It Couldn’t Be a Movie
I don’t have a sophisticated aesthetic theory of novel, movies, painting, music or any of the arts. In fact, I don’t have a sophisticated theory of anything. But I do have a principle that I find useful when considering artwork. I ask, “Would this work have been better in another medium?”
If the answer is “Yes,” then I tend to think less of the work. Conversely, I think a work better if it couldn’t have been created in any other medium. I guess this is some sort of Aristotelian essentialism. Or something. Anyway, an example is Joyce’s Ulysses. Could it be a movie? No. It would be deadly boring. The only way to capture much of the story would be voice over, which is highly un-cinematic. Could it be a play? A comic book? A drama? No, no, no. Proust is another one whose work wouldn’t make much of a movie. As a novel, though, it is spellbinding. Nabokov’s Pale Fire is the same.
Many of the epics—Paradise Lost, The Divine Comedy, The Illiad—would be great movies. They are cinematic. There are places in The Illiad where the author gives us reverse angle descriptions. At one point, when Hector and Achilles are fighting, we are watching them. We are down on the plains and they are in front of us. Then we cut to Priam sitting on the walls of Troy watching Hector and Achilles from a distance. If that’s not cinematic, I don’t know what is. Many novels are cinematic like this. Recall that Eisenstein said he learned to cut film by reading Dickens.
Which brings me to two of the best examples of my aesthetic principle, both by Anthony Burgess, who is, without a doubt, my favorite twentieth-century writer. I’ve been reading Nothing Like the Sun. It is brilliant—a fictionalized life of WS (William Shakespeare) written a the Elizabethan style. Burgess so unbelievably clever. He puts contemporary clever-clever writers (Rushdie, David Foster Wallace, Vikram Seth of The Golden Gate) to shame. To shame. Nothing Like the Sun could be nothing but a novel.
Burgess’s last work before he died was A Dead Man in Deptford, which is about as good (some might say better). The protagonist is Marlowe, who is much less sympathetic than WS. It is another one where I can’t imagine it as a movie. This is not to say it doesn’t have plot or isn’t visual. It does; it is. It’s hard to put down, in fact, and is incomparably vivid. But the Elizabethan narration would be gelded if screenplayified. Interestingly, Johnny Depp was attached to a project to make Dead Man in Deptford into a movie. But the project, last I heard, hadn’t gone anywhere. I’m not surprised. It, too, could be nothing but a novel.