I recently watched the BBC’s adaptation of John le Carré’s The Night Manager, and of course went straight to the novel afterwards. I thoroughly enjoyed the TV adaptation, but I’m loving the novel more.
You might think that’s an obvious thing for a writer to say. But I’d like to think about why.
Let’s put aside certain practicalities. Obviously the book had to be reshaped to translate it to TV, and updated for 2016 (technology, current world events, making a key character female).
That’s not what I want to talk about; I’m interested here in the medium of delivery. The watching senses compared with the reading ones. Why do I find reading the novel is more special than watching the show?
Books are interior
A key difference is the organisation of Jonathan Pine’s back story. In the TV version this is streamlined into simple chronological order, but the novel shuffles the material to us in digressions. A character makes a remark and Pine is taken back to an earlier event. At first this seems quite digressive, but gradually you’re bedded more deeply into Pine’s buried layers, his stifled memories and his slow awakening into a new man.
This interority is something that’s difficult for TV or film to achieve, although Krzysztof Kieślowski is a notable example of a writer-director who does. But usually, watching makes us outsiders. So the BBC’s Night Manager is an adventure story – and a gripping one. The novel is that too, but it’s also more secret, troubled and private.
Characters and reality
Somehow, I’m finding the characters on the page are more tangible than when they are played by actors. Le Carré’s descriptions seem more potent than seeing an actor physically embody a person. In a film, a character comes to you complete – with hands, voice, expression, stance, clothes. In prose, a character usually appears in fragments. Those fragments are the magic.
For instance, describing Richard Roper’s charm. An actor could play charm, but a writer can pinpoint the essence of that charm – and make us notice something about how charm works:
He let you know that you could tell him anything, and he would still be smiling at the end of it.’
The author is not a camera giving head-to-toe details; he is a judging, communicating intelligence who can show us what it’s like to be in a person’s presence, at a given moment. It gives you experience as well as observation. Describing Roper’s girlfriend Jed:
Her wit and language have a hypnotic draw. There is something irresistibly funny to everyone, including herself, about the convent-educated English voice enunciating the vocabulary of a navvy. “Darling, do we actually give a fart about the Donahues?” ’
Could a camera or an actor ever express that, and so precisely? And this, when Jonathan Pine is increasingly troubled by the siren Jed:
He watched her in fragments forced upon him. A chance view of her entire upper body in her bedroom mirror while she was changing…’
How would a camera say ‘forced upon him’?
I find this to be a wonderful paradox. A good writer can make a character more alive in your mind than a flesh-and-blood actor can. An actor seems to give just physicality. No matter how closely a camera observes their face, it’s happening at a distance. But a writer is inside your intellect and your feelings. With a well-turned line they can they give you the experience of being with a person – or indeed of being them. You’re passing a door, arrested by a glimpse of a girl undressing.
The cleverness of a good author makes you feel a bit ennobled, better with words yourself. More intelligent, perceptive. Words are far, far more fun than watching.
Take a bad toupee. (Go on, you know you want to.) Le Carré describes it as ‘like a black bear’s paw’. Isn’t it far more fun to read that description than to see a bad toupee in a picture? In a million years, would you have thought of that line? When you read, you share the mind of someone who does.
Women with chiselled faces they never had when they were young, and tucked stomachs and tucked bottoms … but no surgery on earth could spare them the manacled slowness of old age as they lowered themselves into the pool…’
A good writer knows how to go ‘straight to the switchboard’.
Stop – isn’t that an excellent line? It’s not mine, it’s le Carré. A phrase used by Roper’s security guard when describing a technique of interrogation.
Interrogation. That’s a difference I should also mention: how you contribute so much of a book’s experience from your own grey matter. The pictures, places, sounds, significance. For Franz Kafka, books were ‘the axe for the frozen sea within us’.
Your own pace
And here’s another difference I like. You take a book at your own speed. Dawdle as long as you like over a page, a paragraph, a phrase. In a movie you obey the director’s clock, or the editor’s. In a book, the author sets the pace, of course, but you can adjust it. Linger over a passage you like. Skim the parts you don’t.
I hadn’t considered how important that was until Husband Dave and I read the same book simultaneously. We found we had two copies of William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms so we did them in tandem, like a real-time book club. It was fun. We could say ‘I didn’t like the bit where…’ or ‘I’m hoping the character won’t do such-and-such’. I was aware, though, that I was reading to a schedule, so I didn’t let myself linger or dawdle as usual – and I felt rushed.
Reading a book you enjoy isn’t, actually, a hop from this word to this then this, like watching subtitles on a movie or the lyrics prompt on karaoke. It’s not a linear trot through the page from top to bottom, in order. If you want, it can be more like snakes and ladders. You can check a fact or a character name. Wander back to enjoy a favourite fragment again. You can take a book in your own time, your personal journey.
Ultimately, a book plays with your mind more, yet belongs to you more as well. Perhaps that’s it.
Tell me your thoughts.
#1 by acflory on June 12, 2016 - 12:51 pm
There’s also the element of time. A movie, even a long one, has to condense everything into a couple of hours. When you read, you travel in book time, lulled by the rhythm of the story, listening to a more subtle kind of music. Without waxing too mushy, beautiful prose creates a music all its own, and it’s all for you.
#2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 12, 2016 - 6:58 pm
Hi Andrea! Yes, a novel is less constrained – though a novelist isn’t entirely free to make a book as long or short as they want. Publishers like books to be particular lengths, although there are magical compensations that can be made with the interior design to bump up a low page count or slim a big one.
#3 by acflory on June 12, 2016 - 11:07 pm
Very true, although I’ve read some fantastic doorstoppers in my time! lol
#4 by lindateadragon on June 12, 2016 - 1:11 pm
When reading you have a better sense, I think, of the out breath of a story; when you might want to stop reading although it isn’t a chapter break. Do you ever do that with TV/film other than for external pressures? The technology now lets you but the director seems to have a much bigger hold over you and you have to see it through. The book is more like an equal contract between you and the author – it isn’t simply an entertainment with some ravishingly beautiful and exceptional actors being controlled by a director.
I’m not sure I can read the book so soon and get a different picture in my head of the character’s faces and mannerisms. Tom Hiddleston is simply too powerful!
#5 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 12, 2016 - 7:00 pm
Hi Linda – yes, we take a book at our pace, in episodes that fit with our lives. Ten minutes before bed; a Tube journey to work; an entire afternoon on the sofa. I hadn’t thought about that!
I agree about Tom Hiddleston. I like the job he did of Pine. Especially when he (look away everyone!) suddenly slips into the role of persuasive, charming Andrew Birch.
#6 by rosie on June 12, 2016 - 4:16 pm
Some films use spectacular cinematography: zooming into a reflection into the character’s eye, using close-ups of a clock to create intrigue, or never quite showing anything but fragments. Those camera angles are exciting, and almost seem reminiscent of novels, where writers latch onto tiny details and discard the rest. (Only terrible authors would describe the exact height of the character to the nearest millimeter.)
But yeah, in general, novels offer something that films can’t.
#7 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 12, 2016 - 7:03 pm
Hi Rosie! What a nice comparison – the tiny details, moment by moment. Yes, cameras can be expressive in their creation of mood. And the film medium also has music as an extra weapon. And darkness is another tool – a thing doesn’t have to be seen in whole. It might only be heard.
#8 by allerdale on June 12, 2016 - 6:21 pm
Great compare and contrast between the novel and television series. Funny enough, I didn’t find I enjoyed the show as much as everyone else was, so I decided to pick up the book (maybe I would understand the direction of the show if I studied what the author crafted).
I ended up so engrossed in the book that it stole a spot in my top tier novels. What did it for me was the intricate, slow forming characters. The things they said, thought, and did made each one come off the page, just like you said. I realized that was what was missing in the show, and that was why I felt disconnected.
Nonetheless I am beyond happy that it exists because otherwise I would not have discovered John le Carré.
#9 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 12, 2016 - 7:05 pm
I’ve tried other le Carre novels but haven’t been able to get as immersed. But this? I think it will be one of my favourites too.
#10 by allerdale on June 12, 2016 - 9:41 pm
It definitely reads like one of a kind, yeah… I just purchased “A Delicate Truth” and we’ll have to see what happens. I have heard his Cold War and post-war novels are completely different in style. Maybe his post-war is more my thing if TNM and ADT work. I have also heard “The Constant Gardener” was great.
#11 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 13, 2016 - 7:16 am
The Constant Gardener is another one I’m curious about.
#12 by ccyager on June 12, 2016 - 8:11 pm
Hi, Roz, good job pinpointing the differences between novels and TV shows/movies. I’ve written screenplays and it’s a TOTALLY different kind of writing entirely. A screenwriter needs to rely on a director and a fine actor to bring to life a character. A novelist does it herself. A screenwriter can write clues to character in dialogue and action, but cannot go into a character’s mind. One page in a screenplay = one minute of screen time, and time is money. Novelists do not operate under such constraints. I have found each kind of writing has its rewards, of course, but I still prefer writing novels and short stories.
I LOVE Le Carre’s writing. He comes at the stories not only from his own intelligence and insight into human behavior and the human psyche and heart, but also from the intelligence, psyches and hearts of his characters. I just finished “Smiley’s People” a few weeks ago, the last in the Karla trilogy. So far, and I haven’t read all his novels, my favorite is “The Constant Gardner” which is brilliant. It was a brilliant movie, too.
#13 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 13, 2016 - 7:19 am
Hi CC – ‘insight’! A word I was probably circling around in my post but didn’t use outright. Yes, a novelist tunes us into their insight, so it’s like having their company during the story – as well as reading the story.
I heard an interview with the scriptwriter Moira Buffini, who described a script as a document to make a movie. But as you say, it’s not the thing itself.
#14 by Lisa Holden (@infoLisaCreates) on June 13, 2016 - 6:20 pm
What a great post. Yes, the nuances of a novel and screenplay are worlds apart. I haven’t read a John le Carre in years and have to admit, the series didn’t grab me, not sure why. But inspired by your post, and hungry for an engrossing read, I’ve ordered the book.
#15 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 13, 2016 - 10:10 pm
🙂 …. I hope I made that link an affiliate..
#16 by Alexander M Zoltai on June 14, 2016 - 4:43 am
Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
Today’s re-blog must be good ’cause it’s by Roz Morris 🙂
#17 by Brian DC on June 15, 2016 - 1:51 pm
One thing I loved about “Ordinary Thunderstorms” was how the plot was free from the standard tropes of television and movies. *SPOILERS*
On screen (and in most books), there’s ALWAYS a scene near the end where the villain gets the upper hand on the hero and the hero has to escape through incredible means. But in “Ordinary Thunderstorms”, the villain never catches up to the hero at all! He’s always one step behind. That defied my preconceptions so thoroughly that I loved it! I love how novels can break patterns and tropes in ways that TV and movies almost never seem able to.