Movies are a visual medium. Humans are visual creatures. And the modern trend (or is it modern?) of hyper reality, or if you like, hyper visual reality in movies makes perfect sense. I recently watched a fabulous action adventure movie in which due to location restraints, they had to realistically recreate every location, inside and out, on a set of soundstages, because there are some semi-public and iconic buildings at which you’re simply not allowed to film. And it was exquisitely done, to be clear. I didn’t realize until I watched the making-of extra content that it wasn’t filmed on location even in small part. It was hyper real, and it’s hyper reality as a story rested firmly on the exquisite visuals. And yet, the dialogue was strong, the plot was solid, the relationships between the characters were very believable and well-forged. It was, in fact, a good movie, and I liked it a bunch more than the critics did. White House Down (2013), in case you’re curious.
And yet I was talking with one of my sisters a few weeks ago about how she wished the Fantastic Beasts series of films* had first come out as books, because as visually fantastic as they were, the books would have had more. Which led to a reminiscing sort of conversation about our reactions when we saw the first Harry Potter film in theaters… and were disappointed. As a visually-told story, it was brilliant. Freaking amazing to be able to see Diagon Alley. As a movie adaptation of a book, it was a summary at best. The characterizations weren’t flat, but they were flatter than the book. The dialogue wasn’t totally trunkaded, but it was fuller, deeper, and better in the book. Some plotlines present in the book were totally cut out of the movie. And from a movie making standpoint, all their choices made sense – movies and books are vastly different media in which to tell a story and they have vastly different strengths.
I can take, after all, a half a page to describe a long thought train that occurs to a character all in a flash as they are listening to someone else speak that maybe, maybe, we can intuit in a movie version from the expressions that flash across an actor’s face, or not, if the director calls for a more stoic playing of the scene.
And recently, I’ve been working on depicting the best capacity for clear, direct, and honest communication that each character is capable of and seeing what that looks like. I love writing dialogue richly described and I do it well, most of the time. But the kind of deep, important, hard to discuss, and long sorts of conversations I end up describing… they’d fall flat in a film, unless you went crazy avant-garde and created an entire film around one series of conversations, but still you’d have to intersperse it with outtakes from life because film is a visual media.
And I love movies for what they are: a heyday for the eyeballs and sometimes a pleasure to the ears, even while they cannot help but fail to cater to any other sense. (I say this having recently seen a movie, Lost City (2022) in a 4D theater. Great film. Totally not worth seeing it in 4D – as the movements of the chairs are sometimes logically antithetical to the movements on screen, the discontinuity of it actually lessened my enjoyment, which I can happily compare to seeing it two other times in regular theaters. I know what it’s like to be thrown over someone’s shoulder in a fight, thank you, and that gentle rocking of my chair was not it.)
I think this is one of the reasons that I love the movie Jupiter Ascending (2016). A very close watching of the film drops a thousand little references, and some of them are only visual!, to a much deeper world that presumably might have been fleshed out if it had been the successful first movie to a trilogy as the directors had hoped. It turned instead into a cult classic with some die-hard fans who have created plenty of backstory for each minute reference that opens the door to another world. …And this is why I love the movie. Because it is a rich visual story that hints at so much more, and as a writer that specializes in the written epic-length novel and not screenplays, I have had to really rein myself in from writing more than 250,000 words in the fandom. Mostly because I have other deadlines looming. (One day I’ll return and write some more. :) )
And all this got kicked off, really, because of a quote from the movie Wyrd Sisters (1997), originally a mini-series, but later released as a movie adaptation of the Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett of the same name, and you know, the quote is only in the movie, not the book. When a young witch named Magrat observed that the very real crown stolen from a now dead king that she’d just hidden in a prop box full of stage crowns was really quite tatty and unrealistic compared to all the stage crowns that were all shiny and full of bling, the response given to her by the older, wiser witch goes thusly, “Things that look like things are often more like things than things. Well known fact. But I don’t hold with encouraging it.” And once you take a moment to decipher that first statement, her point is pretty clear: our make-believe versions of life are often more attractive than the real thing, but it doesn’t do to live in dreams.
It makes me think of Instagram filters. Of humans as visual creatures with a strong visual bias. Our first impressions are often visual, and if someone we encounter dresses well and presents well visually to whatever standard we recognize, we just have a more favorable opinion of them.
It reminds me of a YouTuber I follow who so kindly said an encouraging word to her followers that went something like this: “Don’t judge your everyday experiences based on someone else’s closely edited highlights reel.”
It makes me think of the way we put people on pedestals, imagining they are so much better than we are, or that they have their lives so much more together, and that conversely when we perhaps painfully discover they aren’t as perfect as we’d wanted them to be, we tear them off the pedestal, and sometimes tear them to shreds afterwards.
And then my mind returns to my stories, as it usually does. The make-believe versions of life that are often more attractive than the real thing, the dream in which I so often live. I often use my stories to work out my personal issues, which is possibly only visible to myself and my husband as we read them. And that’s fine. But I am reminded that though the stories all blend and merge with my own, real life, there comes a point when I cease being the architect of the written story and have to resume being the character in my own. And as much as I have in common with the characters I write, I can guarantee you that visually I resemble none of them.
Things that look like things are often more like things than things.
*I’m super divergent with J.K. Rowling when it comes to her social views, because trans rights are human rights. But I’m mostly on board with the fiction she’s written… though most notably not the highly questionable epilogue in which Viktor and Hermione did not end up together, nor Luna and Draco, and in which Harry never actually got to heal any of his childhood trauma. All of the latter I can fix with fanfiction. The former is entirely out of my control.