Novels vs movies

Via The New Clarion, here is a fascinating review of a scene from the Atlas Shrugged movie. Ronald Pisaturo compares the original scene from the novel with the movie adaptation.

I would never have been able to identify all that is wrong in the movie scene, but the contrast between the movie scene and the original is obvious. Reading an analysis of the contrast – in style as well as meaning – is fascinating as it helps me understand what sets Rand’s novels apart from other novels. I have long wanted to write a review of Atlas Shrugged and lacked the ability to do so. This review of a single scene captures some key aspects of what a full review should express.

I have always thought that adapting a novel like Atlas Shrugged to the movie medium without missing a significant part of its power is impossible. Reading Pisaturo’s essay reinforced that idea. Here is the original passage from the novel

He touched the bracelet in his pocket. He had had it made from that first poured metal. It was for his wife.
As he touched it, he realized suddenly that he had thought of an abstraction called “his wife”—not of the woman to whom he was married. He felt a stab of regret, wishing he had not made the bracelet, then a wave of self-reproach for the regret.
He shook his head. This was not the time for his old doubts. He felt that he could forgive anything to anyone, because happiness was the greatest agent of purification. He felt certain that every living being wished him well tonight. He wanted to meet someone, to face the first stranger, to stand disarmed and open, and to say, “Look at me.” People, he thought, were as hungry for a sight of joy as he had always been—for a moment’s relief from that gray load of suffering which seemed so inexplicable and unnecessary. He had never been able to understand why men should be unhappy.

                   — Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand

No matter how well a scene like this is adapted to the movie medium (I think Pisaturo does a good job of describing a possible adaptation), understanding the scene would remain subject to the viewer’s perceptiveness and interpretation. The novel on the other hand is unambiguous. It states everything in plain words and the meaning is impossible to miss. Speaking for myself, I would surely have missed most of the meaning in the passage in any adaptation I can imagine. And that explains why I don’t really enjoy watching movies.

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Happiness

I was discussing the relative merits of movies vs novels as a medium for telling a story and happened to reread a passage in The Fountainhead that struck me deeply.

Just think, Howard, think of it! You’ll be rich, you’ll be famous, you’ll be respected, you’ll be praised, you’ll be admired–you’ll be one of us!…Well?…Say something! Why don’t you say something?”

“Look, Peter. I believe you. I know that you have nothing to gain by saying this. I know more than that. I know that you don’t want me to succeed–it’s all right, I’m not reproaching you, I’ve always known it–you don’t want me ever to reach these things you’re offering me. And yet you’re pushing me on to reach them, quite sincerely. And you know that if I take your advice, I’ll reach them. And it’s not love for me, because that wouldn’t make you so angry–and so frightened….Peter, what is it that disturbs you about me as I am?”
                                             — The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand

Some people criticize Rand’s dialogues for being unrealistic. And that is true. Real life dialogues are really as perceptive as this. But the question is: Why should dialogues in a novel be realistic? Here Rand contrasts riches, fame, respect, praise, admiration, acceptance – Peter Keating’s values – with pride and self-belief – Howard Roark’s values. Second-hand values against first-hand values. And Peter and Howard both realize that despite Peter’s having achieved all his values, he is still disturbed by the fact that Roark does not pursue Peter’s values. The dialogue is a tool to move one aspect of the story – Roark’s discovery of the difference between his values and that of most others – forward. And it does that job brilliantly. Why would one want real-life dialogue instead of dialogue like this? I read novels for entertainment; for those things that I cannot get in real life, atleast not in a short timespan. Significant events in real life are mixed up with so many mundane events that one needs a condensed depiction of the significant things to remind oneself of what is important and what is not. Every event, dialogue or description in a novel should be significant. It should serve a purpose; it should move the story forward. Real life dialogue in a novel is a waste of time.

Anyway, I got distracted. The point of this post was that by rereading this passage I have a better definition of happiness. My mental definition of happiness was – “the state of mind that results from the achievement of one’s values”. The passage above emphasizes that happiness results from the achievement of one’s values only if those values are objective – consciously chosen by one’s one mind by an objective standard. Achieving a value when one does not know why one values it does not bring lasting happiness.

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