This guest blog originally appeared on Fabulous and Brunette
The difference between reading a novel and watching a movie is like the difference between empathy and sympathy: empathy is feeling another person’s misfortune, and sympathy is relating to another person’s misfortune. The first feeling is pro-active, and the latter reactive.
An example is how people respond when seeing a beggar on a street corner. A person acting with empathy would feel the beggar’s misfortune as his own and might get out of their car and try to help him; on the other hand, a person reacting with sympathy would feel sorrow for the beggar’s misfortune, maybe give him a dollar–and move on.
That same difference exists between reading a novel and watching a movie.
When a person reads a novel, he is actively complicit with the author in creating the story; he’s empathetic. When a person watches a movie, he’s passively participating in a spectacle; he’s sympathetic.
Let’s further clarify those differences by comparing the six successful elements of fiction—character, plot, setting, point of view, theme, and style — in novels and movies.
Character: Strong characters drive both novels and films. Main characters in both cases typically experience a transformation or change from the beginning to the end of the story.
So, what are the differences in characterization between a novel and a film?
In a novel, characters are often not described or described simply via dialogue or actions or described by a couple of characteristics. It is up to the reader to fill in the gaps and imagine what the character looks like, how he’s dressed, how he walks, how he talks.
In a movie, the director defines that character in detail to show him in the film. For example, Agatha Christie’s famous novel, Murder in the Orient Express, has been made into multiple movies throughout the years. Each film has depicted the characters in different ways, including the main character, Hercule Poirot.
Plot: Plot makes up the action of a story and consists of a series of events that the main character must go through as the novel unfolds. Both in books and film, the plot generally begins with a hook that rapidly evolves into the main event and continues with rising and falling action leading to a climax and the story’s resolution. The main character overcomes all obstacles in books and movies until, unexpectedly, a significant setback puts him in a worse position than the one he had at the start of his quest. At that point, called the climax, the hero must rise to the occasion and overcome this incredible adversity by himself – the antagonist, the weather, his doubts – and achieve resolution or the outcome.
In a novel, the reader must create those episodes with his imagination; in a movie, the director has interpreted each of those passages, choreographed the action scenes, and determined the story’s pace and progression.
Setting: Setting dictates the location and period of a story. In a novel, the reader must imagine the environment based on the description of the author. Years ago, authors would spend pages describing the setting. Nowadays, unless the reader has lived in a cave somewhere without contact with civilization, he has seen or been to Paris or any other place. And if not, there’s always Google. If the setting took place two hundred years ago, the reader imagines the location based on the author’s description.
In a movie, that setting has already been recreated by the director and his staff. As a result, the viewer doesn’t have to overwork his gray cells trying to imagine what Paris looked like two hundred years ago. The producer, director, and surrounding staff have already taken care of that.
Point of view: There are three main points of view possible in a novel: first-person, second-person, and third-person. Most stories are written in third-person or first-person point of view, though second-person is occasionally employed. The point of view from which an author chooses to write affects how a reader processes the story. A third-person narrator can bring a more objective tone to the narrative, whereas a first-person narrator can make the story feel more subjective and intimate.
A film is a little different. It can have a narrator of the story, usually in the first person—although contemporary films have distanced themselves from that point of view. Instead, they show the characters in action. Remember that axiom in writing – show, don’t tell?
In movies, it’s very much alive. So, it is in novels. But, again, the main difference is that in film, the characters are already fleshed out and visible. In books, they primarily reside in the imagination of the reader as stimulated by the author.
Theme: Theme is a larger message or motif that an author explores to make a more significant point about everyday life or the world around us. All other elements can work together to convey themes in a work of fiction. In a film, the theme can be an elusive concept, particularly in action films that often make no sense. Nevertheless, serious films have a theme too conveyed by the subject matter, the colors, the tone of the dialogue, and the background music.
And that is the main difference between novels and movies regarding the theme. In novels, the story’s theme is felt and understood by the reader with his active participation; in the movies, the theme is impressed upon the viewer visually and with sound.
Style: Style in novels is like style in fashion—there are no guides that say this is the right style. In stories, it is conveyed to the reader by the word choices, sentence and paragraph length, subjectivity or objectivity of the descriptions, and the pace and progression of the story. In films, style is transmitted to the moviegoer through colors, pictures, and sounds.
For all these reasons, reading a novel is akin to empathy and watching a movie is like sympathy. Another analogy comes to mind: scrambled eggs and bacon. The hen is involved in the meal, but the pig is committed. That’s the difference between reading a novel and watching a movie.
Get the picture?