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.