POV in Books and Films

Why are books often better than the film? Character driven stories adapted to the screen rarely capture the languid, interconnected weaving of words. The point of view depicted in books and films have become more important to me, affecting my patience and enjoyment of them. For example, I struggle to sit through an epic film or read a book of epic proportion. Omniscient point of view is grand in style, but I’m swimming among the characters in the riptide. Once I could appreciate Victorian tangents and Dostoevskian explanations and wrap my mind around the subplots and forgive the overuse of flashbacks. But now I grow disillusioned. Even authors I hold in high esteem like John Irving frustrate me. He describes the life story of every character that wanders on to the page. Yes, I adore his craftsmanship and his ability to create bizarre, unique characters and a setting that’s tangible, but I will put the book down if the plot is shelved for the sake of description. I hear the words a great friend and teacher who once said about description, “Yes, but, where’s the story? Get back to the story!” For me, the key to a great book or film is a balanced mixture of plot and complex characters who are inspiring, flawed, and heroic.

1994, peculiar, 680 pg. of descriptions
1994, peculiar, 680 pg. of descriptions

I’ve been trying to get through A Son of the Circus by John  Irving. Where is the plot? Irving’s characters experience events and realize life’s truths. A Prayer for Owen Meany is such a book containing the themes of friendship and love. It’s a beautiful story and my favorite. Cider House Rules is a great book, too. Although John Irving won Best Adapted Screenplay in 1999, Irving’s movie was not nearly as satisfying as his novel. What did you think of the book and film that catapulted Irving’s career, The World According to Garp? Check out his books and life HERE E.L. Doctorow

Doctorow is another great author whose POV disengages me. Let’s talk about Ragtime. As a historical fiction classic, he chooses to add real celebrities from circa 1910 and place them among fictional characters. Doctorow uses third person omniscient point of view and the plot moves around each chapter from one story to the next, and I find the leaping around, typical in epic tales, annoying. Another criticism I have is his fragmented sentence structure and little deviation with character’s attitudes or personality. I had high expectations for this novel; it has been  tagged as the definitive voice of Americana at the beginning of the 20th Century. It is daring to include famous people into a fictional novel. Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, and Emma Goldman, are strikingly different personalities; yet, it’s the voice of Doctorow as narrator we hear. I crave to be in their heads and listen to them speak. This is an important concept to me in writing.

It’s ironic to me that omniscient point of view is wide open and encapsulates several characters, yet begets a lack of intimacy. An over-use of description from an omnicient narrator can dissuade me to finish a novel. Irving and Doctorow are highly esteemed writers and my criticisms are irrelevant in the big scheme of things. For the record, I’d be thrilled to meet these masters and discuss the pros and cons to omniscient point of view. Still, Ruth at  Ruth’s Flixchatter raised a question in a recent post–Don’t you hate it when everyone loves a film and it leaves you cold?–you can add books to that discussion, too. What about you? Which authors are critically acclaimed yet their style leaves you cold? Any book adaptations you feel transferred to the screen well? I’m wondering if the rapidity of time because of our technological marvels haven’t weakened my ability to concentrate for long periods of time.

26 thoughts on “POV in Books and Films

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  1. I cannot for the life of me get through a John Le Carre novel. Just can’t do it because of his style of writing. I’ve enjoyed his book translations to film, though.

    1. I’ll second that. I once started Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and didn’t get very far.
      Arthur Conan Doyle is another author I couldn’t get into. The Hound of the Baskervilles sits unread on my bookshelf.

      1. Ha! That’s the only ACD book I’ve read, and I remember liking it much. The moors–what a great setting for a mystery. Do you like the Sherlock Holmes Films with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law? Commercial shite or cool chemistry?

    2. Hi, Michael. Did you like ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’? I have not read any of his novels but assume his idea of espionage do not include “shaken, not stirred” aspects of his spies.

      1. Oh, yes (for the adaptations). So, too, for Smiley’s People, The Constant Gardener, and many others. Love his more gritty, down-to-earth, and seemingly mundane take of the espionage game, in general.

  2. Hey thanks for the link, Cindy! I wish I could add to the discussion here but I’m not a bookworm like you. I do think books can be more evocative and impactful as our imagination can be more creative (for a lack of a better word) and more vivid than others’ interpretation of a given story.

    1. Growing up as a kid, going to the movies was a rare event and TV was an hourly evening escape. Books were companions that filled my time. And writing. Now, at the end of the day, I reach for the book on my night stand and after three pages I’m sound asleep. Not much of a book worm anymore 😉

  3. As far as Irving goes, 50/50. The omniscient view [to me] is usually used by starting writers who haven’t yet obtained the ability to go inside one of their characters. As far as a movie or book being raved about – and I felt cold on – hands down – “Love Story.” I started historical fiction reading w/ Mitchener and his photographic memory of facts and Follett’s look back into medieval times, since then many others, but no one in particular.

    1. Hi GP! AAhhh James Michener. My Mom loves him, and I admire him BUT I can’t get through one of his novels either. ‘Love Story’ I read but didn’t like the book or the film, so we are in agreement there 🙂

      1. Never read it, so can’t comment. With Mitchener you really have to pull yourself through that first stage of his books with the knowledge that he has a reason – history.

  4. John Irving was my favorite author for nearly three decades but I got tired of the agenda in his later books and gave up on him. Garp was a solid adaption and tried to keep the tone of the novel but it missed so much of the social criticism that it felt light weight. The Cider House Rules is a monster book but the movie pares it down efficiently, despite cutting out one of the main characters. Owen Meany and The Door in the Floor are mild attempts to make something out of an impossible book to film. A Son of the Circus should be a television series rather than a film. There are stories here but they get buried in all the description and character, and the stories are not as interesting as the characters are. The spy stuff in the Le Carre books is very good on the page, but as a visual story it is complicated. If you went to the bathroom during Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, you would have no idea what was going on when you came back. Ragtime and books like that, which pull real people into a fictional story can work well for that BIG canvas type movie, but if you don’t have a central character and a plot that can sustain it, it feels like a series of vignettes designed to highlight the next celebrity. In the world of Science Fiction, David Brin was someone I read and enjoyed immensely, but getting the spirit of a story right on screen is difficult without the inner monologues and technical minutiae that goes into a book. “The Postman” is a great story but the movie could not bring it to life because of the need to simplify so much.

    1. Hi Richard! Glad to hear of your input regarding John Irving, even if you’ve given up on him as a fan. I like your idea that A Son of the Circus would work as a series instead. Yes! Irving is a modern, American version of Charles Dickens. Your take on epics: “If you don’t have a central character and a plot that can sustain it, it feels like a series of vignettes designed to highlight the next celebrity.” Perfectly stated. What a challenge to get what works in the written form to the screen. I’ll have to try out a Brin novel because I do like Science Fiction. Last one I read which was good and would be a good movie, I think, is ‘Windup Girl’ by Paolo Bacigalupi.

  5. ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ – oh my. It moves me, it moves me… love it. I read ‘The Cider House Rules’ last year and liked it very much. I adored Doctorow’s ‘Ragtime’ and ‘Billy Bathgate.’ His new book, based on the synopsis, leaves me cold and I probably won’t read.

    Authors of critical acclaim who leave me puzzled? Ken Follett. Most of his characters seem (to me) to be flat and steriotypical. They are props only for the telling of the history. I like his 20th c trilogy, but the characterizations are weak.

  6. I adore Irving’s work–er … adored. Early books. I’ve got three sitting on my bedside table that have been relegated to the pile of ‘when I’m sick with the flu and desperate for anything.’ I feel a little let down with myself, but after reading your post, not quite the outcast I imagined. It’s a relief to read that I’m not alone with my disappointment.
    And I’d agree a thousand percent with your last thought that our minds have now been molded and programmed for a very specific type of “story.” We’re much more into immediate gratification, things that will stun and amaze us–and quickly. So many of our tales have left behind the art of the slow build up and tantalizing details meant to flush out the plot and characters, and bring a richer experience. The future does not look like it will be going retro anytime soon.
    Great post, Cindy!

  7. I always prefer the book to the film, probably because my imagination is actively involved with a book and passive with a film. I’m so glad I read ‘Game of Thrones’ before watching the series. Once you see it on the big screen you can never imagine it any other way. The same for Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’. The only films which almost exactly matched how I envisaged the characters from the book were the Harry Potter ones. Maybe it was something to do with growing up in England and living in Oxford?

    1. Welcome, Malcolm, and Happy Hanukkah. You’ve brought up three examples where CGI trumps my imagination. This is where CGI shines, and I’m not a fan of it, either. Lucky you and your childhood. I’ve only visited Oxford once, but I lived in Scotland for four years and studied Thomas Hardy in Dorchester for a summer. Experiences such as those wedge their way into your heart. I feel a part of my identity has been shaped by the UK.

    1. Hi Abbi. I liked the opening to Bleak House. He’s a genius, but damned hard to stick with. Bits and pieces are enough. Glad you liked Owen Meany. The ending pulled the entire story together.

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