Everyone loves The Princess Bride. Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, and miracles abound—it has all the elements of a truly great story. But did you know that The Princess Bride is based on a book? It’s not the only movie to be based on a book; The Godfather, Forrest Gump, Schindler’s List, the James Bond franchise are all based on books. In fact, some thirty percent of the most popular movie franchises are based on books. This statistic may seem disproportionate, but the reason behind it is simple. Books are better than movies.
Something which is better is “more good” than another thing, and, as Aristotle claims in the Nicomachean Ethics, a good thing makes people happy. Fiction exists for two purposes: to entertain and (more importantly) to edify the soul. As a form of rhetoric, good fiction, no matter the format, entertains and edifies the soul. The better one is the one that accomplishes this more successfully.
As far as entertainment is concerned, movies have two considerable advantages over books: they are easier to consume and more economical. As the old adage goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Humans are primarily visual creatures—a full sixty-five percent of the population are visual learners, which is why Windows has transformed into a heavy-graphic, light-text operating system. Movies present a bouquet of visual stimulation that the audience only need sit on their couch and ingest. This massive dose of stimulation does not cause increased mental activity, only increased alertness, meaning that while the brain is more active while watching television, this activity is unfocused. Because movies are a passive form of entertainment, the audience does not have to exert their mental energy in order to understand the story.
This passive entertainment makes movies more readily consumable than books. You can either spend two days reading the three hundred fifty-some pages of Pride and Prejudice, or you can spend two hours on the 2005 movie—in the end, you’ll come out with the same basic story: Elizabeth Bennet meets Mr. Darcy, at first she thinks he’s an insufferable snob, but eventually she changes her mind. Most people are economical creatures; they will choose whatever gets them the most bang for their buck. Since movies are easier to consume, people naturally prefer them to books.
While books may not entertain as easily as movies, they are still superior because they edify the soul. This edification is accomplished through the three elements of narrative, as laid out in Aristotle’s Rhetoric: audience, message, and speaker. Good fiction is balanced between these three elements: it involves the audience, creates realistic plot and context, and contains well-developed characters.
First, books force the audience to actively think, process, and interpret information. According to a recent study by Stanford neurologists, reading increases the flow of blood to the brain, which in turn increases attention span. Furthermore, reading allows the audience to actively participate in the story by imagining the locations, characters, and other such aspects of the story that movies provide for their audience. Thus, books are better able to involve the audience in the story.
Not only are books able to involve the audience in the story, they can create a better, more realistic context. The setting of Pride and Prejudice is the highly structured society of eighteenth-century England. This setting creates the premise and conflict for the entire story: why and how a girl finds a socially and financially suitable husband. The book sets this up very clearly from the first line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” This rigid class structure moves key plot points, particularly Wickham’s poor character and Lydia’s unseemly marriage. The 2005 movie never explains this rigid social structure beyond a few passing comments about the Bennet family being poor, and the audience is left to wonder why the Bennet girls cannot simply marry as they please. The book better explains the impropriety of a woman marrying outside of her station in life. This lack of background is not the only plot hole in the movie—other scenes are just as lacking in background information. It is clear that books allow for more and better context than movies.
Finally, books allow for better, more rounded characters than movies. The reason for this is simple: the interior monologue. In the movie, there is simply no good way to transfer the thought processes of the characters to the audience. The audience may watch what a character is doing, or they can listen to what a character says, but they cannot see or hear a character’s thoughts. The book, on the other hand, allows the reader to “get inside the head” of the character and understand the reasoning behind their behavior. Jane Austen spends considerable space explaining the reflections of her various characters, in particular those of Mr. Darcy and Lizzy. In the movie, the audience only catches glimpses of how Mr. Darcy becomes attracted to Lizzy—a lingering glance, a close-up on her face, a remark on her “fine eyes.” In the book, however, the audience learns that Mr. Darcy finds after a few days of Lizzy’s company that he is too attracted to her for his own liking, and that he intentionally tries to avoid her, only to find himself struggling not to stare at her. The movie shows nothing of this developing attraction. Furthermore, without the introspection of the interior monologue, characters in movies become nonsensical and even appear irrational. This is most clearly evident through Lizzy’s change of heart regarding Mr. Darcy. In the movie, the audience is shown that Lizzy does not like Mr. Darcy at all because he seems proud. However, Lizzy goes from hating him at the time of his proposal to making puppy dog eyes when she meets him at Pemberley. This makes no sense. In the book, this change of heart begins after Lizzy sees Mr. Darcy with his friends at Pemberley and realizes that his pride is merely a facade for his shyness. The book’s superior ability to create realistic characters is even more evident in the pivotal scene where Lizzy discovers that Mr. Darcy helped ensure Lydia’s marriage. In the movie, the audience has the shocked look on Keira Knightly’s inarticulate face. In the book, the audience learns that Lizzy is not only shocked, but wondering why he was at such a disreputable wedding and conjecturing why he might have been there, finally coming to the conclusion that he cannot be as proud as she thought him to be. Thus, Lizzy’s change of heart towards Mr. Darcy is better explained in the book than in the movie.
Though movies more easily entertain an audience, books more successfully edify the soul. Movies are easy and economical to consume. However, books are better than movies. They better involve the audience through active participation, they create more complete context and plot, and they contain more realistic and consistent characters. F