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Charlie W. Starr


Are Movies Fundamentally Inferior to Books?

Two responses to Ralph Wood's claim that "biblical tradition elevates word over picture."

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Ralph Wood's review of The Two Towers in the March/April issue of >Books & Culture generated a good deal of response. In particular, some readers objected to Wood's claim that film as a medium is inherently inferior to literature, and moreover that Christians of all people should be aware of this distinction, since there is "little doubt that the biblical tradition elevates word over picture, hearing over sight." In contrast to this biblical hierarchy, Wood argues, our culture consistently values the visual image over the word, written or spoken. Here are two of the most thoughtful responses to Wood's essay. If you have strong opinions on this subject, we'd like to hear from you, too.

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Ralph C. Wood, in his "Hungry Eye: The Two Towers and the Seductiveness of Spectacle" [March/April], convincingly shows that the recent film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Two Towers fails to realize the significant moral and religious themes of the book, foregrounding instead visual spectacle in the form of gripping battle scenes and beautiful scenery. With this characterization of the failings of the film I have no quarrel. Wood goes on, however, to make broad points about the failings of film as a medium, and it is this constellation of claims with which I take issue. Wood believes that the problems of this film adaptation are attributable to the inferiority of the film medium itself.

Wood writes, for example, that movies are a fundamentally passive medium because they form images for us, while "even the tawdriest novel requires the mind to make its own mental pictures." As one who has taught film for over 20 years, I have heard this and similar claims over and again. But the "passive-image claim" isn't a sufficient argument to establish the passivity of film viewing.

The fact that I am not required to imagine what the characters look like in Crimes and Misdemeanors or The Seventh Seal says little about the active mental activity required to grasp the moral and religious significance of these films, or to imagine the moral and emotional anguish of their characters. Moreover, there are ways in which film encourages the imagination and literature does not. Literature sometimes tells us what characters are thinking and feeling, for example, while film often requires us to understand characters by more subtle means of interpretation and empathy.

Wood argues for the superiority of the aural over the visual, arguing that the visual appeals to a the eye, which "cannot penetrate depths," while the aural appeals to the ear, capable of "receiving announcements" and of "either obeying or refusing commands." This argument requires expansion if not revision. Film appeals to both the eye and the ear, combining channels of information that must be grasped simultaneously in what is sometimes a rich tapestry of images, sounds, and words. Reading, on the other hand, is primarily an activity of the eye and not the ear.

In my opinion, the inferiority of many contemporary movies stems not from presumed limitations of the film medium but from the practices of a culture industry that dumbs material down for an audience that it presumes to be uninterested in serious thought, complex art, or any sort of moral and religious contemplation. I am sure that Wood and I agree that such pandering to the popular audience is truly unfortunate, for it creates public taste as much as it presumes to know it.

Carl Plantinga
Communication Arts and Sciences
Calvin College
Grand Rapids, Mich.

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I gather from his essay that Dr. Wood recognizes what some book lovers still do not: that a film version can never capture the depth, subtlety, and complexity of great books and should not be judged as such. His critique of The Two Towers, however, while recognizing differences in the media, offers a preference for the literary art that doesn't give film its theological due.

Dr. Wood expresses concern over ours being "an increasingly visual culture where the aural word, whether written or spoken, is steadily devalued." Of course he is right, but I'm not convinced that this is as bad a thing as he suggests. His first complaint is that movies are a "fundamentally passive medium," forming images for us where books (even bad ones) demand active use of the imagination. I agree that people view films passively, but not because movies are passive by nature. Before people can read a book, they must be taught to read: letters, phonics, and vocabulary. We call it literacy. But because movies can be watched without any education in "film literacy," we have assumed that none is necessary. The result: passive viewing. This is not, however, in the fundamental nature of film. The printing press made literacy a necessity within a few hundred years of its creation. "Computer literacy" became an educational must within ten years of the computer becoming "personal." Film has been with us for 100 years, television for 50, and we are only now beginning to see the need for education in their language. But when we do so educate our students, it works. They begin to read film texts actively and habitually.

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