On actors, observers, reading, and viewing

There’s a big social dichotomy for a lot of folks when it comes to film and television versus books. On the book side, some people are unbearably snobby about television in particular, extolling the virtues of written over visual media. On the film and television side, books sometimes get the snub (even when they’re being used as the basis of a production). Both sides are wrong, because books, film, and television are all amazing and fantastic and they do different things depending on the context. But I engage with written versus visual media very differently, and it makes me wonder if other people do as well, and if perhaps this has something to do with why some people frame this as an either/or thing, instead of an ‘all media is great!’ thing.

When it comes to books, I feel like an active participant in the narrative. Obviously books written in the first person are really designed to do this, pulling you into the story as the protagonist. But a book can be written in second person, or close third, or third person omniscient, or any number of other things, and I still feel like an actor, a player in the narrative. A participant.

I’m there with Harry and Ron in the Forbidden Forest, feeling the oppressive trees crowding around me, smelling the bracken, jumping at the slightest sound. I’m struggling through Mordor alongside Frodo and Sam, feeling the bleak, desperate conditions as though I’m one of them. I’m using a snail as a submarine with Dr. Dolittle, meeting the Runa with Emilio Sandoz, going on 1,001 adventures with characters across the spectrum of lived and fantastical experience. When I read a book, I escape into a different world, and I do so in a deeply immersive way.

Perhaps it’s because reading is forcing my imagination to build up and visualise the world of the text already — because I’m primed to put the writer’s words into something concrete that I can feel, taste, grasp, I’m taking it a step further and actually plunging into the story. Maybe it’s because of the intimacy of the medium, and the extent that it leaves things open to the imagination. I get leeway when it comes to imagining what the characters look like, my brain has to fill in the gaps of broadly-sketched scenes, I have to feel the environment of a text building around me, I have to do the work myself.

A fantastic author straddles the delicate provide between giving me enough information to have something to identify, but not giving me so much that I start to feel overwhelmed, to tune out. A good author provides broad, sweeping strokes that I can fill in. She can tell me about the noise the wind makes as it whispers through the leaves, but she doesn’t have to describe their every shape and colour, or tell me if the trees are in bloom, or, if they are, what the flowers smell like. A single line can turn into a rich, immersive scene when crafted well, can drag me into the narrative much more surely than three pages of laborious prose.

With film and television, the medium is presenting the story to me in a slightly different way. It’s staged, arranged, with the mystery taken out of what it looks like, sounds like, how the light hits things, how the characters interact with the environment. I become an observer, passively engaging with the media as I watch it unfold. I don’t feel like part of the story, even though I do start to identify with the characters, their hopes, their dreams, their fears, their experiences. I can connect deeply with the text, but I am not of the text. The experience becomes centred on plot and where the characters are going, because the setting has already been provided for me.

For some readers, I suppose, this might seem to leach the fun out of it, and there could be something chafing about being an observer instead of a participant. Maybe it feels like having everything spoonfed to you, which is something that many people understandably aren’t huge fans of. But for me, it feels like watching a visual feast unfold, and I get so much out of it — there’s so much to play with there, and some of it isn’t available in book form, because it’s a different storytelling medium.

By contrast, maybe some film and/or television devotees aren’t as big on books because of the level of effort and engagement involved. Books are long, thoughtful, demanding, complicated. That’s why you get pulled into the narrative, after all, because they’re demanding it of you. If you prefer a more passive form of media consumption, it might be jarring to delve into one that requires engagement in a fundamentally different way.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m spouting nonsense with all of this, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about, because visual media and books really are so different, and engage different parts of you. I love consuming both because they bring me different things, as a reader and a viewer, but I can imagine how being raised on a diet or one or another might make someone less receptive, less willing to explore the other side of the page.

Image: book opened, Jo Naylor, Flickr