Let books be books: my low expectations for a Wheel of Time TV series

Books and movies fundamentally different, so I don’t have high hopes for the projected TV series

When I was fifteen the most significant and philosophically deep things in the world were Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s opera Einstein on the Beach and Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy “trilogy.” The Hitchhiker series was the first book series I read that really made me question my view of reality, which at the time was highly scientific, and the books helped me make room for something that if not spiritual was at least highly skeptical of a one-sided view of existence. And it was funny as hell. By the time I got to reading So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, Adams’ books had touched me very deeply and I carried them around with me, knowing that they’d taught me something special. The final validation of that would be seeing my vision of the series on a big screen. I had a title, first scene, opening credits, and many other scenes all mapped out in my daydreaming head. I had seen the television show but the movie in my head was perfect in its own way, so much better than anything anyone else could come up with. If only I could have gotten someone in Hollywood interested…

When the big-budget movie finally did come out, featuring some of my favorite actors and some new interpretations of Adams’ lines, I wasn’t disappointed. I had my validation, but I wasn’t particularly surprised by any of it. The movie was a succession of moments like “Oh, there’s Bill Nighy, playing Slartibartfast. That was a good choice. He’s one of my faves. I wonder who will show up next.” I wasn’t particularly involved in the story. It was interesting to find out how many of my wife’s med school classmates were secret fans of the books, but since the books were so special to all of us, the movie was fairly forgettable.

When the movie was finished, we just got up and left as if we had checked it off the list.

I realized at that point that as interesting as such a movie could be, it was really not the same as the book and it was missing a lot that makes a book really touch people. Movies and TV are usually fairly shallow experiences. When the Hitchhiker movie was finished, we just got up and left as if we had checked it off the list.

This week I watched Blade Runner, read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, and saw the new film adaptation of The BFG with my kids. Game of Thrones is such a huge success that the fantasy genre has changed to accommodate people whose first entry point is a television show. Recently Harriet McDougal announced that (finally!) Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time is in the works to be made a television show after many failed attempts and a legal mess with Red Eagle Entertainment. Many people are excited, and I’m kind of glad, but I am not hoping for much. I’m not saying books are always better than movies. Plenty of movies are totally epic for lack of a better characterization, and have lifted me up and put me in a new psychic space. However, movies and TV shows are one thing, and books are quite a different thing. The films may serve to validate the psychic lift we get from our favorite stories, but the movies usually fail because they try to be books instead of what they really are.

Movies may serve to validate the psychic lift we get from our favorite stories, but usually fail because they try to be books instead of what they really are.

Books and movies are fundamentally different. Books are built on words and movies and TV shows are built on images. Story is secondary to photography. A good story is the icing on the cake. The way the two media use imagery shows this clearly. A film, sculpture, photograph, or painting can reach directly into a person’s psyche by depicting the manifestation of a particular archetype. A visual work does not need to build it up, it will just show you. When we encounter the Star Child at the end of 2001, we have any number of possible story solutions: it could be Dave Bowman, it could be something Dave encountered beyond the infinite, it could be one manifestation of the aliens who are controlling the destiny of mankind. It doesn’t really matter. Any viewer’s interpretation could be correct in his own heart-mind.

As visual as I am in thinking about books, whether reading or writing, written works can’t directly invoke archetypes because they depend on language, which is only one (and a fairly limited) mode of expression.

Books and short stories have to depend on language, which is a fairly limited medium

Books have to build up to images and revelations by taking the story in a particular path that foreshadows (or explains using circularity) the significance of particular images. I recently heard a writer talk about what characters in her books look like, but characters in books don’t look like anything: they are described (or not) and what they “look like” is entirely a matter of reader interpretation. You can mention their hair and eye color, crooked hips, ingrown toenails, or height, but any such detail should be the minimum that you need to elaborate the character, add vividness or play a part in the plot. The reader, if she’s carrying an image in her mind, will fill in the rest. Characters are not actors. If a book plugs you in to particular archetypes, it does so through a filter, not necessarily a conscious one, but a filter nonetheless.

Many movies, especially those for children, that are based on fantasy and science fiction are disappointing because they try to stick to the plot of the book but cannot handle the background that a book can safely incorporate (I don’t mean backstory, I mean what most people call “world-building”). The Harry Potter films, for instance, are confusing half-assed renditions of the books with similarly-named characters. I don’t just mean that the clothes are all wrong, I mean that the events of the movie don’t make sense, and since all the events of the book are crammed into the film, even in a three-hour movie the pacing is too fast. The film version of The Golden Compass has the same problem: all of a sudden there are frickin’ talking polar bears. It all builds very gradually in the book, with an omniscient narrator who knows our world and Lyra’s world, but in the movie there are clumsy voice-overs and other devices that don’t make for good film.

The Harry Potter books are even written in a sort of filmic way, with characters explaining much of the background of wizarding in dialogue with Harry serving as a “dumb puppet,” but that leaves the problem of pacing. Before I read the books, the movies didn’t make any sense to me because they rushed from one event to another too quickly. All of a sudden “You’re a wizard, Harry.” After I read the books with my kids, the movies made sense but seemed like very thin outlines of the books. Repeated watchings of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films leaves me with the same feeling: all that going on and on about Hobbits in the books really serves a purpose. We care about Hobbits a lot more after knowing about their history and habits.

Contrast this with fantasy movies that are not at all adapted from books. There are all the favorites like Star Wars (where the prequels have bad TV-show pacing, unlike the originals), but there are other films in the fantasy genre that are original and make good movies. Krull, Dragonslayer, Willow, Legend, and Labyrinth are all fun and exciting movies with original screenplays and well-worked stories. They don’t cram in so much story that it looks clumsy, and they accomplish their own goals. Labyrinth and Legend especially have the “Oh look there’s so-and-so” effect, but they don’t detract from the story since the viewer has no expectations for what the story should be. When we see David Bowie we’re not saying “That’s not how it was in the book,” and I think it’s therefore easier to forget for a little while that it is David Bowie.

Another set of films that do their work are those written simultaneously with the book. My favorites coming to mind are Dances with Wolves and 2001: A Space Odyssey. I haven’t read the novel of Dances with Wolves, but it’s a philosophically rich movie that examines important questions of self-knowledge and masculinity and has an exciting but not overly complex plot. It does its work successfully and is visually beautiful. The book of 2001 is different from the movie—the destination is Saturn, not Jupiter—and Arthur C. Clarke made sure the book worked as a book and the movie worked as a movie. The film and book sequels, 2010, were actually sequels to a hybrid of the book and film, and the film followed the book without losing anything except a speech about John Von Neumann. But that’s exactly how it should be done: that speech was inessential in a movie where you can see what’s happening.

Movies work best when either conceived originally or totally rewriting their source material

I think the most successful movies that are genuine adaptations follow two patterns. Some screenplays are successful rewrites of the book, using the same characters but changing the plot in a way that makes a lot more sense for the visuals presented by the film. Blade Runner, for instance, completely forsakes the radioactive dust and religion that are crucial parts of the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? There are other aspects that are different, but the movie works because it doesn’t stick directly to the book. That story would be harder to convey in a film because the tension is built on more complex materials. I suspect The Princess Bride is similar in this respect, but I haven’t read the book yet. The movie is simple enough that everything is conveyed well with quirky characters that make a movie special. This movie was notoriously hard to make because William Goldman wouldn’t approve a screenplay that didn’t get it right.

Another way to make a film adaptation of the book is to just take the simplest, most visual aspects of the book and forget the more complex or loosely connected, often intellectual, aspects. Jurassic Park, for instance, included a highly philosophical examination of chaos theory. I always saw this aspect as more than a page-turning device. The movie included only a few lines hinting at that, and including something like the pages drawing the dragon curve would have just been weird in a movie. Instead we had genetically-engineered dinosaurs chasing people, and that was enough for an action movie. A Clockwork Orange and 1984 also included all the events of their books by simply forgetting to mention much of the alternate history or background and immersing viewers in the visual world of the book. They just didn’t bother to explain how things got that way and instead went straight to the parts that touch people’s hearts.

So why would I rather watch Vikings than Game of Thrones or a Wheel of Time TV show? I know the Wheel of Time so well that my interpretation of the books is perfect in its own way. I don’t actually need to see it on a screen to think I got it right: I know they will get it wrong, especially because there aren’t enough actors of particular ethnicities to get it right. Authors don’t have to worry about hiring actors; language does everything for them. My expectation is that they will screw up the ethnicity aspect so badly it will distract me horribly. Most of the time, adaptations are too close to the book; there are no surprises, just poorly motivated versions of the characters. Things usually turn out better when movies don’t try to stick too closely to the book, but the only deviation I expect from TV show creators today is to add more sex and violence. Either that or they will just completely miss the spirit of the books, as a friend of mine said of The Shannara Chronicles (expectations were pretty high for this one). Either way, I would rather just re-read the books.

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