Thursday, June 19, 2008

Imagining words through a cinematic lens

Here's an open question:

When you read a book (fiction or non-fiction) do you just read the words and absorb the essence or do you visualize the images that the words evoke? And if you form images, then how do those images get formed?

In some cases, the writer goes to the effort to allow the reader to get a sense of the book’s surroundings but in other cases, the writer may leave it up to the reader to form their own visions. It is harder to form any visual images of the surroundings if one has never been to (or is familiar with) the places being mentioned in the book. Sometimes, I have found that films fill the gap by providing images of cities that I have not visited. There have been many cities that I learned about via cinema before I actually visited the places and then found my preconceptions to be either validated or corrected.

The reason I am curious about that question is because a strange thing took place when I read Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran a few months ago. This book was on my planned reading list for a while but I kept putting it off. Before I picked up the book, I learned that Paul Greengrass would be directing a feature film based on the book. I figured this was a natural progression for Greengrass as he was advancing from pre-attack (United 93) to espionage (The Bourne Ultimatum) to post-attack (Green Zone). But what I didn't count on was that his name would distort my views while reading Chandrasekaran's words. Right from the opening pages when I read the words, I was not visualizing what Chandrasekaran intended; instead I kept seeing things as how Greengrass would shoot them in the movie. The Green Zone cafeteria suddenly presented plenty of close-up opportunities that Greengrass used in United 93 or The Bourne Ultimatum. And when Chandrasekaran left the cafeteria to go outside, well then things got even more clouded for me. I started visualizing things as per the check-point camera sequences from Brian De Palma's Redacted, a film which used plenty of hand-held camera footage.

It took a while before I could get back to reading the words and forming my own visual images as opposed to imagining where the camera would hover around each character. Strange first there!

It appears that nowadays for some popular books, the timeline between the book getting published and the film adaptation being made is getting reduced. Ofcourse, there was the case back in the early 90’s when the movie rights for John Grisham's The Firm were purchased even before the book was published. I never read the book but I did see the film. I can only imagine if the film studio had announced that Tom Cruise would be the lead before the book was printed, then that would have certainly ensured that a majority of the book’s readers visualized him while reading Grisham’s words.

Ofcourse, it is also tricky when one attempts to read a book after seeing a film version of it. If I ever pick up Upton Sinclair’s Oil! in the future, I doubt if I can shrug off the shadow of Daniel Day Lewis’s character from There Will Be Blood.

1 comment:

Pacze Moj said...

Interesting question.

When I read, I don't really visualize too much. Sometimes when books are adapted to the screen, people say that certain characters look wrong or certain places aren't shown in the way they imagined them. I don't have that problem at all. I don't think I've ever put a face to a character (though after I see the movie, I can't read without seeing that actor or actress). It's the differences in mood and tone that bug me more, I guess.

Although now that that's written, I figure I have to have some sort of visualizations...

I'll have to pay more attention to what happens when I read.

The process of seeing a film when reading a book is something I have experienced in another way, though. When people tell me stories, I often "film" them in my head.