On the Effect of Culture on Storytelling
by William Alan Rieser
Harry Kemelman, a recently deceased author, was very popular throughout the 60’s and 70’s for writing a series of novels involving mysteries from the Jewish, actually Rabbinic point of view. At the insistence of my wife, I read On Wednesday, the Rabbi Got Wet. It took me by surprise, not because it was very well thought out, rather the way it was written. It seemed rather slow and torturous to my way of thinking, an accumulation of tiny grains of sand to construct a beach castle, only to be washed away in a second at the denouement. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Kemelman was making use of time honored techniques for his day and age. He built his tale through snips of dialogue and small, seemingly insignificant descriptions of everyday common people and things. Modern writers don’t do that as effectively as in the past and I began to wonder about it.
Then I remembered the Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan series. If one’s exposure to it was limited to comic books and movies, you would never know how laboriously the author crafted his stories with tons of exposition, what today would be considered needless, even excessive description. Why is that? Most of you probably witnessed the brilliant depiction of The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper on film and may even have compared it to an earlier black and white version. How many of you recall the novel itself? If you do, then you must realize how much of Cooper’s details were left out of the film, notwithstanding the beauty of the new presentation. And if anything reveals how our culture changes storytelling, you have only to consider Peter Jackson’s rendition of The Lord of the Rings. Can anyone deny the vast differences between the written tale and the film, regardless of how expertly it was crafted? Consider how the editing out of Bombadil, the Barrow Downs, the pony Bill, Glorfindel and a host of other characters have diluted Tolkien’s masterpiece.
Today’s authors seem to get right into it as opposed to the old way of preparing the mind of the reader with short, digestible narratives. This change is caused, I think, by the realities of the screenplay, where exposition is mostly replaced by scenery and hidden persuaders, where reams of explanation are superseded by the contours of an actor’s face and its expressions amidst a plethora of subliminal flashes. Film has somehow influenced the guidelines of good novelistic writing. I’m not saying it is bad, only that it is real and pervasive. It also affects the publishing world, long sold on the idea of a quick kill as opposed to a long, drawn out epic. If the producers tried to take The Source, by James Michener, and turn that into a two hour celluloid, they’d be forced to edit the intricacies and cut it to ribbons in order to satisfy the viewing, listening public.
Even my own novels are far different from the books that inspired me. I try to limit my chapters to 5000 words. Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I think of Rambo and try to jam my pages with a tremendous amount of action so as not to bore or turn off the reader. In other words, I have been unconsciously thinking in terms of a screenplay, even though I have no such intention. It is amazing when I perceive this strangeness, this hypnotic effect that tells me to cast my story in a way that people can see it and hear on the silver screen. But, it appears to be true and it has affected me in ways I have yet to fully analyse.
I don’t know if we’ll ever return to the older way of doing things or that we should. I do know that filmdom has altered the way authors approach their presentations in a radical way. Surely there has been a trade off between literacy and sensory appreciation. Good or bad may be superfluous when one art form influences another. Then again, what if cartoons dominate novelistic thoughts? Should we stand by and let that happen? Would Shakespeare have molded his plays on The Simpsons? Could Hemingway have been as brilliant with Spiderman? How would Tolstoy read if Conan was his model for story structure?
I offer one reason why we might consider the old fashioned, tried and true method of narrating a tale in opposition to our present trend. Movies are essentially a group performance art and as such are open to the interpretation of all those involved. Novels are highly individualistic and provide a different kind of freedom, one in which characterization is explored in depth, in ways that films usually bypass in favor of scene impact. Novels are exclusively interpreted by readers, whereas in movie-making, every performer is a reader. Perhaps the two should be kept more separate and unique than we are currently doing. That way, neither venue would be limited by the other and retain their status. In fact, that way an author could state all his views without worrying that it might be edited out for a commercial advertisement or exceed the 90 to 120 minute requirement. Wouldn’t that be novel?
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