemed to think it was; but throughout, and especially at the end, all I could think was, “With a sharp writer and the right director, this would make a great movie.”

  4. Subject: Generalizations

    sub-category: novelists

    Content: Cory Doctrow

    sub-category: Digital Film Makers

    Content: Robert Rodriguez

    Conclusion: you can always tell a loser. The sky is always falling.

  5. Thank god for genre fiction.

    I just finished Dan Simmons’ _Olympos_.

    Dan Simmons is a bad motherfucker.

    If ‘mainstream’ fiction is bland and unpalatable, you don’t have to walk very far in your local Borders to find people who are doing amazing things in print.

    (I scare-quote mainstream because, well, J.K.Rowling.)

  6. The big difference as I see it between fiction and movies is that it’s apparently harder to make things clear using the written word than it is using film technique. Any knucklehead can figure out what’s going on in just about any movie out there, whereas so much fiction is addled by inept or even purposely unclear narration that most readers just won’t bother with getting through it.

    As for the bar wisdom, that point of view might be a nice time saver for avoiding reading a lot of bad books. I think labeling a “creative person with talent” a loser just because his particular medium isn’t in line with what lately captures the public’s imagination is asinine. Creative people with ambition worry about what the public interest is, but I’ve known more than a few intensely creative and talented people who couldn’t give a rat’s ass about the public’s imagination. Somehow I don’t think of any of them as losers.

  7. Of course, Simmons has his eye on the silver screen as well.

    http://www.dansimmons.com/news/movies.htm

    (I enjoyed Olympos thoroughly)

  8. I gotta vote for the Dos Passos. Lubitsch at his best is great, but Lubitsch at his worst is unbelievably dull. (The man made a silent version of an Oscar Wilde play. That’s like publishing a lyric sheet for a guitar solo.)

  9. I liked the Dos Passos books I read, even if the characters were just cardboard cutouts. I’ve met so many people who seemed like cardboard cutouts that it was refreshing to see them portrayed so well in fiction for a change.

  10. Speaking of the universe next door, ixnay the image of one of the 72 voigins in upper left.
    Could she and the Johnny 6-pack carpet-humper just go off into the bushes?

    “I’m in school now”
    Did she walk three miles up-hill both ways through the snow?
    Is she Pennsylvania Dutch?

  11. I’m confused. Was that a joke about McEwan being Magneto? And how was what the guy at the bar said any less silly than what the two writers in The Believer said? Silliness all around, it seems to me.

  12. I think the judgment of which medium is “better” depends on what, exactly, you’re trying to accomplish.

    Is it easier to get beneath the surface with the novel form? Certainly.

    Of the films I have seen and enjoyed, the one that penetrated the deepest below the “surface” would be, I think, PATHS OF GLORY. But I can easily think of any number of novels that were more penetrating than that film.

    I think it also helps to look at the process of adapting novels for the screen, and also at the humble “novelization”, so that we can see an adaptation in the opposite direction. It’s pretty rare that an adaptation perfectly captures everything, or nearly everything, about a novel (BEING THERE and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE spring to mind – is it a coincidence that both of them are little slivers of novels?) but even the silliest movie can sometimes be entertaining in novelized form. So to that extent maybe these losers are on to something.

    Of course, then there’s the whole issue of plays, which are often as complex and illuminating to read as novels, but which translate to film quite readily. Does A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS or BECKET support the case of the novel-snob or the film-aficianado? Or neither? They’re both enjoyable and stimulating, whether read or watched. And although there’s no true introspection in either, in the sense of an omniscient written narrative or a film voiceover, you still get a pretty good idea of the interior life of the characters in each. And then, of course, there’s HAMLET. Is there a novel out there richer than HAMLET, which you could certainly sit down and film in its entirety if you felt like it?

  13. If that’s their feelings, so what? That they write for movies is no indication of their exchange being wrong. I’m sure the movies are profitable and relatively easy work. They won’t be the first writers to take work in genres that they may personally dislike, simply because it pays well.

  14. The guy in the bar is the loser, making a generalization like that. Makes a great more-sophisticated-than-thou remark. But Creative People With Talent will always focus their attention on whatever it is they feel called to do, moderated by financial circumstances.

  15. Somehow I dont think this is a joke about McEwan/McKellan being indistinguishable BritSnobs. I think Tim will weigh in here for a humble correction. Somewhere, there is a moral about the speed of the blogosphere, self-correction, yadda dabba do.

  16. What’s this about no good novelists?

    Just because mainstream entertainment has turned away from literature does not mean the quality of writers has gone down

    Stephen King
    Colleen McCullough
    Robert Pirsig
    George RR Martin

    Just to name a few. They might not be “great” in some peoples standards, but to call the “losers” is preposterous.

  17. Upon second reading of Tim’s post, it appears my 11:28 post was wrong. I just didnt get the joke, unsophisticated reader that I am.

    Okay Tim, you didnt post the rest of the exchange. And maybe there was more rope to hang those two by, which I havent read. Your faux pas aside, do you really think cinema is typically a more sophisticated medium than cinema? The experience of watching Bloom is more edifying than reading Ulysses? Really?

  18. i think they’re right, but i also think movies are a form of mental rape. they lack the immersion of games or books.

  19. I’m going to have to vote for Dos Passos, too, due to the poor selection of desert island movie theaters and battery rechargers.

  20. “McEwan has 14 writing screen credits, fully ten of which are adaptations of his written works.”

    And they don’t seem to need much in the way of adaptation, do they? …I’ve read several of his novels, and they all read like they were written for the BBC.

    …and, I should add, I enjoyed every one of them. I liked Atonement, I liked Amsterdam and I liked Enduring Love. I guess that makes me a fan. …and all of them read like BBC productions, and Cavanaugh’s right.

  21. I gotta vote for the Dos Passos. Lubitsch at his best is great, but Lubitsch at his worst is unbelievably dull. (The man made a silent version of an Oscar Wilde play. That’s like publishing a lyric sheet for a guitar solo.)

    Or calling up and having food from Hooter’s delivered directly to your home (which you can do in my neck of the woods, through a service).

  22. Wait, Hooter’s or Grizzlebee’s? Ha, ha, ha…

    Sorry, bad Sealab 2021 joke.
    I’ll be quite.

  23. You will be quite. Quite pleased to know that if you’re too much of a fatass to get out of your car, Grizzlebee’s now offers curbside pickup! Try it with some delicious Shrabster today, or surprise your girlfriend with a Shocker!

    -Grizzlebees: You’ll wish you had less fun!

  24. Huh. Damning words for someone who once dreamed of working with

  25. I’d take the Dos Passos novel over any movie I can think of off the top of my head. Different strokes, I suppose…

  26. I gotta agree with the point about “losers” – you can hardly call a woman who has vaulted from poverty to being one of the most famous and wealthy people on the planet a “loser”. And the fact that what she wrote is accessible by all ages shows that novels are far from “having no hold on the public” anymore. It was about a month ago that I couldn’t turn on a tv, look at the internet, or read the paper, without hearing about the excitement generated by a “Half-Blood Prince”.

    As an aside – there’s alot for libertarians to enjoy in Rowling’s stories. From worthless (or worse) government officials to do-gooders who try to force their values on others and making their lives miserable (S.P.E.W.), to the celebration of entrepreneurs (the Weasley twins).

  27. “Not only that, but a loser who, as Smith and McEwan prove through their actions (rather than their words) a loser who still dreams of being in the movies.”

    Um, I think Smith and McEwan only dream of being in the movies for the money. Their screen credits are largely adaptations of their books–they aren’t going to Hollywood for a creative outlet. They’re continuing to write damn fine books. They’d be losers if they turned down people wanting to buy the film rights. But it sounds like they think that the screen adaptations of their work are inferior to the original print versions, and that’s a legitimate position for an author to take.

  28. Isn’t it a bit silly to argue about whether books or movies are the superior medium (particularly without an inclusion of interpretive dance–the mother of all media!)?

    It’s like arguing about whether oil painting is superior to photography. They are both good for different reasons. Oil painting gives you something to hang over your fireplace, and photography is how you get porn on your computer. Either way, our lives are improved.

    Novels are good for getting inside the head of the characters–something movies suck at. Movies, conversely, are good for providing visual experiences. Ever read a car chase in a book–dullsville.

    And interpretive dance is for getting your groove on.

  29. Interpretive dance?

    It sounds like Duck Duck Goose is joining Kucinich’s Vibration Army.

  30. “Their screen credits are largely adaptations of their books–they aren’t going to Hollywood for a creative outlet.”

    I maintain that their books read like they’re written for film.

  31. If I was marooned on desert island I think I would take the Dos Passo novel.

    It would be easier to start a fire with.

  32. “Isn’t it a bit silly to argue about whether books or movies are the superior medium (particularly without an inclusion of interpretive dance–the mother of all media!)?”

    you may be right about interpretive dance, but overall, no.

  33. Not that it disproves your point, Tim, but personally, I wouldn’t call J.K. Rowling or Stephen King “losers.”

    I wouldn’t call McEwan or Smith losers either. Nor should I have endorsed the barfly’s strong opinion as fully as I seemed to, but McEwan started the name-calling with his “inferior” and “unsophisticated” line. (And they both lose points for the assumption that there’s something inherently better about going inside a character’s mind; Joyce and Proust both demonstrate that deep psychology reaches a point of diminishing returns in literature, and found differing ways of going beyond that.)

    I’m not as ready to give them the benefit of the doubt about working in movies for the money. If you’re going to sell your birthright for a mess of pottage, don’t expect anybody to take you seriously when you turn around and badmouth the people who bought the birthright. Nor, I suspect, does anybody sell the movie rights solely for the money; they also like getting their story out to a larger public. I read a great essay by the guy who wrote the book of Losing Isaiah: He goes over the changes that pained him by deforming the book, and the ones that pained him even more by improving it, and then concludes with the news that the movie was considered a box office failure because it only made (IIRC) $10 million in its first weekend. Paraphrase: “For me, this was a huge success. It meant that five times as many people had seen Losing Isaiah in one weekend than had read it the entire time it was in print.”

    As for Bloom vs. Ulysses, as I have already stated, Bloom isn’t even as good as the Joseph Strick adaptation of Ulysses, let alone the book. (Somebody should make the case that Joyce was just writing with a screenplay in mind.)

    As for Lubitsch vs. Dos Passos, I was going by the view I’ve heard that Cluny Brown (a totally great picture) was considered Lubitsch’s weakest effort, but Jesse’s got an interesting point-though I have it on good authority that Lubitsch’s version of Lady Windermere’s Fan is better than (and totally different from) the play. Not having seen it, nor read all of Dos Passos, I’ll keep my peace.

  34. Tim,

    … I’ll just repeat some words of wisdom I heard from a guy in a bar a few weeks ago: “… So with a novel you know going in that the author is a loser.” …
    (emphasis mine)

    My comment was more about the universality of that statement, and your implied agreement with it. Thank you for clearing that up.

  35. I’ve seen Lady Windermere on stage, and I’ve seen the movie. Trust me, the play is much better.

    (And I didn’t like The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg either!)

  36. I haven’t seen anything here to persuade me McEwan and Smith are right. However, they’re right for reasons that go far beyond being able to enter someone else’s mind. (Insert John Malkovich joke here.) I’ve been over this with Hollywood-minded people before, and we didn’t change each others’ minds; plainly it’s like arguing that someone’s esthetic is “wrong”. For my money, one reason books are better is that there are so many more ways to screw up a movie, so fewer of them end up being really good.

  37. Duck Duck Goose: I agree completely, and that’s actually why I almost categorically prefer books. I’m not interested in action scenes. I’m actually not much interested in what it looks like at all-I have a tendency to watch movies with my eyes half-closed looking down at my lap, because I’m interested in the dialogue, not the appearance (this causes me to miss a lot, and probably makes the movies even less interesting). Also, I find that I tend to like plays adapted into movies much more than I like original movies (with some exceptions), probably because the plays weren’t written to rely on visual spectacles like car chases and actually engage in interesting dialogue. But all this is just a personal peccadillo.

  38. In his book, “The Playwright’s Guidebook”, Stuart Spencer states that film is best at providing viceral and immediate images. When we watch a movie, we are experiencing the story with the picture and sound that most closely resembles our everyday interaction with the world.

    Prose, conversely, is the least viceral and immediate medium. Before we can experience the story, we must take the squiggly lines from the page and translate them into an image in our mind. The strength of prose stems from its ability to analyse the hell out of an experience and get into the inner depths of a person’s mind. Prose can take an image, gesture, or feeling and break it down and examine it from all points of view. When Raymond Chandler states that Marlow’s cigarette tastes like a plumer’s handkerchief, that can only be done with prose (sans clumsy dialog or voiceover in a movie or play).

    Sometimes, movies are better than the books that inspired them (2001: A Space Odyssey or The Godfather). Sometimes the opposite is true (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues or Striptease).

    Some books would make a lousy a movie (Tropic of Cancer); some movies would stink as a book (Disney’s Fantasia).

    It is obnoxious that McEwan and Smith view film as an inferior and unsophisticated artform because it doesn’t let us enter other people’s minds. The same could be said for paintings, music, and (yes) interpretive dance. We as human beings cannot generally read other minds. When we deal with everyday life, we see only the surfaces; it’s literature that is the exception to the rule. So, the question, then, is whether literature is more or less “sophisticated” because it cheats the rules of reality.

  39. Adrian Barbeaubot,

    COW-A-BUNGA!

  40. Questo articolo ? stato scritto ah bello!

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