Platform Anxiety cont’d

Platform Anxiety

This is a response to the comments on an earlier post.

By “stories that were inherently connected to their medium” we mean stories that only work in written form. Ulysses by James Joyce is a classic example. The story is inseparable from the words used to tell it. You can adapt it for the screen (there was a movie version in 1967) but you’d lose the wordplay, the literary references, and the particular fabric of the tale.

A more recent example is the book we’re reading now, The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vasquez. It’s written in a casual, verbose style that seems to belong to a certain kind of Latin American novel (this one is Colombian) and also to fictional prose: the narrator expounds at length on his country’s history, his family’s background, and his personal feelings, sometimes in a single sentence. It’s also a novel that makes generous use of embedded stories: at one point you’re reading the narrator’s account of his friend’s account of a woman’s account of her lover’s account of a certain event in Colombian history. In linguistics this effect (of embedding one idea in another) is called recursion, and it’s one of the main features that Noam Chomsky claims is universal an unique to human language. There are things you can do in language that you can’t do in any other medium (or at least, not as effectively). Certain complex verb constructions, for example. “I would have liked to have seen your farm in Africa.” That’s easy enough to say. If you had to express it in a movie, you might do a close-up on the actor, and have him make a wistful face, but you couldn’t get across the exact sense of the idea—not without a lot of extra camera work. You’d probably have to make the actor say, precisely, “I would have liked to have seen your farm in Africa.” There are many ways to tell a story, but some things are accomplished best in words, and good stories take full advantage of that.

Gaiman and Eggers, by “translating” their work from one medium to another without really changing the substance of the stories, are revealing that their work was never very connected to its medium in the first place. You can see this in the excerpt of Eggers’ “The Wild Things” that ran in The New Yorker recently. It doesn’t make good use of the rich features of language. Instead it’s very visual, action-oriented, and linguistically simple. Like a movie. It must have been easy to translate for the screen.

What we hoped to imply by drawing attention to these two multi-platform stories is that Gaiman and Eggers are placing too much value on plot, visuals, and “branding” in their work, and not enough value on the unique attributes of language that make stories (the verbal ones) so great in the first place. We definitely agree with dannybayridge’s comment that stories do not transcend their medium. (Dannybayridge, if you end up dueling someone to the death over this, we’ll gladly be your second.) In fact, good stories explore and exploit the features of their medium.

After you’ve watched the movie, read the book, and flipped through the children’s book, you might remember that Where the Wild Things Are is a story about a boy named Max, a boat, an island, and a bunch of strange creatures. You might even remember that it’s about love, and belonging, and being young, and acting out. But you won’t be able to pin your understanding of the story to a memorable phrase, or image, or gesture. Because all the things Eggers could have accomplished in the various mediums he’s using are being reduced to the lowest common denominators of storytelling, so he can translate them into as many platforms as possible.

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3 Comments

Filed under a motion picture is worth a couple of words, McSweeney's Nasal Congestion, Suck It New Yorker

3 Responses to Platform Anxiety cont’d

  1. Okay. I like what you’re saying because I like language and texts and thus I like seeing it validated over movies, which I don’t so much like as a medium.
    There seems to me to be a psychological dishonesty going on in the remake of children’s books as movies over which 20 somethings can reminisce. Something about the professed fondness for WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE strikes me as profoundly false, a yearning for something we didn’t all-that-much cherish at the time. Not in the way as an adult I miss my Nana’s homemade jam, which I took for granted as a kid and spread liberally over giant chunks of sourdough bread. But in an overtly self-conscious, aren’t-we-so-in-touch-with-something-we-lost way; like coming across a hot wheels bike that we never actually had as a kid, but maybe would have liked to, to the extent that we start making up stories in our heads of having had the fastest hot wheels on the block and proving it more than once. In terms of media, we move it to a movie and thus preserve something of its original preciousness, allowing us to have a new relationship to the remake, even though we’re not all that honest with ourselves about relationships to the original.
    Am I over-analyzing? Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. But I would have liked to have seen your hot wheels in San Francisco.

  2. fictionadvocate

    It’s funny that you use a bike as an example of something we can be convinced that we always longed for. Because there’s a British magician-type guy who used neuro-linguistic programming (which is a fancy term for hustling somebody) to convince Simon Pegg that the gift he always wanted was a red bike.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=befugtgikMg

    I think you’re right to imply that our nostalgia is easily manipulated, and emotional investment in something like Where the Wild Things Are can be bought, or drummed up, with a bit of marketing.

  3. dannybayridge

    FA, I think you laser-targeted the argument for language as an intransitive medium by referencing grammar & syntax.

    I HATE to name drop in this sort of conversation but I took a course on Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and am by no means an expert and I cannot give anything other than a fifteen word synopsis of it, but it was still really good for people who like to think about this thing.

    Please forgive the reference to an academic work everyone I promise you’re way smarter and way more educated than I am.

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