Lost in Translation
The headline of an article on the Huffington Post caught my eye, "5 Long Books Worth Every Page." I was intrigued because that seemed an adventurous undertaking -- and a limiting one -- to not a mere five books that were justified being long. I can name five by Charles Dickens alone without breaking a sweat. So, what five would the author single out?
As it turned out, the author Lauren Sarner chose to focus only on contemporary novels. Whether that's by choice or limited perspective I don't know. When I read the entire piece and saw the authoritative points she was making about what makes for good writing, and adapting them for movies and TV, I found it all a bit more head-scratching. So, I read her bio. At first, what caught my eye is that she does write about books. But after the initial surface skim, I realized that the reach of her work sounded more substantive than reality might otherwise suggest. It was the sentences near the end which leaped out -- "She recently graduated from Dartmouth with a B.A. in English. She is completing her first novel (which will be out whenever she finishes and finds a publisher for it)."
The "Dartmouth" part explained why the article was intelligently written. The "recently graduated" and not having written a novel yet (let alone worked with film adaptations) explained why the piece just floated on the surface and had little understanding of writing novels, or what makes a movie or TV series good, and perhaps made more clear why there is focus only on the contemporary and no reference to existence before she was born.
To be clear, being a Dartmouth grad and in the of field English, I'm sure that she does have an awareness into the the world of literature history. She might be able to write a terrific and thoughtful term paper on it. (I honestly don't mean that pejoratively at all.) But that's exceedingly different from knowing your subject in its full breadth to be able to explain what people are doing so wrong. And different from at least referencing two hundred years of work as having some impact on the topic. And different from knowing what goes into a film/TV translation.
Anyone, everyone is free to have opinions on what they most enjoy in a book or TV show or movie. And it often can be insightful, as well. But that's separate from presenting an authoritative account on how to do it and what makes for good craft.
To be clear, too, I have nothing for or against short novels -- or long ones. I do like long novels, but mostly I prefer the books I read (including the short ones) to be good. And that's the operative point. Further, it's not that some or even many long novels are longer than necessary -- that's a very valid point she makes. But the question isn't whether long books as a form include things that are so pointless that it takes movies to get them right, but how a novel is written in the first place, and how a movie or TV series has adapted it.
The full article (which is fairly short) can be found here. But here's an extended passage that most caught my attention. The article begins be noting a speech that author Ian McEwan (who it must be noted tends to write short books) gave about the current publishing trend of long novels. She veers off from that and writes --
McEwan didn't talk about how the long-book trend fits into the adaptation trend, so I will. Part of the reason "Game of Thrones" and now "Outlander" are such great shows -- aside from the usual things like acting, production value, writing -- is because they keep the elements that make each story compelling but they cut through all the waffle the editors were too afraid to cut from the books.
I rarely write reply-comments about articles or news stories I read online. But I felt I had to chime in here. The challenge was that I wanted to be polite, much as I felt otherwise, so the full scope of my reaction was only touched on. And to get into a fully-detailed response would by necessity be foolishly long. But this is a slightly-expanded version of what I wrote --
I rarely comment on articles, but I'm puzzled by the small perspective here. The history of literature is so deep with long, brilliant novels that I won't attempt to start listing them, but will at least mention the works of Dickens, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Fielding, and beyond. "The Lord of the Rings" is overloaded with *far* more than 200 pages of "minor, inconsequential" characters, not to mention mere tangential poems and songs. It's what makes the book so rich and moving and real. It's what makes any book so rich and moving.
The issue is whether it's well done. A well-written 800-page novel can feel short, while a sloppy 200-pager can see eternal. As a screenwriter and novelist, they are two totally-different disciplines. Movies get to the core, important story; novels get underneath the skin. Movies lead you on the magic-carpet tour, novels let you imagine what's off the page.
(Also, while it's easy to dismiss in a phrase "the usual things like acting, production value, writing" that make a TV series good, I would suggest that far more than being merely "the usual things", they are the heart of the difference. Indeed, it is the "writing" itself that decides on what elements to keep. The writing is not just usual, but a necessity, since most movies are no more than 120 minutes, when even a short novella would take half a day to read. Further, production brings the world alive to make it believable. And good acting humanizes what's on the page. Missing too from all this is the reality that movies and TV have a long history of totally mucking up novels. To point to a handful that did it right is to praise those, but hardly is evidence of a historic trend. Indeed, when movies and TV do get them rights, it's largely because of...well, the usual things like acting, production value, writing. Because the ones that got it wrong were also cutting the waffle what editors seemingly missed.)
The first 100 pages of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo -- or most long books -- are the background and set-up which, when done properly, are what makes what comes later so rich and meaningful. No Dickens novel kicks in before he dives into the history and details that make what are to follow substantive. As for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, we are compelled and transported by Lisabeth Salander in the movies, we care about and understand her in the books. Two different kettle of fish. Two different audiences and interests and needs. (And it's very important to keep in mind that the three novels "captivated" the world audience of book readers long before the first movie was even made. Which is why the movies -- Danish and American -- have been/will be made in the first places.) And "part of the reason" that Game of Thrones is so great to so many people is because -- being SO long -- it's able to get into the depth of who people are and what the world is in more expansive detail compared to most TV.
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Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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