A few weeks ago I listened to a Diane Rehm interview with Salman Rushdie, whose work is revered in literary circles and regarded among the finest in contemporary fiction. He discussed his novels, religion, and world affairs in typically compelling fashion. My own encounters with Rushdie’s work are limited—I have only read The Satanic Verses in my college “Forms of the Novel” class, but that nevertheless represented one of the more memorable experiences I’ve had with current literature. Reading The Satanic Verses was like watching a film with the shared sensibilities of David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick, particularly as regards its reflexive journey through conventions of the narrative form. Unlike other supposedly “deconstructive” works, The Satanic Verses didn’t distance me with its nonlinear approach to character and storytelling. I found it utterly mesmerizing, not once wishing it would focus its disparate elements and seemingly random interludes around a coherent narrative or character design.
It may seem problematic to compare the work of a writer such as Rushdie to filmmakers like Lynch and Kubrick. We often hear that books and movies are very different media/cultural artifacts. Although each deal in narrative to some capacity, the means by which films and books are made and consumed are vastly different. The academic dialogue on the topic largely resists the tendency to draw easy comparisons between books and movies, even when it comes to movie adaptations of books that tend to exemplify the respective form’s strengths and weaknesses (with film usually on the low end of the spectrum). But the other side of this extreme—the insistence that these media are too different to reduce to the same plane, to even compare in any productive manner—is also problematic. That’s because the experiences of reading a book and watching a movie are separated and united by more than mere narrative structures.
How appropriate that Rushdie touched on this idea, albeit briefly, during his interview. A caller asked for his insights on the potential competition between film and the novel as artistic, narrative media. The caller was compelled to ask the question after hearing a statement by Ridley Scott, who said something to the effect that film was the theater of the 20th century and will become the literature of the 21st century. Rushdie’s response:
“I’m a great admirer of film, so I don’t see this as an either/or question. Ridley Scott is a friend of mine, and I enormously admire his work. I do think film at its best is fully the equal of a great novel. Blade Runner, for example, is a film that would stand up against most contemporary novels. I do think that the great gift literature has is its intimacy. It takes place in a reader’s mind, whereas a movie takes place on a screen and you watch it. But a novel is played out in your imagination, and interacts with the imagination. The reason for the durability of the form is that private conversation between the imagination of the writers and the imaginations of the reader. People have always found that attractive, and I suspect always will. The great gift of literature is that it takes you into worlds that are not your world and makes it feel like your world. I read the literature of the United States before I ever came to America, and when I came here I felt like I knew something about the country from reading Faulkner and Steinbeck, up to contemporary writers. So whether it’s taking us into the past or into another country, we can gain the world through literature, and I think that is a unique gift of the form.”
One thing to keep in mind is that Rushdie is responding off the cuff, so we perhaps shouldn’t view this response as his definitive take on the subject. Having said that, his rendering of the novel in relation to film illustrates the discourse of dualisms that has shaped how we think about each of these forms. In his opening statement, Rushdie emphasizes that film should not be thought of as a lesser form than the novel. This is rather appropriate since film’s status as an industrial art was born as much out of the mechanical technologies of the 19th and 20th centuries as it was from aesthetic and narrative traditions of painting, literature, and theater. Since the beginning of the medium, filmmakers and film theorists have felt as though they’ve needed to defend it from classicists who scoffed at the simplicity of its images, the lack of nuance in its narrative capacity. Unfortunately, this mentality has been preserved throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, to the extent that every theoretical inquiry into cinema’s artistic, commercial, and cultural worth must be prefaced by an argument for why movies are “worthy.”
Given this background and now-familiar mold for thinking about film, it’s nice to see a famed novelist speak so highly of movies. His response even seems to suggest that there is much bad fiction in the world as there is bad filmmaking. However, novels tend to get a pass in this department, mostly because—good or bad—they don’t have the public exposure that films do. In the populist sense, movies appear to only be thought of as commodities. The proportion of bad movies to bad books may not be so far off, but as a commercial institution, studio films are immensely scrutinized. Their historical association with melodrama and flamboyance, and more recent connections with demographic-appealing schlock, does not help their image.
Tied to commercial interests is the fact that film is industrial, not just in terms of the end product but in terms of its construction. Auteurism certainly thrives in the annals of film theory and directors get the lion’s share of the credit for a film’s artistic success or failure, but the simple fact is that film is a collaborative medium. Even if a director has “total control” s/he requires the hands of many others to realize that vision, whether set builders, camera operators, or the lowly production assistants who organize flights and meal schedules. One person or even a few people cannot feasibly make a movie in the vast majority of cases, no matter what the reach or commercial aspiration, which may speak to why so many great visions are not fully realized on film, and why great films can happen seemingly by accident.
All of these discursive, social, and technological components have great implications for how movies are made, watched, and viewed as a medium—why they’ve always been generally seen as a “lesser” form of narrative, lacking artistic significance. Rushdie’s refusal to pick between them or to make sweeping statements about one medium’s superiority over the other is refreshing and intelligent. The remainder of his response addresses the other major part of this discussion, one which is more shaky from a cultural, even theoretical perspective. This has to do with the experience of engaging the work as a reader/viewer.
In a general sense, experiencing any form of art—or for that matter, any form of experience—is at once similar and dissimilar. Whether it’s everyday life, looking at a photograph, reading a book, watching a movie, all of these activities are mediated by the countless technologies and signifying practices that give rise to them. We separate and categorize them because we need to contain them and quantify them, as evidenced by our systems of communication and economics that are based on separation and distinction. As an active construction, engagement, and comprehension of sensual fields, however, experience is infinite in its capacity. In my view, this is the central condition that constitutes all art—reproducing, engaging, and representing experience in intangible ways, in ways that both separate us and immerse us in moments that mean.
When it comes to the specific similarities and differences of reading a book and watching a movie, Rushdie’s comments are both right and wrong. Reading a book can be very personal and represent more of an exchange between a writer and a reader. It is certainly a gift of literature. But everything he says in the later portion, about how books can take you “into worlds that are not your world and make it feel like your world,” or “into the past or into another country,” can similarly be true of a film’s sights and sounds. The media, technologies, and biological processes by which the moving image appears on screen and is branded onto the viewer’s brain may differ from the kinds of images and sounds that the formations of words may stir from a good book. But the effect of sensual engagement with an image, sound, memory, is as unique to audiovisual media as it is to books.
When it comes to the production and consumption of cinematic images and affections, the circumstances are undoubtedly different and changing all the time. We can create new kinds of images based on new approaches to established styles in framing, composition, performance, and narrative structure, but we can also construct them in digital space, a method that continues to open new doors with regards to how we conceive of and see films. From a viewing standpoint, films are now not only communal experiences we share at a theater, but are also intimate adventures that we can view in our homes with media that enable us to freeze, quicken, or slow down the compositions. These various social and technological developments allow us to experience films differently and enable their images to saturate our memories in new ways.
We’re still discovering the kinds of images and sensations that the ubiquitous medium is capable of. These sensibilities will continue to evolve along with our media landscape and definitions of culture. To see, hear, and feel a moving image is an experience both personal and universal. It is a unique immersion in cerebral and affective processes that will continue to develop according to unique sociocultural and technological conditions. It may exist on celluloid or in digital space, but much like the images we conjure when reading words on a page, it also exists in our minds and memories. The world of a film extends far beyond the four corners of the frame, is realized in greater detail beyond the onscreen color schemes, effects, and sounds. Movies invite an interaction between the viewer and the image, between our organic bodies and the synthetic world that we have constructed and maneuver within. The changes seen in film form and narrative likely reflect the evolving ways in which we inhabit physical and digital space, stretch it and embody it. Movies collapse the divide between self and other, all the while expanding our capacity for perceiving and creating new images and relations to the world around us. We are images, narratives, and agents of artifice, and we can gain the world through movies.
Ted Pigeon is author of the blog The Cinematic Art.