The Languages of Page and Screen — What One Reveals about the Other.
The Sentence and the Image.
Who hasn’t been reduced to pursuing reading solely in the search for material to adapt for a movie? Novels, novellas, short stories — riches to be mined for narratives, for characters, for worlds. Sometimes you dip in, know this isn’t the one, dip out, move on. Other times you’re not sure, so read on before throwing in the towel, then move on. In rare cases you’re left wondering. Could this work? But you don’t quite get that throb of motivation and before long the book gets forgotten. Or maybe you just know in your bones — this is the one! Is the option available? Can you afford it? What kind of budget are we talking? What locations are needed? Etc, etc…
But what if you find yourself enjoying the novel, or novella, or short story for its own sake? What if you can’t stop turning the pages? What if you cease to care whether it’s material to be mined for a movie or it isn’t? What if you get to the end and wish it hadn’t ended, and all you can think about is finding more work by the same author? Might this be the point at which you arrive at a realization?
This is what happened to me when I read The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald. I’d never come across anything like it before and just wanted more of the same. This book could never become a feature (maybe a metafictional hybrid) but it freed me from habitual sorties into literature (and sub-literature) in search of plunder. I went on to read novel after novel — and not just those by ‘Max’ Sebald. Before long I was notching up 60 or 70 literary novels per year (including a smattering of ‘genre’ — the Master and Commander novels of Patrick O’Brian in particular).
But as I was lapping up the pleasure of each chapter, each page, each paragraph, each sentence something unexpected started to happen. I found myself looking at Cinema, and TV in ways I hadn’t looked at them before. It was helping me watch them in richer ways. I started to think about the language of the page and the language of the screen. What are the differences? What the similarities? What can one do that the other can’t? And that’s before considering issues of the respective natures of the narratives that the different languages serve — exterior vs interior life, discursive discourse vs Billy Wilder’s clean line of action, variations in structure, in the way character reveals itself: through inner thoughts vs through action, in what is told and what shown, in what works as a story over 300 pages maybe and what works in 90 minutes or a couple of hours.
Every one of those topics invites a lifetime of thought. Accept simple rules and someone, some writer or filmmaker, some novel and film — or work of non-fiction transformed into a feature, such as book and movie of Nomadland — will come along to prove you wrong. Or you’ll watch Tree of Life again, or Killer of Sheep, or 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould, or Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and think: if those can be movies, what can’t be a movie?
Then there’s the consideration of one language as it relates to the other. Words on the page, images on the screen…
Too much to discuss in one brief stab, so let’s consider just the nature of sentences on the page. It goes without saying that sentences are linear. Whatever the syntax, the order of words and clauses, and whatever the punctuation, you begin at the beginning and end at the end, even if the beginning is the end and the end the beginning. It’s different on the screen. The image is just up there…
Say you have a family gathered around a table… On the page you read through the sentence, the paragraph, to see, one by one, who’s there. On the screen you can see, in an instant, the entire gathering. Or say you have a street or a vista — landscape, cityscape — described on the page. Your sense of it is cumulative as you follow the sentence and its increments of information. On the screen by contrast, there’s a cut from one frame to the next and in a split second it’s all there: whole neighborhoods, streets seen from above, stores, houses, cars, pedestrians, cats, dogs or you discover are rolling fields, a river, mountains on the horizon. You just blink and the screen gives you everything…
Or does it?
Where do your eyes settle on that image? Which store, car, pedestrian, cat, dog, neighborhood, street? Do they settle on one field, one bend of the river, one mountain peak in particular? And if they do find a point that attracts immediate attention, where do they go next? Then after that? Is it a flash of light? Is it movement amidst stasis, a stasis amidst movement? Is it color? Is it sound — a dog barking, a car revving its engine, a river in full, flooding flow? Is it an absence amidst presence, a presence amidst absence? A clearing in a forest, a tree in a meadow, then to the figure walking and to the edge of frame that they hurry towards? Or does the energy in the frame propel your focus…?
No sooner have we registered an image, than our eyes journey across it, from one point to another — what’s known as eye-trace or eye-path. That way we get a visual ‘sentence’ up on the screen, even with just a static image. Or the camera can dolly, pan, tilt, boom, show one character, object, space, then another, then another — as it edits within a single shot.
Still, it’s not quite the same as reading a sentence. When we do this, images appear on what I call, ‘the screen of the mind.’ Yet when we see images on a physical screen, that also happens. We see in our mind what the images on the screen suggest, what the story we witness leads us to anticipate. So, here we have two screens, whereas prose can give us only one — that which exists solely in our heads. With two screens we can imagine what lies outside of the frame. With two screens, one can be for what is seen, one for what is heard. With two screens we can experience a absence: when we see that a character missing from a group around a table, we see them appear instead on the screen of the mind. With two screens we can experience a dissonance: when we see a character partying whom we know is soon to get bad news, in our heads we see them reacting to it. We could of course read such scenarios on the page, but we would have to see the described absence, see the described blissfully unaware partygoer on the only screen available to us — the one in our mind, the one on which we would also see the opposite images, the character present or in the latter instance, the character in shock.
It’s that duality of experience, the external and the internal, the screen out there and the one inside, and the differences and contrasts between them, that makes for some of the most powerful cinema.
But I would never have reflected on that if I hadn’t spent years loving reading sentences on the page and following the stories they tell. When filmmakers read as well as watch — and do both avidly — they become better filmmakers. Who is the best-read filmmaker I’ve ever known, ever taught? Ari Aster. Who is the most film-literate? Ari. Who gets imprimaturs from the likes of Bong Joon-ho and Martin Scorsese? AA. Who made Hereditary, Midsommar? The same.
There! Case closed.
Peter Markham October 2021
Author: What’s the Story? The Director Meets Their Screenplay. (Focal Press/Routledge)