Wednesday, January 09, 2008

"We'll be back on the air when we know anything," or why books are better than television

I don't spend much time around the flashy new medium of television, but when I do, the viewing seems disproportionately often to be Law and Order or one of its numerous offshoots. Tonight the tedium was relieved only by something even worse: an American network's election-night coverage. But more on that, as a portentous anchorperson might say, later.

My beefs with Law and Order are the (faux?) handheld camerawork and the humorless deadpan batting back and forth of sound bites about Important Issues. The former may have been edgy in the late 1960s and seemed edgy in early music videos, but now it's an annoying cliché. The latter is an unsuccessful attempt to get around something that books can do better than television: convey factual information.

That shortcoming is especially noticeable in shows about forensic investigation, where characters will recite aloud to one another lines like "In some respects, he meets the typical profile: White male, 30 to 35 years old, lives alone, good job, some graduate school. You know, I bet he tends not to have many friends and has trouble forming relationships with women." Real investigators would know this stuff and would not need to spout it to each other. The actors' delivery is invariably wooden, and the scenes destroy the suspension of disbelief that is necessary for drama or fiction to work. In fiction, this sort of thing is called an information dump. In television, it's called Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

I watched part of an episode tonight over pizza, interrupted occasionally by NBC's cut-ins about the New Hampshire presidential primaries. These are terrible, because even a short cut-in tries to stretch about four seconds of information ("With 57 percent of the vote counted, Hillary Clinton leads Barack Obama, 36 percent to 32 percent.") over several minutes of air time. So you get television "journalists" who try to make the obvious sound profound ("Jim, I think what we'll see here is that if he gets just 3 percent of the vote in this critical early state, you may see him change his strategy."), and you get panicked commentators who fill dead air with annoying verbal tics, like the guy tonight who said "if you will" four times.

But the evening was not a total waste. NBC's Brian Williams, no doubt wanting to convey the immediacy of the occasion, implied more than he intended when he told viewers as he signed off that "We'll be back on the air when we know anything."

And now, readers, over to you. In what other ways do books tell stories better than television? What advantages does television have as a medium for telling stories?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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17 Comments:

Blogger Gerald So said...

Books are better at delivering characters' thought processes and internal monologue throughout, getting to feel much more intimate than the voiceover many shows and movies have done to death.

Point taken about TV information dumps, but I'll stick around if interesting characters are delivering them, like Abby Sciuto of NCIS or Dr. Gregory House.

TV generally handles pacing better than books do. TV has less time to establish relationships and give exposition, so things are usually cut down to the essentials. This is better than reading flat backstory/expository passages by an author who doesn't have a way with words.

I'll add that TV handles action sequences better. Sometimes after reading a fight scene on the page, my only mental image is of a game of Twister.

January 09, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for weighing in. Given the sorts of things TV is better at, I'm mildly surprised at the popularity of forsensics shows the past few years.

On the other hand, while everyone talks about, say, the C.S.I. phenomenon and how it affects real-life juries, I'm not sure anyone talks about the shows as top-quality television, the way people do with The Sopranos or The Wire.

You may well be right about pacing and TV. The flip side, though, might explain why a book by an author who does have a way with words can be richer and more satisfying than TV -- because TV lacks the time for that wondeful exposition.

With respect to action sequences, at least the protagonist in a book never comes through them with immaculately coiffed hair.

January 09, 2008  
Anonymous bookwitch said...

Well, that will be never, then. Or do they sometimes know something?

Agree with Gerald. Now I'll never be able to read action without thinking "Twister"...

Abby Sciuto is my hero, and I'll be her in my next life. What television does, of course, is to make it possible to drool over David McCallum and Mark Harmon.

January 09, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

If I find myself in that "Twister" rut, I'll read one of Ken Bruen's action sequences. Anyone thinking "Twister" after reading about Jack Taylor getting beaten up has in mind a bloodier form of the game than Wham-O or Milton Bradley ever thought of.

Hey, I liked the glimpses of Veronica Hamel's bod in Hill Street Blues as much as the next guy did, but the drool factor can be a distraction, too.

January 09, 2008  
Blogger Gerald So said...

My ideal would be a book that delivers the intimacy, imagery, and pacing we're discussing, but that level of quality is as rare on the page as it is on the screen.

On TV/film, viewers have to accept the ideas of just a few people on how characters, setting, and pacing should be. Books allow each reader's imagination more freedom in all three areas, which again leads to greater intimacy/emotional impact.

I agree that more space/time can be an advantage for books, but viewers can become just as attached to TV/movie characters, and actors add to these characters' appeal in a way not available to books. This is one reason, for better and worse, books are made into movies and TV.

January 09, 2008  
Blogger Gerald So said...

Another technique handled better--at least less obtrusively--on TV/film is the flashback. I find the fidelity of first-person flashbacks largely implausible. Whose memory isn't gilded or eroded by time? Who remembers long conversations word-for-word years later?

I can accept a perfect flashback in third person-limited or third-omniscient (i.e. an unbiased account of exactly what happened).

January 09, 2008  
Blogger Maxine said...

Yes, books are much more internal and rich than TV.
This point applies to all visual media, not just TV, but books can maintain suspense as to the identity of the villain for much longer, just because they don't have to show him/her.
This first struck me forcefully years ago when comparing the book version of Ira Levin's A Kiss Before Dying with the movie. I hadn't read that many mystery novels then, so the book's twists were really exciting shocks to me then, whereas in the movie you have to know the "sting" from the very start, as you can see the character who is doing it.
I've experienced the same type of disappointment in other stories in the years since, but can't call to mind any other examples just now.

January 09, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

And one reason, better or worse, that people can't help picturing Humphrey Bogart (and, in some cases, Martha Vickers) when they read The Big Sleep.

I'm surprised that no one has brought up visual storytelling. Perhaps that's because television just doesn't do it that well, for reasons of small screen size and limited production budgets.

January 09, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

It's interesting that books give one the opportunity to meditate on whether a flashback is reliable or not. In television or movies, whatever we see is reliable. We "know" this because we are seeing it -- except in something like Unfaithfully Yours, with its hysterical flashes forward. I think I may have to finally read Proust now that talk has turned to flashbacks.

Maxine, I'll have to choose a mystery novel that has been made into a movie to compare the two. No one seemed to have much trouble adapting Agatha Christie novels.

It sounds as if the makers of A Kiss Before Dying had to perform radical storytelling surgery when they adapted the novel. That's another interesting topic. How radical were the changes and what other adaptations have incorporated similar changes?

January 09, 2008  
Blogger Gerald So said...

We've made excellent cases for both media. Books appeal when we want the freedom to imagine worlds and characters for ourselves. Film appeals when we want to connect with figments of imagination in a more tangible way.

January 09, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

How could a discussion of flashbacks be complete without mentioning "Lost?" ;)

The ones I find idiotic are the ones at the end of the episode which show the crime being committed, usually bloodily. Why not trust the viewers' imaginations? Is that CSI?

January 09, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Linkmeister, your discussion leader is a Luddite who has never bothered to watch much television and does not have a working set in his house. But I bet I'll have some worthwhile comments about Lost once it's been off the air a few years.

The end-of-episode flashback may have its roots in those end-of-story summings up that Dashiell Hammett and his contemporaries used to do. The device crops up in modified form in the Dutch writer Baantjer, whose stories end with he and his wife and friends talking about the case. (He's phenomenally popular in the Netherlands, and, oddly enough, the TV series based on his stories is better than the books.)

January 09, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Gerald, you may not get me to watch more television, but you may well get me thinking more carefully when I do watch.

But I think you slipped when you referred to "both" media and mentioned film. Movies are yet a third medium with enough differences from television to open up an entirely new discussion.

January 09, 2008  
Blogger Gerald So said...

I've been discussing TV and movies as "filmed things", but I agree they are distinct enough from each other.

January 09, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Movies and TV ... I wonder if TV will ever take stronger advantage of visual storytelling than it does now. On the one hand, big-screen TVs and high definition might make better visuals possible. On the other, who needs good visuals if they're watching on their iPhone? And there will always be production costs to contend with.

January 09, 2008  
Blogger Gerald So said...

I'm still saving for an HDTV, so I haven't been able to track how television directors have adapted to it. I do like the letterbox format of most newer TV shows. The slightly wider frame does make a difference.

To me, TV's main advantage over books and movies is its frequency, which compensates a bit for its lack of time each day/week. While series readers and moviegoers might visit with characters once a year if they're lucky, TV viewers get to live with characters 22-24 weeks a year. If each episode is used wisely, it allows for subtler, more palatable character development.

January 09, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Yes, I've noticed the letterbox format, most recently in that episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. I'm not sure what to make of it. I'll have to watch more to see what difference it makes to the viewing experience.

It has been often remarked that yesterday's magazine fiction authors are today's TV writers. Perhaps in the days of the pulps, characters appeared frequently enough that they filled the same function that you say television characters do now. There may not have been much character development going on, but frequency probably bred a certain familiarity and intimacy absent from today's fiction but present for today's television characters.

January 09, 2008  

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