Narrative: Films and Texts

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Salman Rushdie


In an eagerly anticipated CMBC lunch seminar that filled to capacity minutes after registration opened, Emory University Distinguished Professor and acclaimed writer Sir Salman Rushdie shared his views on the nature and role of narrative in the arts. Focusing on similarities and differences in how narrative functions in literature, film, and television, Rushdie led a fascinating discussion with student and faculty attendees on the challenges of tailoring narrative to the specific medium in which it is presented.

Rushdie began the session by talking about the forces that shaped his thinking about narrative. As a child growing up in Bombay, India, Rushdie was immersed in the narrative tradition of “wonder tales” – folk stories with fantastical elements such as the genies and magic lamps of The Arabian Nights. Despite their extraordinary premises, such stories should not be dismissed as mere escapist entertainment. According to Rushdie, they have the same potential to reveal human truths as more naturalistic forms of writing. The Western notion that realism represents truth is an illusion, Rushdie suggested; fantasy is simply another route to the truth. For Rushdie, the fantastical nature of the stories to which he was exposed as a child served to highlight the separation between fiction and reality, showing how each could inform our understanding of the other. Another major influence on the young Rushdie was the style of cinema now known as Bollywood. At the time, Rushdie explained, popular cinema in India tackled major social issues such as poverty and gender inequality, demonstrating that narrative could be both entertaining and socially significant.

Turning to the function of narrative in literature, Rushdie noted that good literature does not always require a strong narrative thrust. Joyce’s Ulysses, for example, is driven primarily by language and character, not by plot. At the same time, literary fiction and narrative need not be regarded as separate genres, as exemplified by the engrossing works of Dickens and Defoe. Unfortunately, when literature and narrative do diverge, the reader tends to favor the latter, with Rushdie citing as evidence the mass consumption of the Twilight series and other popular works of questionable literary merit. Rushdie believes that the separation of narrative from literature has been to the detriment of literature, and in his own writing, he seeks to bring the two back together. He likens writing to conducting an orchestra, in that the writer possesses many different instruments, each suited to playing different types of music. With each novel, the challenge is to choose instruments that will best showcase the music that the writer wants to conduct. Over the course of a writer’s career, he will ideally make use of the entire orchestra.

Rushdie went on to observe that films, unlike novels, must create narrative engagement – not to mention emotion, intellectual stimulation, and psychological depth – without being able to provide a direct window into the minds of their characters. Whereas a novelist can fully mine a character’s internal life (even without a first-person narrative), and can often enter and exit a character’s mind freely, this interiority is much more difficult to achieve in film. According to Rushdie, the challenge for screenwriters and directors is to find the dramatic action that reveals a character’s thought process – to show, not tell. Skillful screenwriters are able to highlight the difference between what people say and what they think, all from an external perspective. Skillful directors use the camera to create meaning, choosing exactly what the world captured by the camera should contain. Much of the meaning of a film, Rushdie suggested, is created in the editing room, with sequences of shots forming a nonverbal rhythm that dictates how viewers should experience the film. Novels, in contrast, are less prescriptive; because they exist to some degree in the reader’s interior space, there is more active engagement with the work. In film, techniques of cinematography, montage, and music are used to engage viewers in a narrative that is given to them essentially fully formed, rather than shaped and elaborated by the viewers’ own minds.

One issue that came up during discussion was why books tend to be regarded as artistically superior to their film adaptations. Rushdie suggested that the primary reason may be that books must almost always be condensed for the screen. In preparing the screenplay for his novel, Midnight’s Children, Rushdie made a list of scenes that he regarded as critical to the story. As it turns out, half of the scenes will not be included in the final version of the film, to be released later this year. The experience illustrated to Rushdie the need to consider the essence of his novel – the parts of the story that, if omitted, would result in the film no longer being an adaptation of the novel. “Adaptation,” Rushdie mused, “is a great lesson in the fact that the world is real.” It seems that adapting a novel for film is inevitably a balancing act between faithfulness to the original work and the need for purity of storytelling due to the narrative limitations of the medium. Even when a film achieves the right balance, some viewers remain unsatisfied because any deviation from the novel is regarded as unacceptable. I wonder if such purists feel so strongly because they engaged in particularly elaborate mental imagery while reading the novel. Perhaps the richness of one’s internal experience of a novel is inversely related to one’s enjoyment of the corresponding film adaptation.

Some of Rushdie’s most intriguing observations concerned the nature of narrative in television. Rushdie, like many critics today, believes that we are currently in a “golden age” of television drama, due in large part to the creative freedom afforded to writers by cable networks, which place few restrictions on sex, violence, and nudity. Unlike screenwriters, the writer of a television show is typically the central creative artist. The show can also evolve while it is airing, with the audience influencing the narrative through its response to particular characters or plotlines. Moreover, the narrative format is unique in that the story deliberately does not finish; the writer must craft a compelling dramatic arc, but must continually end on a question mark so that the audience keeps tuning in. This open-ended format, Rushdie noted, would be unsatisfactory in a novel or film, in which resolution is expected. Sometimes certain questions remain unresolved even at the end of a series’ run. Rushdie suggested that, because of the inherently serial nature of television, it may be virtually impossible for a series to tie up all loose ends in a way that satisfies die-hard viewers. Nevertheless, the greatest strength of a television series, according to Rushdie, is that it happens over time. Viewers are able to track a character’s emotional life through events spanning months and years, allowing the narrative to take on the complexity of a novel. [Rushdie fans will be delighted to learn that he is currently developing a television series for Showtime called The Next People, with a “paranormal sci-fi” premise.]

Rushdie’s insightful remarks left me wondering how narrative operates in other art forms. Rushdie described film as a descendant of painting and theater, with painting providing the form and theater providing the dramatic conventions. In the visual arts, narrative is most readily apparent in realistic works. In contrast to the wonder tales of Rushdie’s youth, it may be difficult to evoke a sense of narrative in less representational art because of the limitations of the two-dimensional canvas. In theater, there may be greater narrative engagement than in film or television because characters’ internal lives are often more accessible on stage than on screen. Devices such as soliloquies and asides, though perhaps specific to certain theatrical genres, allow the audience into a character’s mind. Moreover, there is a certain narrative freedom to the stage, as two actors can be standing side by side even while their characters are in different places or time periods. Ultimately, the unexpected ways in which narrative can manifest across art forms suggests why we never tire of experiencing new adaptations of our favorite stories.

About Kevin Holmes

Kevin Holmes earned B.A. and M.A. degrees from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in Psychology (Cognition & Development) from Emory University. He subsequently completed a postdoctoral fellowship in Cognitive Science at UC Berkeley. Since 2014, he has served as an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Colorado College. Kevin's research investigates the structure of human thought, exploring how the mental categories we rely on to think, perceive, and act upon the world are related to the languages we speak, as well as how people think and reason about concepts of space, time, and number.
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