What Can Films Teach Us As Writers?
GrubStreet Instructor Tim Horvath talks the bounds of fiction and film and what we have to learn from our favorite movies. You can learn more in his upcoming Online: Zoom multi-week class, Cinefiction: Improving Your Stories Through Film, starting Wednesday, July 20th.
“The movie was fine...obviously, the book was better...” If you’re like me, you’ve heard these words, nodded emphatically in their wake, maybe even said them yourself. In fact, I’ll sometimes recoil at the very news that a book I love is being made into a film. I’m steadfast in my view that the only way to make a worthy film of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian would be simply to scroll the text across the screen for a few hours.
Yet I love both novels and films, as well as thinking about them together. My education in movies was scattershot. I grew up going to double-bills at the Thalia in New York, blinking through the pot smoke that added a gauzy texture to the films of all eras. We’d arrive, my brother and my dad and I, mid-film, and stay through the second feature and the first again until we recognized a scene we’d already watched. I was there at the dawn of the Multiplex, when ticket-checking was lax and you could wander from one mediocre film (with incredible sound, though!) to another.
There was one pivotal day for me—Google tells me it was Saturday, April 29th, 2000—an event with Russell Banks, Rick Moody, and Valerie Martin at Sarah Lawrence College titled “Fiction into Film.” Over the previous few days, they’d screened The Ice Storm, The Sweet Hereafter, and Mary Reilly. After listening to these authors discuss how their novels had become films, I had a newfound obsession. I could see the ways that Atom Egoyan and James Schamus/Ang Lee had taken The Sweet Hereafter and The Ice Storm in directions that the books couldn't have anticipated, and yet also came to greatly appreciate the novels themselves, which I encountered afterward, having picked them up that day.
The monologue of lawyer Mitchell Stephens in Banks’s novel, where he describes driving his child daughter to the nearest hospital while she is in a state of anaphylactic shock, remains one of the most powerful passages I’ve ever read. The opening scene of the film, which shows Stephens going through a car wash while speaking to that same daughter, now grown and struggling with homelessness and addiction, is equally devastating. Each work compresses a relationship in all its pained flailing messiness into a single indelible scene, yet they do so in entirely different ways.
I want to learn what film can do that fiction cannot, and what fiction can do that film cannot, and where there are points of convergence. It’s a bit like translation to me—there are idiomatic expressions, grammatical constraints, and nuances that can’t necessarily be duplicated, but which can be rendered anew in fresh ways in the other medium.
As a writer, I’m always after new ways of telling stories, not to mention finding excuses to do fun things, and watching films fits comfortably under both. I want to learn what film can do that fiction cannot, and what fiction can do that film cannot, and where there are points of convergence. It’s a bit like translation to me—there are idiomatic expressions, grammatical constraints, and nuances that can’t necessarily be duplicated, but which can be rendered anew in fresh ways in the other medium.
Because film is built almost entirely in scenes, the likelihood of a scene echoing another is magnified.
So what can films teach us as writers? Surely innumerable things, but here are a couple:
1. Films do a superb job of establishing what Charles Baxter calls “Rhyming Action.”
Because film is built almost entirely in scenes, the likelihood of a scene echoing another (and not because you’ve already seen it, as in my Thalia days) is magnified. A brilliant example can be found in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour. Early on, we see a bunch of characters attend a kind of a team-building/motivational seminar, where in one of the exercises they all sit back to back and try to stand up simultaneously, relying on nonverbal communication. Later, in a quick scene, we see one of these same characters, a nurse, helping an infirm patient to stand, even as he says demeaning things. The earlier scene has shown us that standing up—literally, figuratively—might be impossible, or might require the backs of others, and thus we begin to see these two scenes in tandem; wildly disparate in terms of their mood, purpose, and particulars, they suddenly resonate like the tines of a tuning fork. Moreover, we can begin to see other scenes through the same lens—how is each character attempting to stand in some way, and how are they dependent on one another to do so?
And we are pulled into the story without even knowing how far we are inside it, layers of characters and conflict, atmosphere, and the ever-looming violence already wrapping themselves around us before we even know exactly what’s happening.
2. Films can show us fresh ways to orient/disorient the reader simultaneously.
The opening sequence of City of God, which shows a chicken running through the alleys of one of Rio's favelas, chased by various characters who will become known to us as the film progresses, accomplishes this. We get close-ups, jump-cuts, the chicken’s-eye view of the world, and a sense of the desperation, resolve, intelligence, and luck that it will take to survive in this landscape. We are initiated into a kind of literal street smarts via this bird’s-eye view. And we are pulled into the story without even knowing how far we are inside it, layers of characters and conflict, atmosphere, and the ever-looming violence already wrapping themselves around us before we even know exactly what’s happening.
I’ve just scratched the surface here—think of these as mere previews, with the main attraction whatever's in your queue. I invite you to take another look at a favorite film or a first look at something new and consider what it would mean to translate that onto the page. Popcorn is optional, whispering welcome. Keep the remote handy and a pen and paper nearby.
Sign up for Tim's upcoming Online: Zoom multi-week class, Cinefiction: Improving Your Stories Through Film, starting Wednesday, July 20th! Scholarships are available.
Tim Horvath is the author of Understories, (Bellevue Literary Press), which won the New Hampshire Literary Award for Outstanding Work of Fiction, and Circulation (sunnyoutside), and in collaboration with composer/cellist Rafaele Andrade, Un-bow. His stories have appeared in journals such as Conjunctions, AGNI, Harvard Review, and elsewhere. His story “The Understory” was selected by Bill Henderson, founder and president of the Pushcart Press, as the winner of the Raymond Carver Short Story Award. He has taught creative writing at the Institute of Art and Design at New England College in Manchester, New Hampshire, formerly the New Hampshire Institute of Art, and been Associate Professor at New England College. Previously, he worked as a counselor in a psychiatric hospital, primarily with adolescents, as well as children and young adults with autism spectrum condition. He received his MFA from the University of New Hampshire, where he won the Thomas Williams Prize. He is the recipient of a Yaddo Fellowship and one of the founders of One Book, One Manchester, a citywide reading initiative.See other articles by Tim Horvath