Last week I read the New York Times Bookends column “Are the New ‘Golden Age’ TV Shows the New Novels?” and got riled up about Adam Kirsch’s opinion, which basically boils down to “how dare TV shows think they are as great as novels!” Well, I feel the need to counter with “how dare you dismiss TV as inferior!” Here we go…
Since I am a screenwriter and aspiring novelist, I’ve examined the similarities and differences between and the strengths and weaknesses of these two storytelling mediums, and have concluded that there should be no pissing match. One is not better than the other, and I’m going to explain why.
But first, in case you haven’t heard, serialized television is the trend everyone is calling “The Golden Age of TV.” In the olden days (you know, the 20th century), most television shows were episodic, which means that each episode is a self-contained story and the characters are the same throughout the season. You could miss an episode and it wouldn’t matter, because the world and characters of the show never changed. Whereas serialized television weaves many plots throughout many episodes and the characters change greatly over the course of the season. Miss one episode and you’ll miss important plot and character developments, much like skipping a chapter in a novel.
So you can see how the comparison between serialized TV shows and novels is natural. For a more in-depth explanation, check out this article.
In the Times piece, Kirsch is full of disdain for television, yet the only example he uses to illustrate how TV is inferior is his opinion that television’s “evil” characters are always “melodramatic” (i.e. mobsters, meth dealers or terrorists) and that this has nothing to do with how we “encounter evil in real life.” First, so what? What’s wrong with that? Do all evil characters have to be covert? Second, he’s clearly never watched Mad Men or The Walking Dead or numerous other shows that display people being evil without them being overtly bad.
After that weak attempt at dismantling TV’s legitimacy, Kirsch concludes with: “Spectacle and melodrama remain at the heart of TV, as they do with all arts that must reach a large audience in order to be economically viable. But it is voice, tone, the sense of the author’s mind at work, that are the essence of literature, and they exist in language, not in images.” I don’t know how Kirsch doesn’t gag on his own snobbery. This conclusion is laughably subjective. Voice, tone and the “author’s mind” are not limited to novels. These qualities are present in ALL forms of storytelling, from television to stage plays to stand-up comedy. Every writer, no matter what medium they choose, has a voice. Just because Kirsch can’t recognize it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
So what are the similarities/differences and strengths/weaknesses of television shows versus novels?
The similarities are numerous: complex plots, long character arcs, multiple story lines, various genres, etc. Basically, most stories told in novel form can be told on television, albeit using different tools. It’s these tools that are the significant difference between the two mediums. Television must get the story across with dialogue and visuals only, whereas novels can use inner monologues. Well, to be fair, television can use voice over to get inside a character’s head, but that’s generally frowned upon. Perhaps because it’s a bit of a cop-out. One of the great challenges of screenwriting is to tell the story through the characters’ actions, without having the characters explain it.
But when that inner monologue is crucial, the story is best told via a novel. A prime example of this is THE HUNGER GAMES. In book one of the trilogy, Katniss doesn’t trust anyone and therefore does not voice her fears and concerns, let alone her strategy to win the Games. The reader knows this information because the first person narration of the novel allows us to get inside Katniss’s head. In the film*, no voice over was used and that inner monologue was lost. So for those who didn’t read the book and only saw the movie, the severe mind f*ck that is the Hunger Games doesn’t resonate.
I realized this when talking to a friend about the film. He hadn’t read the book and didn’t understand why we had to watch the tributes train. He thought they should have just thrown them in the Games immediately. Of course, that section is a little dull when you’re not privy to the turmoil inside Katniss, who is hiding that turmoil from everyone around, which means the movie audience can’t see it either.
The second movie, CATCHING FIRE, didn’t have this problem because Katniss now has a couple allies whom she trusts with the odd opinion. At the very least, she’s not hiding how she feels as much.
So the novel’s ability to get inside a character’s head is one advantage it has over television. However, this tool isn’t necessary in all stories. Often character emotions can be displayed through action.
What about TV? What can it do that novels cannot? Television’s strength is the same as its weakness – visuals. Telling a story visually can sometimes feel limited, but when a writer knows how to use visuals effectively, they can pack a powerful punch. A two-second shot can deliver as much information as a whole page in a book. Of course, enjoying this is a matter of taste – some like the slow build, some like the dropped bomb. But is there ever a time when, regardless of taste, visuals work best?
I present to you ORPHAN BLACK. This is a television show about clones. It’s awesome, and it wouldn’t be nearly as awesome as a novel. It is so much fun to see the clones interact, and when a new clone shows up, the audience knows immediately because they see it. In a book, the writer would have to use words to spell it out – “this woman who just showed up looks exactly like Sarah!” That’s not nearly as powerful as a visual. This is the ultimate “show don’t tell” and television does it best.
There are other differences between storytelling in books and on television, but in my opinion, the tools above are the only ones that help or hinder the storytelling. Everything else is a matter of taste. Some people enjoy reading. Some people enjoy watching television. Lots of people enjoy both. Each medium can be equally brilliant or equally crappy. The story is what matters, not the delivery method.
In conclusion, television is not the new novel; it’s an excellent form of storytelling in its own right. So to the literary critiques of the world who are as offended as Adam Kirsch by the comparison of television to novels, chill out – television is not replacing the novel. But please, show some respect for other writers. It’s no small feat to entertain millions of people each week. Screenwriting, just like writing a novel, takes talent and dedication. Both are art forms that require years, even decades, to hone. One is not superior to the other.
*Yes THE HUNGER GAMES was made into a film not a television show, but film uses the same visual tools as television. I used this example because the book and movie are so well-known.
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