Movies Are Virtual Literature

July 10, 2011

The movie industry enjoys a notorious reputation for being ruthless and unscrupulous, worshiping mediocrity in the name of the crass buck. And yet, ironically, sometimes I am so enraptured by a film that I whisper to myself, “This is virtual literature.”

I have long held literature at a preeminently high cultural level, whereas movies were lower on the hierarchy, much lower. Probably my prejudice began in college where I was assigned only high literature while in the movie houses I watched everything, high and low , mostly low.

However, since then, I have become a fiction writer. Yet only recently have I cared to look at the structure of movies. And in doing so, I have elevated movies to the same level as novels. The difference in them is that novels communicate their information strictly through show-and-tell language, while movies communicate the same information through “show” – that is through camera and dialog.

Let’s say I read in a novel a section of narration as follows. A smiling husband and wife, holding hands, enter a restaurant in high spirits. They settle at a table, order their meal, and talk about going uptown afterward to an expensive jewelry store; they intend to buy each other an anniversary gift. The meal arrives. During the meal, the husband misspeaks, hurts the wife’s feelings, which leads the wife to counter with an unkind remark. Silence follows. Suddenly an argument blazes up with past hurts dragged into the fire, and finally the wife in full tears dashes to the ladies room. The husband waits for her return, drumming  his fingers on the tablecloth. Eventually the wife returns and meets a silent, grim-faced husband who abruptly stands up. He turns and leaves the table and the unfinished food, and marches out of the restaurant. She follows, eyes down. He hails a cab and says high into the air,  “We’re going home.”  End of narration in the novel. Now, the movie provides me with the same scenario, but through the eye of the camera moving within the restaurant, settling at the table and on the actors, and through the screenwriter’s developed dialog so that I actually hear what the couple say to each other, blow by blow. All the while, I am accounting for the three literary components of story, plot, and character. For better or worse, I am having a virtual literary experience.