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Experience: Bright light vs. musky smells

by Joanna Macdonald

Do you prefer the colours, the movement and the sound of a film, or is a deep sofa, silent cup of tea, and the touch of page after page resting in your hands more your thing? What I’m asking is, do you prefer reading or watching. If the story is the same, if equally well communicated, what difference does the experience make?

As you’re reading this wonderful blog by my good friend ThePageBoy- I think it’s safe to assume that like me, you enjoy both reading books and watching films. We like the stories that unfold before us, the journey it takes us on and the world we delve into. It’s an experience. Even better, it’s an ‘out-of-this-world’ experience. But this blog has prompted me to ask- which experiences do I prefer: the long, slow, unfolding of a novel or the fast, explosive, creation of a film? Is it purely a preference of personality and mood? Does it depend upon the story being told? Can one be described as objectively superior to the other? Well… here are my thoughts.

Let’s start with a more obvious potential difference. Film watching is quite often a communal experience. A couple go on a first date and spend most of the film thinking about the suddenly electrified air between them; group of friends huddle round a laptop, pretending to be comfortable on the overfull sofa and the resisting the temptation to provide a running commentary (maybe that’s just me). Either way, the experience of watching with others is entirely different from that of reading a book.

If watching a film is potentially an activity infused with social interactions of the real world; reading a book couldn’t be a more different experience. How often have I dipped into a book purely to avoid social interaction? Typically on public transport, or simply when I’m feeling in need of space in a crowded room. Reading can put a wall between you and the world spinning around you- as simple as that, you’ve left. You’re in a different universe, where the world spins according to a different narrator and with different characters.

So is any preference between watching vs. reading simply an extrovert vs. introvert thing, or is it governed by mood and a momentary decision? There’s no doubt that for those of us that enjoy both reading books and watching films, this has a role to play. But I think to claim that it is all down to such subjectivity is to miss a rather more interesting discussion as to the experiential nature of these mediums.


Although therefore you can read sociably (out loud), and you can watch a film alone- the effect, although lessened, still largely the same. In a film you become part of the story. You see and hear the world around in a way at least similar to both the real world and the experience of the on-screen characters. It’s an illusion, and manipulation… and I some days I wonder about the ethics of audience manipulation (but that’s for another post!)

Although, the feeling of ‘knowing’ characters on film is not as powerful as in a book, I would argue a book is perhaps more honest about it. In a book, you are more likely to get the internal consciousness of the character, more insight explicitly stated by the narrator. Perhaps it would be better to say, in a film we get given another’s experiences: but in a books, another’s thoughts. For thoughts, largely, are in words but experiences are through the eyes. (Comments appreciated: I feel like there are people out there with opinions of that statement?) It’s all about symbols. Words are symbols in a novel and they cause you to think and feel. In a film, the symbols are audio-visual: they are an easier language.

I won’t claim that books are a more crafted medium (though I’d love for someone to argue with me on that one). I have studied film studies and learnt very quickly that EVERYTHING on screen is controlled and for a purpose. (Well, on good films anyway). But I would say, with hundreds of years of creativity more than films, books are perhaps more diverse and exciting in what they are doing with narratives. Here we come to the problem of objectivity. Can one be objectively better than another (of course some films can be objectively better than others or than other books- and it becomes meaningless to say otherwise?) However, can we say as a medium, as a narrative experience –  books or films can be objectively superior?


What scales would you use?


Does it depend on the film, and the audience, as well as the success of the creator?

Yes- some books should be never made into films (All Jane Austen– sorry BBC fans). Yes- some books should never have been made out of films (Star Wars– still can’t believe that really happened, the poor cash cow is milked for more than she’s worth on that one). Some narratives should have never been made in either… (Twilight– I’ll just leave that one there.) So there can be a better medium depending on the book (For Twilight, the only suitable medium was Stephanie Meyers head, and there it should have stayed…. In way of an apology, I know Twilight is easy-pickings and I should really man-up and find a better example but I just watched the last two films on a long flight and it’s still shocking to me quite how horrendous it was). But back to narratives being more suitable for film or novel…

Can we take this a step further and divide it into genre? I think horror can work wonderful as either: Alfred Hitchcock did the horror industry a wonder there. It’s all about what you don’t see- obviously, although books have an advantage, but not a monopoly. Comedy perhaps lends itself to films; particularly for physical humour, but again not exclusively. Romance, fairly equal…I don’t think we’re getting anyway here. It is not easily justifiable to say the experience of film vs. book can be weighed up by genre. It might be a specific thing- but is that simply because the adaptation isn’t good enough? Quite possibly. I would say this for films though, they have perhaps a tougher job than is often realised. They have to have less wrong with them, so much more is going on (on an experiential level) that there’s just so much for a creative team to think about. My imagination chooses to imagine visual effects, a sound track, characterisation, costume etc in a certain way when I read a book, but if I am given them and disagree with them in someway- it spoils the whole film. Something has to be said for the fact that films, collaborative, have more potential to go wrong.


One final thought in contrasting the experience of reading and watching narratives: passivity. This is what I think it all comes down to- how hard are we made to work. Do you sit back ands simply absorb? Is this experience making us more human- or more vegetable? (Sorry, if that sounded snobbish) For me, this is true of both books and films (which is why some of the worst creations are so readable/watch-able and sell-out unstoppable… there effortless to absorb, but what’s the point) Books actually have an advantage in avoiding this. Sometimes I feel the wider range to tools and symbols available to filmmakers can make both directors and audiences lazy. Sit back, watch, don’t think, don’t necessarily feel- just absorb. Ok, this is why films are probably my favourite form of escapism… but this doesn’t make it good art.

Books, in their very nature demand more, from both author and reader.  Words engage the brain perhaps slightly more forcefully- images of course can do this, but only when the audience is required to read the film. Maybe this is why Matrix, Inception and other such intelligent films do so well; it’s the reason mystery films often do well, but as we have seen good/bad is not defined by genre.

The question I want to ask all artists: Does it make us think, work, engage? Does it make us smarter, kinder, more observant….should it? Actually, I think yes it should. Hear that! –  All wannabe creators of all things narrative and beautiful: you have a responsibility. To give us an experience- an experience that will better us: it doesn’t have to be enjoyable, it doesn’t have to be a ‘moral-story’- it has to be worthwhile. Some films, and some books- there clearly made to make money, clearly there to give us 2 hours, or 2 days or escapism: fine. But if you want to be great, be worthwhile. If you, present and future authors and directors, want to be reviewed favourable: make us think!

What Was I Watching – 2011 A Retrospective In Film by Richard Kirke

Well that was the Oscars that were. The entire film industry has finished its series of annual festivals of self-congratulation and can return to making empty blockbusters, pitching shallow rom-coms and trying to figure out what to release at the same time as The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers that anyone might watch. Looking down the list of Academy Awards nominees I realise that by the end of 2011, out of the 64 films considered for an Oscar this year I had seen a total of one. One? I like films. I could even convince most people that I really love films. What was I watching? Why haven’t I seen Moneyball or The Tree Of Life? I could perhaps have written a snotty piece about how out of touch the Academy is or how long it takes for films to reach our sceptred isle but I suspect that the fault lies with me. After all, a quick google tells me that I have only seen three of the films nominated last year. Instead I have decided it would be much more constructive to tell you what I did watch.

On new year’s day 2011, on the way to the cinema, I decided to compile a list of all of the films I would watch in the coming year, ranking them by how much I enjoyed them. This is, of course, an entirely arbitrary way of judging a film; I can’t say that I enjoyed Schindler’s List, The Hurt Locker or Misery very much but they are unquestionably great films. However, it does have the huge advantage that it is impossible to disagree with my judgement. If I enjoyed one film more than another, however much that may have been influenced by my mood or the company in which I saw either, then that is how much I enjoyed it. And so, with no more ado than I have already indulged in, here are my 5 most enjoyable films of 2011.

5. Captain America: The First Avenger

While DC have been doing everything they can to escape past errors of cinematic judgement by making gritty, hard edged and cynical re-inventions of their greatest characters (oh and The Green Lantern, but let’s never speak of him again), Marvel have put to rest earlier embarrassments by just making the best darn movies they can. The level of ambition that has gone into putting a shared Marvel universe up on the big screen would be worth applauding even if it had been a complete disaster. But each of these, with perhaps the exception of the ever difficult Incredible Hulk adaptation, has been a triumph. Captain America: The First Avenger, could potentially have been the most difficult to execute. Cap can carry dangerously jingoistic undertones into a time full of global tensions when even many Americans might admit that they are not always the good guys any more.  Yet the only reason that CA:TFA does not stomp all over the Captain America film of 1990 before kicking it repeatedly in the head is that he is just too nice a guy. I can see it now: Steve Rogers and Steve Rogers stand face to face. 1990 Steve Rogers shuffling his feet awkwardly before saying “You’re much better me aren’t you, please don’t hurt me.”

“Why yes I am dear boy. Jolly decent of you to admit it without us having to resort to fisticuffs.”

“Jolly decent of you not to knock seven bells out of me all the same old chap, what with you being so much better than me, what?”

“Don’t mention it my dear fellow. Can I get you a drink?”

“Very kind of you, gin and tonic if you wouldn’t mind.”

“No trouble at all. Now let’s get out of here before people notice we’ve become upper class Englishmen for no particularly good reason.”

Once you have accepted the spirit of CA:TFA, you can sit back and enjoy an entirely irony free good old pulp adventure, with villains so evil even the Nazis think they are the bad guys, magic powered aeroplanes, motorbikes, machineguns and lots and lots of improbable uses for a shield. Chris Evan brilliantly captures Steve Rogers as a just a decent guy who wants to do the right thing, allowing you to root for and identify with him no matter how absurd things are around him. Hugo Weaving’s particular brand of high-camp villainy is given full reign as is Tommy Lee Jones’ gruffness and Toby Jones’ excellent snivelling. The wit required to have our superpower endowed hero reduced to performing as part of the US Army propaganda machine before he is allowed to do what superpower endowed heroes do deserves particular congratulations and is one of the things that elevates this above being just a rollicking good action flick.

4. The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader

I cannot imagine many people disagreeing with me over Captain America, I may have lost some of you with my choice for number four though. I wish I was cool and could dismiss this Disney adaptation of a children’s book. But it is a book from MY childhood. I loved it then and I love it still. The film certainly takes liberties with the plot with the episodic nature of the book replaced by a common thread based around magical swords and a green mist, something that should upset Narnian devotees (do we have a word? Narnianists? Wardrobians? Aslaphiles? I’ll get back to you on that one) but it does seem to work. TVOTDT is not particularly subtle with its messages and explores Lucy’s potentially nauseating struggle with self-image but it manages to do so without resorting to empty ‘inner beauty’ clichés. Much of the film however lives and dies on Will Poulter’s Eustace. If you plan to hang your film on a child character that starts out as an unsympathetic brat and, as a result of his experiences on a boat in a magical land, becomes a hero, you are going to need to cast a spectacularly good child actor. Poulter is superb; managing slapstick, pathos and hubris with equal aplomb. This was the first film that I saw in 2011 and it spent most of the year at the top of my list.

3. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Well, if TVOTDT was too upbeat and positive, my next choice should do something to redress the balance. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the only one of my list to receive an Oscar nod, is a long dark gritty espionage film utterly devoid of anything remotely upbeat or positive. With a plot revolving around betrayal and mistrust and a backdrop made up of the blandest and most depressing scenery the 1960s had to offer, TTSS can be safely described as a slow-burner. Much of London may have been swinging and anachronistically shouting “Yeah Baby” in purple suits but we spend our time on grim streets, in manilla coated offices and at several points in the ‘tank’ a room whose walls are lined with yellow soundproofing. This extraordinary anti-Bond film lacks explosions, gadgets and girls in bikinis but more than makes up for it with bucket loads of suspicion, tension and intrigue.

The cast is, for all intents and purposes, a who’s who of British character actors each producing subtle nuanced performances from Mark Strong’s embittered loner, John Hurt’s ageing spy-master, Tom Hardy’s desperate suspect and pretty much any other member of this stellar cast. Well earned plaudits have gone to Garry Oldman, who at one point manages to sit motionless, staring into space and still be compellingly electrifying. The exact details of the plot may be convoluted and not abundantly clear, even after all is resolved but the suspense and drama sucks the audience in and grips them from start to finish.

2. Thor

Another huge clunking gear shift to the cape wearing, hammer wielding god of thunder himself: number two on my list is Thor. Directed with classical flourish by Kenneth Branagh, a somewhat left field choice that raised a large number of eyebrows, Thor takes you on a roller-coaster ride through the title character’s coming of age story, if a somewhat curious coming of age story when you consider that  Thor is many hundreds of years old as the film begins.

Chris Hemsworth, an actor with very little on his CV before donning Thor’s somewhat improbable armour, is an instant star and, I am reliably informed by my in no way imagined but absolutely real female friends, he has cemented his place as a Hollywood leading man for some time. Hemsworth is surrounded by a pantheon of A-list supporting cast from the regal Anthony Hopkins the (slightly less convincingly) dorky Natalie Portman and the hugely charismatic Idris Elba. Tom Hiddleston is excellent and should be commended for keeping his Loki just on the right side of pantomime villainy, we look forward to seeing plenty more of him. It would be remiss of me not to mention Kat Dennings who, as comic relief, could have been an irritating and unwelcome presence in this film but manages to keep her performance sufficiently understated to allow us not to hate her. With the Marvel universe already sufficiently well-established Thor is jam packed full of nods to Marvel geeks including the first sight of an Avenger who is not getting his own film, the obligatory Stan Lee cameo and something missing from Odin’s Vault.

Thor manages to balance all the outright fantasy craziness and weighty ‘the fate of the kingdom’ stuff with feather-light fish out of water comedy (every time I finish a drink I now must restrain myself from smashing the glass on the floor shouting “More!”) with enviable deftness (I’m looking at you Transformers…) While the political machinations and betrayals may seem very tame fare compared to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it does have a giant robot that shoots fire out of its eyes and if you don’t think that counts for something then you are dead to me.

In 2011 I saw a total of 30 films. Films that did not make my top 5 but deserve honourable mentions include the beautiful Sucker Punch, the agonizingly hilarious Four Lions and the perplexing Exit Through The Gift Shop. However the film I enjoyed most last year?

1. The Adjustment Bureau

Adaptations of Philip K Dick stories would make a very depressing series for The Page Boy (but do it anyway!) they always miss the point, reducing perfect concept driven stories that explore Dick’s shall we say not entirely optimistic view of life to absurd action films (That’s right Minority Report I’m talking about you) or pompous and pointlessly self absorbed philosophical nothings (I really hated Blade Runner, so sue me). It would appear anyone who ever adapts a Dick story takes nothing but the central premise and dumps untidy little nothings like the plot, meaning or expertly crafted ending. And so it is with the Adjustment Bureau. And yet… Adjustment Team by Philip K Dick is a curious story, really only a framework for a specific paranoia that the whole world may be being run by a shadowy, but slightly inept, all powerful organisation

The film The Adjustment Bureau takes this rather neat, if terrifying, idea and makes it a story of love conquering all. Surely not a story that Dick himself would have told but a great story nonetheless. It all depends on the audience believing that Matt Damon would throw away a promising political career that he has already grown cynical about and challenge the forces that govern the fate of the universe for a chance to be with Emily Blunt. And I bought it. Maybe I am sap. Maybe I just have a thing for slightly kooky female characters. But I bought it. And once you believe that a man would risk everything and throw his life away for such a woman, it all just works. Quite excellent supporting performances from Terrance Stamp, John Slattery and Anthony Mackie give depth and character to what might otherwise be the faceless Bureau giving credence to their apparently simultaneous omnipotence and incompetence. TAB asks questions about the compromises we make to love and be loved. It challenges us as to how much we would give up and how much we would ask somebody to sacrifice for us and I absolutely loved it.

So there you have it. My top five films of 2011. Give me your thoughts, personal top fives or personal abuse in the comments section.

Richard tweets @richardkirke