Show and tell

David Gates responds to Charles Taylor's essay on why the book isn't always better than the movie.

Published May 17, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Read the essay.

OK, I realize Charles Taylor needed a "blinkered and distinguished" straw man for his piece about film adaptation of novels, but I can't let him press me into service without a protest. My New York Times piece, from which he selectively quotes, made a simple point. Terence Davies, in adapting Edith Wharton's "House of Mirth," chose the cinematically "pure" approach of not using voice-over (as Martin Scorsese did in his "Age of Innocence") and his choosing only to "show" limited his ability to represent Wharton's pages and pages of "telling": from straightforward exposition to her characters' inner ditherings -- and especially the ending, in which she tells us that Lily's and Selden's spirits make some kind of joyous mystic contact. (It's not a matter, as Taylor would have it, of Selden's being "devastated" by Lily's suicide: Eric Stoltz's mopey dumbshow gets that much across.)

I don't claim that all this "telling" is the way to write fiction -- in my own stuff, in fact, I try to be a cinematic purist -- but it's the way Wharton wrote hers, and it's a recent quirk of literary history (a post-cinematic quirk, I bet) to see "telling" as a no-no. Consequently, it's tough to adapt her work without using voice-over to approximate her intrusive narrative presence.

This limitation of "pure" cinema seems self-evident to me -- you can suggest what's going on in a character's head with dialogue, action, gesture, expression, lighting, music, camera angle or whatever, but you can't literally report it -- and it doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with film per se. My Times piece notes that fiction also has its limitations: It's linear, not simultaneous (a movie scene presents characters, dialogue and setting all together) and it has as hard a time "showing" as film does "telling."

Much as Taylor needs me to be one of those fusty old curiosities who "distrust ... experience other than words" -- hey, I grew up the '60s, if you call that growing up -- I don't claim that one form is inherently better than the other. Does anybody? I don't even ask, as Taylor does, that a film adaptation be judged in part by its faithfulness to the book. If the film works, the film works, no? (What a mess the "Godfather" movies would be if they'd stuck closer to the book.)

And while I appreciate Taylor's explaining that a movie's final form is the result of choices made by the screenwriter, cinematographer, director and editor -- a notion, he says, that "simply doesn't enter into Gates' thinking" -- I'd suspected as much myself, not having come into town on a wagonload of morocco-bound Galsworthys. In fact, my Times piece goes on and on about the choices Davies made. How else could you write about a movie?

We all have our preferences. It was my choice to write books, and not to learn to make films; for me, it was a good choice, despite what Taylor sees as writerly jealousy of the movies' wider audience. (I'm just jealous of the movies' wider money.) Taylor seems to betray his preference when he says that a good film adaptation of a book can "make it breathe." (Oh, those airless classics. I think good books breathe just fine.)

I don't think Taylor's totally talking through his hat: I agree with him about what a drag capital-I ideas are in literature and film, and we probably like some of the same stuff -- though I can't imagine what he saw in Kenneth Branagh's cornball "Hamlet." I just wish he hadn't dragged me into a largely imaginary dispute. But.

-- David Gates

By Salon Staff

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