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Film Vs. The Written Word

I was in a meeting the other day when the following question arose: “What has more storytelling power…an effective film presentation or a well-written story?”

My knee-jerk response was, “Well, it depends.”  But, does it really?

As I’ve thought about, I’ve heard people discuss favorite scenes and extended plotlines from books far more often than I’ve heard them discuss the same from films.  In fact, they seem to retain vivid recollection of those scenes for weeks or longer when they are written.  Detailed film recall seems to fade much sooner.

Now, I’ll admit that there are movie sequences that are extremely vivid to me and hold a tremendous impact years later…for instance, the Statue of Liberty scene at the end of the original PLANET OF THE APES.  However, I’ve seen that movie several times!

There are novels that contain scenes that have stayed with me for a very long time after a single reading.  For some reason, the effort that went into embedding them within my memory gave them deeper root.

I thought that I had found some exceptions with scenes from the films GONE WITH THE WIND and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.  However, I’ve also read both of those novels.  When I recall the burning of Atlanta or Jem being attacked during the night walk home, I see the movie scenes.  Still, I’m wondering if they are embedded so deeply because they are tied to the written word.

Please keep in mind that I have no scientific backing for this.  The only “proof” I have (other than my own observations) is that many people I know also easily recall what they’ve read much more vividly and for a significantly longer time than what they have seen in at the movies.

When referencing a film, I’ll most likely hear, “Oh, I loved that movie.”  When they reference a book, it’s “Oh, I loved that book.  Remember when…” and they continue to describe a scene.

Much the same is true of a live performance as opposed to a film capture.  I remember talking with two people who were mesmerized by Laurence Olivier’s shriek in KING LEAR.  They described how a jolt literally went up their spines.  That moment, while powerful in the film, has never stayed with me.

I can share their feelings for live performances.  I can think of many stage performances that seem to come together for an encore in my mind.  Again, there are also some of those in film, but I’ve seen those movies three or more times.

Years ago, I recall reading an article by Roger Ebert that said that attention spans were dulled by watching television.  This was because the video signal was quite literally being shot through tubes into your eyes.  The result was almost a form of hypnotism.

That doesn’t entirely explain my film conundrum, though.  If a movie is seen in the theater, the image is reflected from the screen.  That shouldn’t produce a natural hypnotic effect.

I wish that I had a definitive, well-researched answer to provide.  It has, however, caused me to think about the benefits of live and written storytelling over visually recorded storytelling.  If the goal is retention, they would seem to have the edge over the recording.

If the purpose is entertainment alone, then any medium can be successful.

Thank you for reading.