The Diffused Power of Characters in Literature, Composing, 30/09/2013

I’ve thought many times over the years about what in a novel makes a good film. I dislike the old stereotype that the book is always better than the film for two reasons. One is that it’s false. Two is that it ignores that actual complexity of adapting a book to a film, particularly the complete alienness of techniques in literature to techniques in film. This latter point is so obvious that it seriously annoys me when people just reveal their basic ignorance in how cinema works.

In the interview I linked below, Frank Herbert
says he conceives of the first three Dune books
as a single novel. Science-fiction is really the
only place where an author can get away with
telling a story of that scope and length anymore.
Reading Dune put me in mind of this thinking because of the incredible efficiency of one particular technique, as well as Frank Herbert’s noteworthy artfulness in execution. He literally writes the thoughts of the characters at key moments in various scenes. The plot of Dune, if you aren’t familiar, is about a variety of highly creative science-fictional technologies, political movements, worlds, and objects. You can see how important these details are to my current post by noting the detail with which I describe them. What’s more important for my point is that Dune is a book about intense political intrigue, Machiavellian machinations around royal and regal families and houses, monarchist associations and how the ordinary folk are manipulated to fight their battles over fiefdoms and money.

Here’s the most striking to me of Herbert’s literary techniques. He writes people’s thoughts. He doesn’t write their thoughts all the time, as in the first waves of experimental modernist literature; I’m thinking particularly of James Joyce’s Ulysses or Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. He just writes their thoughts at pivotal moments, as silent reactions of a character to some event. 

A spoken phrase is written as “You may see one today,” Kynes said. “Wherever there is spice, there are worms.”

A thought phrase is written as And Kynes thought as he watched the group approach: They’ll learn soon enough who is master on Arrakis

The key is that this lets the reader know secrets about character motivation and history that the characters don’t. But it’s not the infodump of a narrator, which can lean dangerously into artlessness or clunky exposition. Reading it in a book, the technique is smooth, and works to build one kind of suspense, while preventing another. The plot of Dune is, in an important part, driven by the betrayal of the protagonists by particular characters, and their fear of betrayal. This technique broadcasts from the beginning, but only to the reader, precisely who are the actual traitors among the cast. So the technique deflates the suspense of mystery (Who’s going to do it?) while building another (When are they going to do it?). In addition, the protagonists are stuck dealing with the first mystery, because they can’t read the book. So the investment the reader develops in the protagonists becomes integrated with suspense, wishing for the protagonist to catch up to the knowledge of the reader.

David Lynch meditates on the thousands of hidden
insecurities that slowly erode our personality into the bliss
of senility, while simultaneously figuring out how the fuck
to raise another million dollars to produce this film.
It’s kind of ridiculous translating this technique into cinema. You don’t read a film, you watch and listen to it. You can’t film one piece of dialogue in italics. What I’m saying sounds stupid and obvious, but a lot of the ordinary talk about adapting films from novels acts as if whatever happens in the book can go in the film. Revealing a character’s thought in cinema has to occur very carefully. The only time I’ve seen this kind of italic moment is soliloquies. I’ve seen films and television shows where characters turn to the camera and reveal their thoughts with a heavily stylized delivery. And it’s very easy to make this look incredibly stupid. Shakespearean adaptations don’t really do soliloquies too well, in my view, because of the problems of translating Elizabethan theatre to cinema, which is a topic for another entry. They’re too long, where the cinema soliloquy works best if it’s a brief aside, a quick moment where the fourth wall is broken, and we get back to the story. The production of a film makes an implied whole world for the camera. The theatre stage is clearly a stage in the middle of an audience. There isn’t really a fourth wall to break because there’s no attempt in Elizabethan theatre to resemble literally the world that the story depicts.

The cinematographer and the actor have to work together perfectly, as the camera has to create a special perspective, visual palette, and tone of shot for each person with the power to give soliloquies. I mean power literally, because cinema ranks its characters in terms of their power to manipulate the camera’s depiction of the world itself. Herbert gives almost every major and minor character in Dune one of these brief italic moments.  A film condenses the sprawl of a novel into a tight narrative with a relatively small cast. If every character has these aside moments, then they make themselves all major: even background characters have the power to act as if the verisimilitude of the cinema doesn’t apply to them. 

Bart knows his audience, knows that he has an audience,
and likes to keep them riveted and laughing.
I’ve seen this done well once, at least in my memory of films and television I’ve recently watched. One is Blazing Saddles, the Mel Brooks film where the narrative is a duel between the only characters who can break the fourth wall. Harvey Korman’s corrupt attorney general Hedley Lamarr and Bart the black Sheriff of Rock Ridge. Hedley is a self-aware villain in a Western movie who wants to control the non-self-conscious stereotypes of Western movies for his own benefit. Bart is literally a modern twentieth-century urban black man who has wandered into this Western movie. He reacts to events by making jokes to the camera that make light of the film tropes. He defeats different villains that are invincible in a Western by acting like characters from different genres of film. These characters operate with a powerful grasp of the narrative, which only a couple of characters can have without throwing the film into chaos. 

I found an illuminating interview with David Lynch and Frank Herbert recorded in the run-up of the release of Lynch’s film. In the second video, Herbert describes translating a book into a film as like translating English into Swahili. I don’t think this goes far enough. Think instead of translating a written story into mime and interpretive dance. It’s popularly thought that because literature and cinema are two narrative media which involves depictions of dramatic events, characterization, and dialogue, you can adapt a story from one medium to the other without problem. But as you can see from just the examples above, the abilities are very difficult to articulate. So while Lynch is something of a genius, he could have made some very dangerous decisions in the adaptation.

Of course, I wouldn’t know to what degree he succeeded. As I mentioned last week, I only just started reading Dune for the first time then, and it was my first exposure to the franchise at all. I’m not going to watch the film until I finish reading the book. Then I’ll see how successful Lynch turned out to be. Not in terms of how well he adapted the book, which as we know is a red herring and silly to keep track of. Instead, what matters is how good his film was.


  1. Nice to see this conversation picked up again from back in Sept 22. Lynch is far bolder in his adaptation than most -- not surprising, given his amazingly independent vision. A few things are entirely new in the movie, and of course a lot is dropped. As I said in the earlier post, he does pepper it with the thoughts of characters rendered in voice-over, but it is I think a very nimble use of voice over that does precisely what you say.

    1. One saying about writing fiction that I enjoy is that every great work begins from taking a bunch of ideas from other great works out of the back of a truck in a sketchy alleyway, no questions asked. Right now, my Lost in Space inspired sci-fi project is arranging some surreptitious meetings with trucks from the estates of Frank Herbert and Iain M. Banks.

      As I read more of Dune, the ecological themes are drawing me in as well. Though I'm not too keen with how he conceptualizes the Dune narrative in that linked interview, that eye on ecosystems is definitely something I want to develop in my sci-fi projects as well. And yes, this is the obligatory point where someone in the conversation mentioned Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars series.