Thursday, November 20, 2014

Immersive storytelling: are books better than film?

After a recent post on Hild's film/tv rights, I started a conversation in the comments with my friend Brooks, posting as Myseyeball. I thought it sufficiently interesting to pull part of it and turn it into a standalone post.

One of the things that interests me about your novels, Nicola, is the way in which a form of technology will become a metaphor that not only informs the way your protagonists move through life, but also the structure of the novel. In Slow River, that technology was sewage treatment, of all things. In Hild the technology is the making textiles. Not only does it become a metaphor for the way that Hild and her associates see life, but the book itself seems to be woven — a very tight and intricate weave.

In that context the more sensational aspects of the book, the sex and violence and whatnot, are like silver, gold and crimson threads, thrilling and beautiful in their ornamentation, but inadequate in describing the core experience of reading a book woven from the change of seasons and the changing of life in a time so far away from ours.

To adapt Hild into a TV series the whole beautiful tapestry would have to be unwoven and then re-weaved as a series of smaller cloths, all somewhat different in appearance and touch, yet congruent enough to be stitched back together in an approximation of the original. The ideal way do do that would be to conceptualize Hild as a series of short films, all a little different in effect. The big battle that gives Hild her butcher bird reputation. That's one film. The later chapter in which most of the men have gone off to some battle and Hild notices how more relaxed things seem in their absence. That's another movie, totally different style-wise but just as important.

Only a very powerful producer could pull something like this off. Not only because she or he would have to somehow keep the whole thing unified, but also because he or she would have to be confident enough give the writers and directors just enough slack to make something unique.

One other thing. If I was the megalomaniac producer of a Hild series, I'd also make the directors, writers and a lot of the producers go to linen boot camp.  I'd have people spinning and weaving in the writers room and during downtime in the fiilming.  I'd engage their competitive nature to see who could produce the best cloth.

In doing that, they'd almost involuntarily weave the feel of textiles into the weave of the film.

Do all that and stitch the pieces back together and you'd have Hild as a quilt instead of a tapestry. Not as elegant, but it would get the job done. Unfortunately getting someone to bankroll a project like that would be only slightly easier than funding Jodorowsky's Dune.

Or you could just make a big budget film starring Jennifer Lawrence as Hild, George Clooney as Edward, and Johnny Depp as The Beaver.

Metaphor-as-structure: one step beyond metaphor-made-concrete? This is something I'd love to talk about another time. But for now I want to focus on this notion of how to recreate an immersive novel on film.

Hild as a series of short films... I don't see it happening. For one thing, as you point out, it would require extreme amounts of Hollywood juice on somebody's part. For another, I not convinced it's possible to create a film, or even series of films, as immersive as the best fiction.

With Hild I set out for the reader to experience the seventh century, to see, smell, hear, taste and feel what Hild does; to gradually adopt her mindset and worldview; to think as she does, to learn her lessons, feel her joys—to be her, just for a little while. My goal was to run my software on the reader's hardware: for them to recreate Hild inside themselves and know, not just think but know, what the early seventh-century was like.

To do that I honed my prose to trigger not only the reader's mirror neurons but something called embodied cognition.

There's now a reasonable amount of experimental data (though I admit I don't know how often it's been replicated and confirmed) to indicate that certain written words can trigger the memory of scent and touch. For example, if you write the word 'lavender' a functional MRI will show the areas of the brain relating to smell lighting up. Similarly, if you use the word 'leathery' instead of 'hard' or 'tough' it stimulates your brain in the same way that actually touching leather does. So if you describe a character running a discarded lavender leather glove drenched in lavender scent under her nose, the reader can actually feel the cool-warm of the leather against her skin, hear the faint creak of the leather, smell that lavender: we are there.

However, unless you elaborately set up the same shot—show the glove's owner dipping the glove with liquid from a bottle labelled Lavender, show her leaving the glove, show someone else picking it up, running the glove under her nose, closing her eyes and sniffing deeply—I don't believe film can't do that. (Even with the elaborate set-up described I'm guessing the viewer would have to really work to put themselves there.)

This belief could, of course, all be a function of my bias: film and TV for me are two-hour thrill-rides. They don't exist to make me think, or to feel subtleties. My favourites are blunt-force roller-coaster rides with perfectly matched music and a few witticisms. Think Jaws. Think Die Hard. Think Galaxy Quest, and Independence Day (okay, not the ridiculous computer virus, but everything else), the Star Trek reboot, Iron Man, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy (except for the idiotic adolescent 'fun' hobbit scenes, and those interminable ents). The films that work best for me, in other words, are spectacle, Woo Hoo Let's Blow Some Shit Up! movies, not Serious Films About Anguished People.

And what you say about having to send the actors to weaving boot camp: yes. Because they would have to move as people who had been producing textiles—and milking cows, and sheathing swords, and ploughing fields—all their lives. The viewer would have to see them do something and believe it, feel it, understand subconsciously the thousands of hours, the expertise, that goes into the simplest movement. You can always tell in film someone who knows how to use a gun, or ride a horse, and someone who doesn't. And don't get me started on the women they cast to play martial artists/killers. (There are always exceptions. I believed Gina Carrera in Haywire: she is, in fact, a fighter. And Tom Cruise in Collateral did an excellent job of playing a man for whom such things are second nature on what I'm guessing was limited training.)

Video is a visual medium. It can trigger a viewer's mirror neurons: a woman on the edge of a cliff with the wind in her face might tickle our own sensory apparatus enough for us to feel a faint echo of that wind on our own skin, if it's acted and shot well enough. But it can't get us to smell the sea, to feel whether that water is hot or cold, except by two-stage inference. It is much better at what people do and say than what they think and feel.

Prose, on the other hand, can do it all. But as I say, I'm perfectly prepared to admit I might be biased.

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