The Treasure’s in the Details
I made a couple of TV appearances recently, and it got me thinking about different media and the people who consume them. We in the parenting/educational line are often thinking of what’s best for our children and students. We are very judgemental. We’d rather they eat healthy and play healthy and read healthy. We let them eat junk food and soda – we let them play video games and live on their phones – but we’d rather they do better. We all know TV isn’t good for you – that reading is better. So how do we get ‘em to read healthy – without wagging our fingers at them and making it our chore rather than their pleasure? Let’s look at it from this angle. How many times have your kids gone to see a big movie based on a big book – and they’ve come back and said – “The book was better than the movie”? How many times have you said it? We all say it. Why is that? Why is the book better than the movie?
It doesn’t take much to understand the answer. The book is richer. The characters are depicted in more patient emotional depth – and we as readers – and our kids as readers, too – respond to that. We care more. The book uses more details – longer descriptions – more color and anecdote – more complicated nuanced layered plot set up – to advance it’s story. Sometimes when you are in the middle of a good book – and kids know this, too – you don’t want the story to end. You’re with a good friend(s) and you want to pause and hold onto that moment. If you’ll forgive me, you’re like a rat who wants to keep pushing that dopamine receptor. You don’t want life to intercede and take that pleasure away from you.
The movie can’t – or rarely can – provide these pleasures. Don’t get me wrong. I love movies. I love a rich movie that I’ll want to watch more than once, share w/ others, remember and reference. I love a movie that adds to my emotional and intellectual palette – that enriches my mental world. I admit – not everyone goes to the movies for those reasons. Sometimes we just want an ephemeral pleasure. We want to laugh or be caught up in a story – action, mystery, thriller – or even be scared. But when it’s a movie we also expect it to be finite. We need to get in and get out in 2 hours. (Excepting anomalies like Lord of the Rings.) And that means a movie can’t provide as rich an experience – in two hours – as a book can in 10 or 20.
Kids intuitively know this. My examples are going to date me – but if we just choose from recent adaptations of popular novels aimed at children – from The Lightning Thief to The Hunger Games to Twilight to good old dependable Harry Potter – the experience is the same. Kids will tell you they liked the movie, they may even see it again, but it wasn’t as good as the book. Why? What can we do with that?
The truth is, kids have a tough time telling you why. They usually harp on the same things – the stuff that was left out. They usually mention characters, scenes, bits of dialogue – stuff that is precious to them that the film-makers had to cut out or condense because they couldn’t make a 12 hour movie. For starters, we need to recognize that kids who read books treasure the stuff – the details – inside of those books as precious. It bothers them that such details are left out. (You can ask your closest child for their personal examples. They may like how the Harry Potter folks pulled off Luna Lovegood – but they still miss Peeves the Poltergeist.) That stuff – those details – are in fact your kids’ treasure.
But that is not all the filmmakers leave out. They truncate or eliminate themes and plot lines. Set ups that may have taken pages to establish are executed visually in a film in seconds. Screenwriters are trained to establish elements – character elements or didactic exposition – as efficiently is possible. This is necessary and skillful for efficient two-hour story-telling. But it’s not what makes books special. And that difference – the stuff left out – is what makes books better.
A recent example from the adult world may really illustrate the point. I’m talking about World War Z. (And before I begin, let me say that I know an awful lot of precocious middle schoolers who have discovered this book, too.) If you’ve read the book, then you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t – allow me a moment to convince you – just to make sure you don’t think that World War Z is just another stupid zombie book. I confess, the notion of zombies is pretty silly, and the current craze is probably little more than that – a passing fad. Nonetheless World War Z is special. It takes as its premise that there has been a world wide attack of zombies – a plague. And that people and nations all over the globe have fought back – and largely won. But the book doesn’t depict that war in real time. It is all told after the fact through the technique of oral history. The author – Max Brooks – contrives to have ‘interviewed’ participants and survivors of the war that was. From all over the globe they describe what they witnessed and what they experience. What they really describe is how people – different people in different places and cultures – responded to the threat. Sure there are moments where some characters describe the physical details of fighting off zombies. (There are details like why to go for a head shot.) But this is not the true meat or theme of the book. Instead, Brooks uses the occasion of a zombie attack to imagine how humanity would respond to a world-wide threat. His premise could just as easily be an actual disease or pandemic. Or natural disaster. Or invasion from Mars. His real subject is who would panic? What would that look like? Who would succeed? What kind of leadership or ingenuity or teamwork or unity would succeed against a difficult to understand adversary? And Brooks uses actual history and journalistic references to tell his story. There is an early character who describes the trade in internal organs for transplant in the Far East. Brooks’ imagination also abounds in historical ironies. The Israelis invite the Palestinians in as they build a higher wall to keep the zombies out. Rich Americans become boat people trying to get into the haven of Cuba. I won’t spoil more but you can see the natural question – how do you film that?
And the answer is they barely even tried. My point isn’t to write a screed against the film adaptation of World War Z. In fact, they created an enjoyable – and fairly traditional – adventure film that allows Brad Pitt (a character who doesn’t exist in the bool) to trot the globe learning a little here and there (Korea, Israel, Iceland) to try to figure out how to combat the zombies. But this film – as conceived and executed – can’t hold a candle to the book. It doesn’t even try.
I think kids know this, too, when they come out of The Hunger Games or Harry Potter 7. They want to see their favorite characters and moments. They want to be back in the favored magical, exciting world of their imaginations – the one they conjured when read the book. They come out knowing they only got a less than satisfying, not as rich taste. Many of them go back and re-read the original for the full emotional, imaginative experience.
So what can we do with that? If the book is better than the movie – how can we get them to read the books? Make them available. Always say ‘Yes’ when they want to go to the library or – gulp – the bookstore. Let them put it on their Kindles. Make the books available. Have them lying around. Encourage them to read the book before they see the movie. You can even demand a quid pro quo – telling them they can’t see the movie until they’ve read the book. (Yes, that’s the rule in my house.) If they haven’t read the book – or perhaps weren’t even aware there was a book – get it for them. Oftentimes this is how a child first learns “the book is better than the movie.” Make comparisons. When they tell you the book is better than the movie – make a list. Together. Come up with other examples. From their childhood. And from yours. (You can even include adult films.) Let them come up with whatever films they do. Do they like Stuart Little? Do they know Freaky Friday was a book? The possibilities are endless. But let the occasion of the comparison between the movie and the book become an opportunity to talk about more movies – and more books. And get those books! Life is about opportunities. Create them.
Finally, I think we have to trust. If the books really are better than the movies – then quality will out. Eventually children don’t want junk food – they want a full, rich nourishing meal. They’d rather eat Thanksgiving dinner than more Cheetos. So they will gravitate to those hefty, nourishing chapter books – no matter how thick and imposing. (In fact, when they come to love those worlds, they’ll prefer them thick and imposing, because they’ll want to reside and wallow there – stopping time – longer. They’ll want their literary Big Gulps. Indulge them.) But we can also hasten or enable that moment along. Have the books around. Let them bring them in the car. Make sure they’re with you during likely moments when there might be dead time – car trips, any time you may have to wait for wherever you’re going (e.g. doctor’s offices.)
It’s also OK to use some quid pro quo carrots and sticks. Books can be rewards. If you’re a little firm – books will become their own rewards. When we finally had a child who really wanted to play video games – we instilled a 1:1:1 ratio requirement. She was allowed to play video games – but she had to maintain a 1:1:1 ratio of time spent a) playing outside, b) reading, c) playing video games. She’s been on her honor to maintain this balance. If we think things are out of whack – we speak up. Books – even in this required scenario – quickly become attractive anyway. If you’re looking forward to playing your next video game – you still want to choose books you’ll enjoy – books so good they read fast – books so rich you’ll enjoy being in them for 500 pages. In a perverse way, even this technique takes children into worlds where – sometimes despite themselves – they discover the superior riches of the mental and imaginative worlds – the emotional universe – of good books. And they’ll come out admitting, “the book was better than the movie.”