Friday, 12 July 2013

Bang Goes the Story

This looks set to be the summer of bludgeon at the cinema. Following in the steps of Avengers Assemble (which itself was trying to outdo Transformers 3), we have destruction on a massive scale in Man of Steel and Pacific Rim. Now, you can call me shallow if you want, but I rather like to watch things exploding. However, even I have to wonder how far this can go on before story is edged out completely in favour of bombast. And, more importantly, how should children's books react to this trend?

It's tempting to say that they shouldn't, that different types of media like books, films, TV and video games should be viewed in isolation. But our audience are no longer consuming them this way – they watch TV and surf at the same time, they watch movies with text overlays and commentary, they read multimedia enhanced e-books (Amazon have just been granted a patent for DVD-style extras and community content within their Kindle titles). Concentration spans are declining and so it seems that only ever-larger spectacle can briefly wrest a teenager's attention from that all-important BlackBerry message.

But there's a problem here for writers, because spectacle is one of the things that books do least well. Sure, you can compose a massive, horrifying tableau of death and destruction, but you'll have to dilute the effect by using a whole bunch of words to do it. By comparison you can achieve the same thing in less than a second on a cinema screen. Where books triumph is in the intimate, the complex and the profound – areas that popular cinema shows little interest in nowadays.

There is good news in all this gloom, however. These massive blockbuster movies attract an equally massive cost, and the Hollywood model of big investment = big payout is looking increasingly brittle. Books have no budgetary restrictions on their content, they are as big as a writer's imagination wants them to be. There was an interesting recent article by Harry Potter director Chris Columbus, where he discusses channeling his idea for House of Secrets into a book because it would simply be too expensive and impractical as a film.

Character is another area in which books will always triumph. Even the ten hour running time of each series of Game of Thrones cannot hold a candle to the character complexity of the accompanying book. And beneath the bombast of modern cinema, it seems that people are still genuinely interested and fascinated by characters and story – just perhaps in smaller numbers than they were in the past.

The book's ongoing blessing (and curse) is the amount of concentration it requires from the reader. Even the fastest-moving story needs the reader's full attention if they are not to become confused, possibly more so than a slow-moving one! But that concentration is its own reward, both in the synaptic pleasure of becoming lost in a story and the fantastic discipline it teaches to a child. We are constantly told of the need for multitasking skills, but in the future, it may be those who can concentrate on one task who will rise further than their distracted peers. And no amount of CGI explosions are going to help a child to do that.



  1. And the sex is much better in books, well in my mind it is (unfortunate spelling mistake i n the first one!)

    1. I don't want to know what goes on in your mind!