This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of The Four Marks as part of a series called "The Restoration." "The Restoration" is a monthly column dedicated to restoring Christian ideals in our modern culture. For more information on The Four Marks, please click here.
I will never grow tired of being irritated by the phrase, “But I liked the book better than the movie.” It’s rather like saying, “I liked the poem better than the painting.” How does one compare the reading of a book to the watching of a movie? Plainly, you cannot.
Books have their own serene magic. They are available to be read at anytime. They are, by and large, inexpensive. They take us as near or as far as we and our imaginations will let them. They have margins where we can scribble, white space where we can underline, and covers that can be happily worn down. We can give them to friends, or keep them as family heirlooms. Books are treasures.
While movies lack all of the tactility of books and all of the collective written memory of text, they have a powerful grip on our imagination. In my recent interview with Bishop Williamson I was joking with him off-camera about what I have called his “obsession” with the Sound of Music. The conversation then turned to how the songs are stuck in our heads and seeing a statue of St. Thomas More nearby, I hoped to prove a point by quoting from A Man for All Seasons.
The Robert Bolt play? Sure, I’d read it. But the reason I would know the lines I proceeded to deliver were not because I had read the play so many times, but because I had watched the movie so many times. “(More, in a tired voice) Roper, the answer is no and will remain no as long as you are a heretic. (Roper, in a stirring baritone) Now that’s a word I don’t like, Sir Thomas. (More, pedantic) It’s not a likable word, it’s not a likeable thing. (Roper, irritated) The Church is heretical, Dr. Luther has proved that to my satisfaction.” Bishop Williamson, smiling as I delivered the lines with the affectation of the accents of the actors of that movie, interrupted me, laughingly, to say “Q.E.D.”
Yes, while books are powerful, movies are more powerful. Even someone who loves books as much as I do must be honest enough to admit that. While my imagination dimly conceived of the overwhelming Orc attack on Minas Tirith, Peter Jackson, with the assistance of CGI, lit up that imagination for all time. While I imagined different ways that Hamlet could deliver “To be, or not to be” Kenneth Branagh forever asked me to imagine it being delivered into a mirror. Whatever I might have thought Darcy was before I saw Colin Firth, he is the only Darcy I will now ever know. Movies, with their simultaneous assault on our eyes and ears, indelibly stamp us with their notions and grip tightly whenever we revisit the books wherein these characters were born.
Indeed, if there is one thing you can be assured of regarding our modern youth, it is that they are steeped in movies. They may not know the Te Deum, but they can deliver, to a syllable, their favorite movie quotes. Is this a bad thing? I’m not entirely convinced that it is. Surely, we need our youth to learn the Te Deum, but it must be acknowledged that movies are with us to stay. They are an art form – and like any art form (books for example), there are both good and bad examples of it.
And that brings us back to our original erroneous comparison – comparing a movie to a book – rather like comparing a dessert to a main course – it can be done, but what purpose does it serve? Is chocolate cake really better than roast beef? Why can we not have both?
Indeed, in some circumstances, the narrative of a movie quite tops that of a book. For the five or so of us who have read James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, the plodding narrative is nowhere near as interesting and evocative as what Michael Mann’s film rendering was. In the case of the Star Wars movies or the various Star Trek franchises, the imagination was so well-watered by the original productions that books subsequently exploded into print (and continue to be printed in record numbers) – demonstrating the powerful impetus that film can give to the creative mind. And of course, many readers of these pages are familiar with the conversion stories attributed to a single watching of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ.
So, rather than engage in the rather limited discussion of “book vs. movie,” or to lament the rather dull point that “our youth don’t read anymore” (believe me, I teach high schoolers so I know that this is true) we might instead, in whatever fashion we deem appropriate in our family settings, watch and discuss good films together. As with literature, the classics are always fascinating. You might watch Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, a true story about how a man with a striking similarity to a criminal is wrongfully imprisoned and the cascading effect it has upon his family. Or John Ford’s Stagecoach, to remember what Westerns looked like before they engaged in loathing self-hate. Or Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, a story which reminds us that perspectives in a situation always matter. Or Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, where Death, playing chess with the protagonist, reminds us that he can always cheat, whereas we never can.
In the Catholic world, there are little known treasures like the breathtaking The Passion of Joan of Arc, which features a magnificent soundtrack, or The Keys of the Kingdom, starring Gregory Peck, about the life of a missionary in China, or Audrey Hepburn’s A Nun’s Story, which portrayed so well the struggle anyone who wants to persevere in the religious life must undergo, and underscores that it is not a life to be chosen, but one that chooses you, or The Reluctant Saint, about St. Joseph of Cupertino, where we get to watch a flying priest.
See, at the end of the day, movies can be like books. You do have to dig sometimes to find treasures. And the effort is worth it, for in these encounters, we are reminded about the various ways in which our enchanted universe kaleidoscopically reflects His Truth in our daily truths. And fictions.